Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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David Shribman

Deja (but not) vu: 2008 isn't a replay of 1988 campaign

SOME people think they have seen this campaign movie before. The one with the big fuss about the flag. The one with the attacks on a man's patriotism. The one where the candidate who was being attacked didn't fight back. The one where the prey was a cerebral guy with an outspoken wife. The one where the Yale graduate accused the Harvard graduate of being an elitist. The one where the Democrats relinquished a huge lead. The one that happened in 1988.

The fashion today is to look in the rear-view mirror of the 2008 presidential campaign and to see the 1988 campaign - to see 1988 gaining on us, catching up with us, moving into the passing lane right beside us. Maybe my mirror is tilted at a different angle - maybe I am not looking in the mirror at all, but relying on memory as someone who was there, every mile of the way - but I don't see it that way.

I know I'm the guy who specializes in the historical look, but there is a difference between looking back and seeing history - and looking ahead and seeing history repeating itself.

The campaign of 1988 offered one lesson; we'll get to it in a minute, and you will see that no one learned it quite so well as former Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts (Harvard law '60), the Democratic presidential nominee that year. But Campaign 1988 doesn't offer a road map for Campaign 2008 and it tells us little that's important about Barack Obama (Harvard law '91) and Hillary Clinton (Yale law '73).

That's because all campaigns are different. They're peopled with different candidates, they have different rhythms, they have different backdrops, they have different production values. Plus they have different technologies and standards.

There was a 24-hour news cycle in 1988 only because some of us slugs out on the campaign trail seemed to work all 24 hours. Armed with telephone credit cards that we used at pay phones, we wrote on primitive typing machines whose "screens" showed four lines of type.

When the Wall Street Journal bought me one that held eight lines, the others on the campaign trail stared at it as if it were some exotic prop from a sci-fi film. Ironic, because most of us were more Raymond Chandler than Ray Bradbury, and still are.

So we've established that 1988 occurred in the dark ages, though I am hard-pressed to believe that a world without the crazy-eyed, face-lifted howlers on cable was somehow more primitive than the world in which politics is prosecuted today. But so much more was different.

In 1988, the country was at peace. In 2008, it is fighting two wars. In 1988, the Soviet Union was still the anchor of the Communist bloc. In 2008, even the Communists don't practice communism.

In 1988, Vietnam was still a major American preoccupation (Good Morning, Vietnam had just come out) and Libya was considered perhaps the world's greatest terrorist threat (late that year Libya would be accused of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over southern Scotland). In 2008, both Vietnam and Libya are members of the United Nations Security Council.

There is more.

In 1988, America enjoyed relative prosperity. In 2008, the country is debating how long the recession will last.

In 1988, a vice president (George H.W. Bush, Yale '48) was attempting to succeed a popular president. In 2008, the vice president isn't running for anything and the President isn't popular.

These elections have nothing in common, except perhaps that Senator Obama is being accused - by whom exactly it is difficult to determine - of lacking the fiery patriotism required to occupy the Oval Office.

But that was no peculiarity of 1988. It happened also in 1992 (when Bill Clinton, who clearly maneuvered to avoid the draft, was the Democratic nominee) and in 2004 (when the phrase "Swift Boat" was transformed from a noun into a verb, meaning, roughly: to trash a decorated Naval officer's record).

The 1988 accusations revolved around the Pledge of Allegiance, and Mr. Dukakis' veto of legislation in 1977 that would have required Massachusetts teachers to lead students like me, who in 13 years in Massachusetts public schools engaged in this ritual every day, to recite the pledge.

More than two years later, while suffering from an inoperable brain tumor that led to his death at 40, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater apologized to Mr. Dukakis for the tactics he used in the 1988 campaign.

"It doesn't make any difference whether I'm the candidate, or it's Bill Clinton or John Kerry," Mr. Dukakis said in a recent telephone conversation. "The opposition will go after us on national security. To be forewarned is to be forearmed."

Mr. Dukakis - who served for 16 months with the Army in Korea in the mid-1950s and who often spoke of his pride in America as a land of opportunity, particularly for immigrants - knows there are no do-overs in national politics. But he has thought a lot about what he should have said, and when he should have said it:

"If I had to do it over again, I'd have asked my mother to stand up in the audience during that debate with George Bush and I'd have said: 'You tell the first Greek-American woman in United States history to go away to college that she raised an unpatriotic son.'•"

Just as there are no do-overs for Mr. Dukakis, there are no do-overs for 1988, the year the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan, Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan, and the Cubs began playing night games at Wrigley Field.

The year 1988 is separated from 2008 by the same number of years that separated the Munich Agreement, the high-water mark of pre-World War II appeasement, from the launch of Explorer 1, the first American satellite in space.

It was a very long time ago.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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