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All By Myself: The Unmaking of a Presidential Campaign.

All By Myself: The Unmaking of a Presidential Campaign In case your're still wondering, it was all Michael Dukakis's fault.

Boston Globe reporters Chris Black and Tom Oliphant have confected a campaign melodrama about the very best efforts of John Sasso, Susan Estrich, Tubby Harrison, Jack Corigan, Tom Kiley, Nick Mitropoulos et al to guide the Massachusetts Governor into the White House in spite of himself. The basic ingredients of All By Myself are the Dukakis team's memoranda and sideline whispers. The field and fund-raising operations weathered the sudden departure of John Sasso, and the lock-'em-up-early delegate strategy, outlined by a primaries prodigy aptly named Tad Devine, worked to perfection.

But Estrich and Kiley labored in vain to get the Democratic nominee-apparent to develop a catchy theme. "Competence" was not only dull, they argued, but it also invited opponents to exploit the tiniest flaws in the governor's decades-long record of policy decisions. In May 1988, the Dukakis high command anticipated the Bush attacks on prison furloughs and the Pledge of Allegiance. But their suggested alternatives to "competence" came back from Dukakis with "a cut, almost always unexplained rejection: I'm not going to do that, guys. That's not me."

The best chapter of the book exhumes the fall advertising campaign. The spin doctors called in David F. D'Alessandro, a "proactive" executive from John Hancock Insurance, for which he created the glossily gritty "Real Life, Real Answers" series of commercials. D'Alessandro strode into Dukakis headquarters and found 1,200 scripts for unproduced television spots strewn across desktops and planters. Taking control from the linear thinkers, he concocted a series that would feature two fictional Bush packagers, a cynical pair of white guys who manipulate their candidate but fail to fool the American people. Too many aides feared too many viewers wouldn't get it, so only one installment aired.

Amid the disarray, the candidate asks his advisers if he should be known as Mike or Michael. A rare consensus quickly emerges: Michael will make him seem bigger.

The other high point of the book, its account of the Biden Videotape Crisis, details a similar frenzy of image consciousness. This section will thrill campaign volunteers who have dreamt about having an impact on political history. Black and Oliphant trace the death of one candidancy and the decapitation of another to the pivotal behavior of a Dukakis intern. Second thoughts about making a tape juxtaposing Joseph Biden's speech with its Neil Kinnock progenitor led the intern to tell Dukakis press secretary Patricia O'Brien that Sassos had commissioned the deed. At the time, it was widely speculated--even in Dukakis headquarters--that it was someone in the Gephardt campaign who had given such a tape to The New York Times. But once alerted, O'Brien pressured Sasso. So did a Time story and phone inquiries from The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. By the time Sasso confessed to Dukakis, the candidate was on record as saying he would "probably" fire anyone in his employ who engaged in dirty politics. Sasso stayed, then left to spare Dukakis the trauma of having to fire him.

But like Dukakis, All By Myself also falters in its analysis of the campaign and election. The Dukakis advisors appear prescient, unanimous, and unerring in their recommendations to the obstinate candidate. This may have been true in August 1988, when every Democrat in America longed for the presidential nominee to quit diddling with his state duties so that he could counter the Republican assault. Yet the "perfect staff" effect is also a fiction of the campaign melodrama genre, wherein every phone call brings a message on which the contest will turn. And many interpretive and explanatory passages smack of reporter-source coziness, especially the description of John Sasso as he returns to the campaign helm after 11 months to Elba.

The authors ask us to make sense of the rise and fall of Team Dukakis through the prism of a "Scenes From a Marriage" theory: Michael brought the executive skills, John supplied the passion and savvy; during crises, John adapted but Michael denied; left alone, Michael reeled, and John came back too late to save him. given this approach, it is somewhat odd that the book provides less personal detail about Sasso and the admittedly high-profile Dukakis than about Willie Horton.

What is worse, all by Myself doesn't give outside and impersonal forces due consideration. Dukakis certainly deserves blame. But the authors underappreciate his brusque "That's not me" dismissals of staff suggestions. Like any veteran campaigner, he should have had final authority as to what he could pull off a performer; advice that asked him to violate his sense of his public self cannot be regarded as sound, even if it seems abstractly appropriate in narrative hindsight. Since the debates revealed that he couldn't stretch his persona even when he had agreed to do so, it strikes me as unreasonable to argue that he should have changed when and as his staff saw fit.

The evidence of Sasso and Company's foresight impresses. Yet surely a campaign that generated 1,200 ad scripts also produced a surfeit of other memoranda. The options Dukakis rejected that would not have worked should have been analyzed here, too. As the chapter on advertising demonstrates , such options make the report both livelier to read and truer to life.

Black and Oliphant show us little more than the figure of Michael Dukakis standing between the staff and victory in late September. For the sake of argument, let us suppose the staff did have the power to breathe vitality and wit into the candidate during his public performances. Must we also assume that the Bush team would have failed to adjust its strategy and tactics? Would the Republicans have ignored their previous experience and sat on their resource advantages, including the powers of incumbency?

Who are trying to kid? Do they wish to torture that intern with guilt?

Media skills are as much a part of the presidency as they are of the campaign. Michael Dukakis, this book makes clear, has the rhetorical ability to impress bright liberals--and not much else. When his current term as governor expires, he should consult, teach, write, and otherwise serve as a moderator of the same discussions about national affairs that he is too stiff a man to dominate.

All By Myself: The Unmaking of a Presidential Campaign. Chris Black, Tom Oliphant. Globe Pequod Press, $19.95.
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Author:Cornfield, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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