Sep 1 1992

Conventional Wisdom

How the press rewrites Democratic Party history every four years

Al Gore and Bill Clinton, 1992 (photo: Michelle V. Agins/NYT)

The New York Times‘ portrait of Al Gore and Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic Convention (photo: Michelle V. Agins/NYT)

Coverage of the 1992 Democratic National Convention often drew sharp contrasts with earlier Democratic conventions–particularly 1984 and 1988. A look back at the coverage of those conventions, however, shows that they were covered in almost exactly the same terms.

Like 1992, both ’84 and ’88 were treated as landmarks, a new start for a party whose old ways had led to defeat. The New York Times (7/22/84) reported it was “with justification” that Mondale aides called the ’84 convention “the most successful since 1964.” According to a Chicago Tribune editorial (7/24/88), “The Democratic Party of 1988 is more unified, more single-minded, more obsessed with winning and less with ideology, more in control of its own destiny than it has been in decades.” But within four years, each convention became a symbol of what had to be changed about the Democratic Party to give it “winnability.”

“Humbled” by Jackson

In the conventional wisdom of 1992, the main problem with the ’84 and ’88 conventions was the meddlesome power of Jesse Jackson. “There have been Democratic conventions, back in 1984 and 1988, that Mr. Jackson all but held in the palm of his hand,” wrote the New York Times‘ B. Drummond Ayres (7/15/92). In various news reports, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were”humbled” by Jackson (USA Today, 7/16/92), they “acquiesced to Jackson’s terms” (Boston Globe, 7/15/92), they were “anxious to appease Jesse Jackson” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 7/15/92).

The contemporary coverage of the ’84 and ’88 conventions presented a very different picture: A Jackson supporter quoted in the Washington Post (7/18/84) “complained just before Mondale’s crushing platform victory over Jesse L. Jackson that when Jackson’s negotiators sought to compromise, the Mondale camp stayed firm.”

In 1988, according to William Schneider (L.A. Times, 7/24/88), “The Jackson forces were persuaded to give up or compromise most of their proposed amendments, all of which would have committed the party to a liberal position. Only two amendments were subjected to a convention vote–both lost by better than 2 to 1.”

If any “humbling” went on, it was in the other direction: “Without getting much of what he wanted,” Chicago Tribune columnist Jon Margolis wrote of Jackson (7/19/88), “he went to Dukakis’ hotel suite to eat breakfast and surrender with honor.”

The Cost of “Appeasement”

Jesse Jackson in 1983

There were Democratic Conventions that Jesse Jackson “all but held in the palm of his hand,” the New York Times wrote in 1992–but that’s not how they were reported at the time.

Mondale and Dukakis’ “appeasement” of Jackson is always presented as politically costly. “Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis both exhausted valuable resources trying to satisfy Jackson,” according to the Boston Globe (7/12/92). “Mondale and Dukakis aides said they believed the efforts to satisfy Jackson had weakened the image of the nominees as they started the general election campaign,” wrote Thomas Edsall and David Broder (Washington Post, 6/12/92).

But at the time, reporters and pundits talked of the “firmness” demonstrated by Mondale and Dukakis. “Walter F. Mondale tonight took firm control of the Democratic National Convention,” Broder reported in 1984 (Washington Post, 7/17/84), because of Mondale’s defeat of Jackson’s platform amendments.

George Will (Washington Post, 7/20/88) saw Dukakis’ putting down of Jackson as a coup for the Democratic nominee. “Jackson’s overreaching gave Dukakis an opportunity to act presidential and he seized it, giving Jackson nothing but rhetoric as he cut Jackson, the would be co-quarterback, down to the subservient role of blocking back.” According to a post-convention Gallup Poll (Newsday, 7/27/88), only 17 percent of respondents said that Dukakis went too far to address Jackson’s concerns.

“A Jungle of Special Interests”

In the mass media’s distorted history, Democratic conventions before 1992 were controlled by so-called “special interest groups”–minorities, feminists, labor, environmentalists etc. But in contemporary coverage, every convention since 1984 has been hailed by journalists as the one where the “special interests” lost their influence. “With the nomination of Walter F. Mondale for president,” reported the Christian Science Monitor (7/23/84), “the Democratic party has moved full circle,” with control shifting from “amateur activists” back to “experienced political hands.” Four years later, the rewrite was on: Mondale was seen by William Schneider (L.A. Times, 7/24/88) as “the leader of the Old Party, the advocacy politician who spoke for ‘special interests.'”

Writing in 1988 about that year’s convention, columnist Elaine Ciulla Kamarck (Newsday, 7/25/88) asserted, “Interest groups and their demands were barely visible.” A Chicago Tribune editorial (7/24/88) was effusive: “Unlike too many of his defeated predecessors, Mike Dukakis devoted neither his campaign nor his convention to buying the love of a jungle of special-interest groups with promises that could mortgage the heart and soul and pocketbook of a prospective administration.”

“Mondale-Dukakis Liberal”

According to mass media, Clinton is running as a moderate who appeals to the “middle class” — a plan that is seen as a contrast to previous Democratic runs. “The platform is not Mondale-Dukakis liberal, but Clinton moderate,” reported the Christian Science Monitor (7/17/92).

Actually, both Mondale and Dukakis tried to win by moving the party to the right. “Look at our platform,” said Mondale in his acceptance speech. “There are no defense cuts that weaken our security, no business taxes that weaken our economy, no laundry lists that raid our treasury.” At the time, journalists agreed: “Democrats’ Platform Shows a Shift From Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980,” ran the headline of the New York Times‘ analysis (7/22/84). “The minority planks that could have crippled his campaign were blocked,” said the Christian Science Monitor (7/20/84).

It was the same story with the 1988 platform. Wrote the Washington Post (7/19/88): “The expansive promises of Democratic Party platforms of earlier years–the crowded bazaar of special interests and special pleadings–have been streamlined into the version that will go before the convention here Tuesday.”

“Middle-Class Values”

Nor is Clinton the first to think that talking about the middle class is the way to get votes. Mondale portrayed himself as “embodying all the traditional, middle-class values of the rural Midwest,” according to Broder (Washington Post, 7/20/84). Anthony Lewis (New York Times, 7/21/88) described Dukakis’ strategy as “go for the middle ground and the middle class.” The buzzwords that the Chicago Tribune (7/24/88) praised Dukakis for using are mostly familiar to viewers of the 1992 convention: “family, community, honesty, patriotism, accountability, responsibility, opportunity.”

Lloyd Bentsen

Michael Dukakis’ choice of Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate showed that “the days of litmus-test liberalism are over.”

The nomination of conservative Lloyd Bentsen as the 1988 vice-presidential candidate was a powerful signal of the party’s priorities that has now been largely forgotten: “When Michael Dukakis chose Sen. Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate, he turned his back not just on Jesse Jackson, but on two decades of Democratic Party thinking,” wrote David Broder at the time (Washington Post, 7/14/88). “He sent an unmistakable message to the activist constituencies of the Democratic Party that the days of litmus-test liberalism are over.”

Why is it that Democratic party history gets revised every four years? It’s largely because the “left” perspective in mainstream debate is represented by centrists who identify with the establishment politicians who dominate the Democratic Party leadership and feel estranged from the party’s progressive constituencies. These pundits and political journalists seem reluctant to acknowledge that it was insiders, not activists, who led the party to crushing defeats in 1984 and 1988.

After describing the 1988 convention as a transition between the “Old Party” dominated by liberal “special interests” and the “New Party” characterized by post-ideological “problem-solvers” like Dukakis, William Schneider made a prediction (L.A. Times, 7/24/88): “If the problem-solvers can’t win…there is every likelihood that Democrats will go back to what they really believe in.” What actually happened, of course, was the same move that was made in 1984: When the “pragmatists” lose badly with their centrist approach, they are repainted after the fact as radicals, so the strategy of tilting to the right can be tried again and again.


Getting a Bite of Waffle

(From “Campaign Coverage Was Unfair to Voters,” Extra!, January/February 1993)

Waffle House (cc photo: mikeporterinmd)

(cc photo: mikeporterinmd)

After 1988, an election year dominated by non-issues, deceptive attacks, substanceless one-liners and photo opportunities, the media promised they would do better this time. Just how little has changed was illustrated by an anecdote reported by the Washington Post (10/23/92) — buried in a chronology of a day on the campaign trail.

The Bush campaign had staged an event at a restaurant called the Waffle House–an attempt to convey the message that Clinton was a “waffler.” The problem was, there was no reference to Clinton’s waffling in Bush’s speech that day; in the terminology of campaign spin doctors, there was no soundbite to go with the visual.

This was seen as a crisis by one of the reporters covering the Bush campaign: “Ann Compton of ABC News moves urgently from one staffer to another,” the Post reported. “She buttonholes Marlin Fitzwater, corners Torie Clarke, sidles up to Mary Matalin. She tells each one: If you want Waffle House, we need Bush to say something about waffling!”

Bush eventually came up with a waffling allusion, but it didn’t satisfy Compton, according to the Post account. “It’s still not quite right,” she complained to Clarke. Keep in mind that Compton, the journalist who was helping Bush package an attack on Clinton, was one of the journalists selected to pose questions to the presidential candidates during the debates.

Does this blatant participation in the Bush campaign mean that Ann Compton or ABC News favored Bush? Probably not. Clinton got his share of photo opportunities, with all the shots of bus trips and hay bales. What the Waffle House anecdote shows is that the press was not just a passive victim of Lee Atwater-style manipulation, but at times an active participant in turning politics into show business.