Nov 1 1988

Election Post-Mortem

It Can't Happen Here, by Robbie Conal

Street artist Robbie Conal’s take on the 1988 presidential election.

If the presidential campaign often resembled a circus, television was its distorting mirror—turning election realities upside down. The winning candidate carried around four names–George Herbert Walker Bush–degrees from elite schools Andover Academy and Yale, residences in many states. Yet on TV he ran as Joe Sixpack, while his opponent spent most of the campaign denying he was an elitist outside the mainstream.

The winning candidate was linked to extremists who pledge allegiance to fascist ideologies. On television, this story came and went in a matter of days, while Dukakis spent months fending off charges of links to purportedly extremist ideologies–liberalism, civil libertarianism–espoused by groups like the ACLU. Despite the Bush campaign’s dismissal of seven individuals with antisemitic or fascist links, people associated with Nazi collaborationist groups continue to lead the GOP’s ethnic outreach apparatus. This was the essence of an op-ed by Russ Bellant that the New York Times was ready to publish before the election. The Times sat on it until November 19.

The same people who intimidated and managed the media–particularly TV–so successfully for the Reagan administration worked their mastery for the Bush/Quayle ticket. The strategy was the same: hide the candidate(s), serve up photo—ops and count on the TV networks to swallow what they’re fed. Quayle refused to he interviewed for PBS‘s MacNeil/Lehrer (11/3/88). No problem. After Bentsen’s interview, MacNeil/Lehrer simply broadcast 20 minutes of Quayle’s flag-draped stump speech–exactly as the Republicans wanted it.

Bush’s smear-of-the-day campaign worked to perfection in setting the news agenda. Five months before the election, Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater (now GOP national chairman) proclaimed: “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win” (Newsday, 11/6/88). It didn’t matter that the furlough issue was more fraud than substance; nor that Bush’s “Boston Harbor commercial” was staged, with footage showing not the harbor, but a nuclear submarine area. The Bush team knew if the truth came out, it would appear on back pages of newspapers; the key was to control TV news and the front pages. ABC’s Sam Donaldson had no apologies (This Week With David Brinkley, 11/6/88): “When we cover the candidates, we cover their campaigns as they outline them.”

TV correspondents worked hard to affect a neutral stance even when such neutrality distorted reality. A typical teaser was: “More mud-slinging today on the campaign trail.” For months, however, only the Bush side was slinging the mud; the other side merely caught it. Biased neutrality could also he found in issues coverage: “Neither candidate excels on the environment” (NBC’s Sunday Today, 11/6/88). While arguably true and neutral, it minimizes the fact that Dukakis won virtually every environmental endorsement.

Appearing neutral may explain the soft comments from TV reporters after Quayle’s dismal debate performance. But San Francisco Chronicle TV critic John Carman (10/6/88) sensed intimidation at work in the polite post-debate analysis of ABC’s Jeff Greenfield and CBS’s Bob Schieffer:

The only explanation for their comments is that they are the reward for accusing the networks of a liberal bias year after year. The correspondents value their jobs more than they value their values, so they contort themselves to say pleasant things about conservatives.

Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan (10/25/88) also cited the intimidation factor as he blasted the networks for their “sheeplike pursuit of the soundbite formula dictated by the Bush high-command.” Nyhan concluded that conservatives had bullied the networks “to the point where they meekly aim their cameras when and where the Bushmen so indicate.”

SIDEBAR: Surprise, Surprise

Throughout this year’s presidential race, the national media ignored mounds of evidence that there was an “October Surprise Working Group” within the 1980 Reagan/Bush campaign that may have sabotaged an October release of US hostages from Iran. It was feared that such a release would ensure President Carter’s reelection. In addition to leaking reports to the media to disrupt Carter’s negotiations with Iran, Reagan/Bush campaign leaders had their own meeting with an Iranian, in which an arms-for- hostage deal was reportedly discussed (Playboy, 10/88). The hostages were held until Reagan’s inauguration day; US arms began flowing to Iran through Israel in the first months of the Reagan administration (Boston Globe, 10/23/88). Except for a handful of dailies (including the L.A. Times, Rocky Mountain News and Oakland Tribune), major media kept “the surprise” under wraps.