1988 Bush VS. Dukakis

"Revolving Door"

This stark and unsettling ad from the Bush campaign doesn't mention the notorious escaped convict William Horton by name. (Although he went by William, the Bush campaign referred to him by the less respectable name “Willie”). However, with its release just a few weeks after the independently financed ad "Willie Horton" had generated controversy and national press coverage, the connection was clear. Under the direction of campaign manager Roger Ailes, Dukakis was linked with the case of the African American felon who fled Massachusetts during a weekend furlough and and attacked a young white couple in Maryland. Focus groups conducted in Paramus, New Jersey, in May showed a strong emotional reaction to the failed furlough system, and Bush decided to make this a key issue in the campaign, attacking Dukakis in a speech as "a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail." Because of their strong imagery and underlying racial message, "Willie Horton" and "Revolving Door" received substantial coverage on TV news programs during the final month of the campaign. “I realized I started a trend,” said Ailes. “Now guys are out there trying to produce commercials for the evening news.” The creator of the "Willie Horton" ad, Floyd Brown, also made attack ads against John Kerry in 2004.

Transcript

Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate
"Revolving Door," Bush, 1988

[TEXT: THE DUKAKIS FURLOUGH PROGRAM]

MALE NARRATOR: As Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers he vetoed the death penalty. His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole.

[TEXT: 268 ESCAPED]

MALE NARRATOR: While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape, and...

MALE NARRATOR [and TEXT]: Many are still at large.

MALE NARRATOR: Now Michael Dukakis says he wants to do for America what he's done for Massachusetts. America can't afford that risk.

Credits

"Revolving Door," Bush-Quayle '88, 1988

Maker: Dennis Frankenberry and Roger Ailes

Original air date: 10/03/88

Video courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library.

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012.
www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1988/revolving-door (accessed November 29, 2014).

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1988 Bush Dukakis Results

Ronald Reagan—the first president since Eisenhower to serve two full terms—had presided over a renewed national optimism, but there were dark clouds on the horizon as his presidency drew to a close. The federal deficit was soaring out of control. The revelation that profits from American sales of weapons to Iran were illegally routed to the Nicaraguan contras spawned a major scandal. Wall Street was in turmoil following several insider-trading scandals and the October 1987 stock market collapse. The stage was set for one of the most bitter presidential campaigns in recent history: Vice President George Bush, who portrayed himself as the rightful heir to the Reagan revolution, versus Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who offered a traditionally Democratic vision of increased government spending on health care, child care, education, and housing. The Bush campaign used brutal television advertising to portray Dukakis as an ineffective liberal who would gut the country’s defense system and let convicted murderers out of prison. Hoping voters would dismiss the attacks as unfair, Dukakis refused to counterattack until late in the campaign. By then it was too late.

Republican
George Bush for president
Dan Quayle for vice president

"Experienced Leadership for America’s Future"

The case of Willie Horton--an African American convicted murderer who raped a white woman and tortured her fiancé while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison--was frequently mentioned by George Bush in campaign speeches. The case was directly referred to in a commercial produced by an independent political action committee. Although officially repudiated by the Bush campaign, the spot, which was broadcast only once, was widely reported in the news media and caused substantial damage to Dukakis. The Horton case was also implicitly referred to in Bush’s "Revolving Door" ad, which attacked the Massachusetts furlough program in general. Another negative commercial that has gained legendary status used news footage of Dukakis riding in a tank--grinning and looking diminutive in his oversized helmet--to ridicule the idea of him as commander in chief.

Though Bush’s negative commercials garnered most of the attention, his campaign also produced a series of strong positive ads, such as "The Future." Made in the lyrical montage style of Reagan’s 1984 spots, these ads sought to establish an identity for the two-term vice president. The main departure from the Reagan ads was that while Reagan hardly appeared in his own spots, Bush figured prominently in his. He was shown either in excerpts from his speech accepting the nomination or in family scenes that presented him as an all-American father figure.

Bush’s media campaign skillfully supplemented paid publicity (commercials) with free publicity in the form of staged photo opportunities sure to be reported as news--a technique originated by the 1984 Reagan campaign. For example, news footage of Bush receiving the endorsement of the Boston police union reinforced the law-and-order message of the furlough ads. The Bush media campaign was a model of control, supervised in all respects by veteran media consultant Roger Ailes, who also coached Bush for the debates.

Democrat
Michael Dukakis for president
Lloyd Bentsen for vice president

"The Best America Is Yet to Come"

The disarray and confusion of the Dukakis campaign was exemplified by a series of commercials known as "The Handlers." In one of these commercials, "Crazy," a group of Bush media consultants worries that their selection of Dan Quayle for vice president may have been a mistake. The intention was to portray Bush as a superficial candidate whose campaign was based more on image than on substance, but the ads were confusing and seemed at first glance to be pro-Bush. They were pulled off the air, but only after the Dukakis campaign had spent $3 million to produce and air them.

Consultants from several ad agencies came and went throughout the run of the Dukakis campaign, and the chain of command was constantly in flux. The campaign considered more than 1,000 ad scripts during a three-month period, and the ads produced were inconsistent in style and devoted almost exclusively to defending against Bush’s attacks. There were no strong ads linking Bush to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, even though Dukakis repeatedly brought up the connection in speeches and debates, or to the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal. Most critically, Dukakis failed to respond to the Willie Horton attack until late in the campaign, when he finally aired a counterassault called "Furlough from the Truth."

Like Mondale in 1984, Dukakis never forged a positive identity in his ads. In his speech accepting the nomination, he had movingly described himself as the embodiment of the American dream, a son of Greek immigrants who was more in touch with the people than George Bush. Inexplicably, this message was almost completely absent from his advertising.

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