1988 Bush VS. Dukakis

"The Risk"


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


DUKAKIS: Mr. Chairman...

MALE NARRATOR: From unknown governor to candidate for president. How much do we really know about Mike Dukakis? According to his commercials, Governor Dukakis...

(Music from Dukakis ad)

MALE NARRATOR FROM DUKAKIS AD: Cut taxes, and turned the state around.

MALE NARRATOR: But newspapers there report a different story: of crime, environmental problems, liberal spending out of control. Michael Dukakis. Out of touch with our values and problems.


MALE NARRATOR: Fact: though Congress has increased federal spending at an alarming rate, Michael Dukakis has increased state spending in Massachusetts twice as fast. "...Dukakis has presided over the steepest rate of growth of any state budget," the Boston Herald said.

John Collins, former Democratic mayor of Boston.

COLLINS: He has not been a good Governor. He's been a good spender.

MALE NARRATOR: Since July, Dukakis has taken out over six hundred million dollars in loans to meet daily payroll and expenses. Michael Dukakis has doubled his state's general obligation debt.


DICK MURRAY: We're borrowing money now to meet weekly and monthly expenses. And that's how he's balanced - so-called balanced - his budget.

MALE NARRATOR: Dukakis has even raided his state's pension fund for 27 million dollars. But even that wasn't enough. Last year, out-of-control spending finally caught up with Mike Dukakis. The Boston Herald reported Massachusetts was a state in crisis, facing a $400 million deficit. Dukakis's reaction? He raised taxes for the seventh time.

[TEXT (from newspaper headline): Dukakis tax proposal to raise $74 million]


CARTER: Dukakis raised everybody's taxes, not just mine. They call it Taxachusetts now. If Dukakis gets in, we'd better have a contest to name the United States something.

MALE NARRATOR: Dukakis's policies have driven manufacturing jobs from Massachusetts. In the last four years, over 90,000 manufacturing jobs have left his state.

MURRAY: Mike Dukakis is going to leave the biggest financial mess this state has ever seen.


MALE NARRATOR: Another Massachusetts mess is Boston harbor. A once-proud waterway and recreation site where Boston dumped sewage. While other states spent federal money to clean up their waterways, Dukakis ignored pleas to clean up Boston Harbor.


McCAULEY: We found the only way we could get Governor Dukakis and the state to clean up Boston Harbor was to drag him into court and make him do it.

MALE NARRATOR: Today, Boston continues to dump sewage into its harbor. And even Massachusetts's own water authority calls it the dirtiest harbor in America.





DONOVAN: I think I live in kind of a safe neighborhood, and yet, two blocks from my house a first-degree murderer was stopped at five thirty in the morning, and nobody knew he was out. That's scary.

MALE NARRATOR: Only one sitting governor in America supported furloughs for killers sentenced to life without parole: Michael Dukakis. And even after a furlough escapee terrorized a Maryland couple, Michael Dukakis defended his furlough program, though victims' families and concerned citizens had gathered over 50,000 petition signatures demanding an end to these furloughs.

DONOVAN: We went in and tried to meet with the Governor. He ignored us. We had to picket, we had to do everything.

MALE NARRATOR [and TEXT]: "I don't see any particular value in meeting with people," Dukakis told the Boston Herald. "I'm satisfied we have the kind of furlough policy we should have."

MALE NARRATOR: But finally, under unprecedented public pressure, Dukakis reluctantly ended the program.

Out of touch with our values. Outside the mainstream. Michael Dukakis. His commercials say...

MALE NARRATOR FROM DUKAKIS AD: Mike Dukakis. What he did for Massachusetts, he can do for America.

[TEXT: America can't afford that risk.]


"The Risk," Bush-Quayle '88, 1988

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012.
www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1988/the-risk (accessed June 21, 2024).


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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.

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.

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.