“Just a regular guy,” one of the cameramen had said, his inflection that of the union official who confided, in an early Dukakis commercial aimed at blue-collar voters, that he had known “Mike” a long time, and backed him despite his not being “your shot-and-beer kind of guy.”
“I’d say he was a regular guy,” another cameraman had said. “Definitely.”
“I’d sit around with him,” the first cameraman said.
Kara Dukakis, one of the candidate’s daughters, had at that moment emerged from the 737.
“You’d have a beer with him?”
Jack Weeks had tossed the ball to Kara Dukakis.
“I’d have a beer with him.”
Kara Dukakis had tossed the ball to her father. Her father had caught the ball and tossed it back to her.
“OK,” one of the cameramen had said. “We got the daughter. Nice. That’s enough. Nice.”
The CNN producer then on the Dukakis campaign told me, later in the day, that the first recorded ball tossing on the Dukakis campaign had been outside a bowling alley somewhere in Ohio. CNN had shot it. When the campaign realized that only one camera had it, they had restaged it.
“We have a lot of things like the ball tossing,” the producer said. “We have the Greek dancing for example.”
I asked if she still bothered to shoot it.
“I get it,” she said, “but I don’t call in any more and say, ‘Hey, hold it, I’ve got him dancing.’ ”
This sounded about right (the candidate might, after all, bean a citizen during the ball tossing, and CNN would need film), and not until I read Joe Klein’s version of these days in California did it occur to me that this eerily contrived moment on the tarmac at San Diego could become, at least provisionally, history. “The Duke seemed downright jaunty,” Joe Klein reported. “He tossed a baseball with aides. He was flagrantly multilingual. He danced Greek dances….” In the July 25 issue of U.S. News & World Report, Michael Kramer opened his cover story, “Is Dukakis Tough Enough?” with a more developed version of the ball tossing:
The thermometer read 101 degrees, but the locals guessed 115 on the broiling airport tarmac in Phoenix. After all, it was under a noonday sun in the desert that Michael Dukakis was indulging his truly favorite campaign ritual—a game of catch with his aide Jack Weeks. “These days,” he has said, “throwing the ball around when we land somewhere is about the only exercise I get.” For 16 minutes, Dukakis shagged flies and threw strikes. Halfway through, he rolled up his sleeves, but he never loosened his tie. Finally, mercifully, it was over and time to pitch the obvious tongue-in-cheek question: “Governor, what does throwing a ball around in this heat say about your mental stability?” Without missing a beat, and without a trace of a smile, Dukakis echoed a sentiment he has articulated repeatedly in recent months: “What it means is that I’m tough.”
Nor was this the last word. On July 31 in The Washington Post, David S. Broder, who had also been with the Dukakis campaign in Phoenix, gave us a third, and, by virtue of his seniority in the process, perhaps the official version of the ball tossing:
Dukakis called out to Jack Weeks, the handsome, curly-haired Welshman who good-naturedly shepherds us wayward pressmen through the daily vagaries of the campaign schedule. Weeks dutifully produced two gloves and a baseball, and there on the tarmac, with its surface temperature just below the boiling point, the governor loosened up his arm and got the kinks out of his back by tossing a couple hundred 90-foot pegs to Weeks.
What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then, was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too “naive” to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.
The narrative is made up of many such understandings, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line. It was understood, for example, that the first night of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans should be for Ronald Reagan “the last hurrah.” “REAGAN ELECTRIFIES GOP” was the headline the next morning on page one of New York Newsday; in fact the Reagan appearance, which was rhetorically pitched not to a live audience but to the more intimate demands of the camera, was, inside the Superdome, barely registered. It was understood, similarly, that Michael Dukakis’s acceptance speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta should be the occasion on which his “passion,” or “leadership,” emerged. “Could the no-nonsense nominee reach within himself to discover the language of leadership?” Time had asked. “Could he go beyond the pedestrian promises of ‘good jobs at good wages’ to give voice to a new Democratic vision?”
The correct answer, since the forward flow of the narrative here demanded the appearance of a genuine contender (a contender who could be seventeen points “up,” so that George Bush could be seventeen points “down,” a position from which he could rise to”claim” his own convention), was yes: “The best speech of his life,” David Broder reported. Sandy Grady found it “superb,” evoking “Kennedyesque echoes” and showing “unexpected craft and fire.” Newsweek had witnessed Governor Dukakis “electrifying the convention with his intensely personal acceptance speech.” In fact the convention that evening had been electrified, not by the speech, which was the same series of nonsequential clauses Governor Dukakis had employed during the primary campaign (“My friends…it’s what the Democratic party is all about”), but because the floor had been darkened, swept with laser beams, and flooded with “Coming to America,” played at concert volume with the bass turned up.
It is understood that this invented narrative will turn on certain familiar elements. There is the continuing story line of the “horse race,” the reliable daily drama of one candidate falling behind as another pulls ahead. There is the surprise of the new poll, the glamour of the one-on-one colloquy on the midnight plane, a plot point (the nation sleeps while the candidate and his confidant hammer out its fate) pioneered by Theodore H. White. There is the abiding if unexamined faith in the campaign as personal odyssey, and in the spiritual benefits accruing to those who undertake it. There is, in the presented history of the candidate, the crucible event, the day that “changed the life.”
Robert Dole’s life was understood to have changed when he was injured in Italy in 1945. George Bush’s life is understood to have changed when he and his wife decided to “get out and make it on our own” (his words, or rather the speech-writer Peggy Noonan’s, from the “lived the dream” acceptance speech, suggesting action, shirtsleeves, privilege cast aside) in west Texas. For Bruce Babbitt, “the dam just kind of broke”during a student summer in Bolivia. For Michael Dukakis, the dam is understood to have broken not during his student summer in Peru but after his 1978 defeat in Massachusetts; his tragic flaw, we have read repeatedly, is neither his evident sulkiness at losing that election nor what many since have seen as a rather dissociated self-satisfaction (“We’re two people very proud of what we’ve done,” he said on NBC in Atlanta, falling into a favorite speech pattern, “very proud of each other, actually…and very proud that a couple of guys named Dukakis and Jackson have come this far”), but the more attractive “hubris.”
The narrative requires broad strokes, Michael Dukakis was physically small, and had associations with Harvard, which suggested that he must be an “intellectual”; the “immigrant factor,” on the other hand, could make him tough (as in “What it means is that I’m tough”), a “streetfighter.” “He’s cool, shrewd and still trying to prove he’s tough,” the July 25 cover of U.S. News & World Report said about Dukakis. “toughness is what it’s all about,” one of his advisers is quoted as having said in the cover story. “People need to feel that a candidate is tough enough to be president. It is the threshold perception.”
George Bush had presented a more tortured narrative problem. The tellers of the story had not understood, or had not responded, to the essential Bush style, which was complex, ironic, the diffident edge of the northeastern elite. This was what was at first identified as “the wimp factor,” which was replaced not by a more complicated view of the personality but by its reverse: George Bush was by late August no longer a “wimp” but someone who had “thrown it over,” “struck out” to make his own way: no longer a product of the effete Northeast but someone who had thrived in Texas, and was therefore “tough enough to be president.”
That George Bush might have thrived in Texas not in spite of but precisely because he was a member of the north-eastern elite was a shading which had no part in the narrative: “He was considered back at the time one of the most charismatic people ever elected to public office in the history of Texas,” Congressman Bill Archer of Houston has said. “That charisma, people talked about it over and over again.” People talked about it, probably, because Andover and Yale and the inheritable tax avoidance they suggested were, during the years George Bush lived in Texas, the exact ideals toward which the Houston and Dallas establishment aspired, but the narrative called for a less ambiguous verison: “Lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us,” as Bush, or Peggy Noonan, had put it in the celebrated no-subject-pronoun cadences of the “lived the dream” acceptance speech. “Worked in the oil business, started my own…. Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house. Lived the dream—high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue…pushing into unknown territory with kids and a dog and a car….”
All stories, of course, depend for their popular interest upon the invention of personality, or “character,” but in the political narrative, designed as it is to maintain the illusion of “consensus” by obscuring rather than addressing actual issues, this invention served a further purpose. It was by 1988 generally, if unspecifically, agreed that the United States faced certain social and economic realities which, if not intractable, did not entirely lend themselves to the kinds of policy fixes people who run for elected office, on whatever ticket, were likely to undertake. We had not yet accommodated the industrialization of parts of the third world. We had not yet adjusted to the economic realignment of a world in which the United States was no longer the principal catalyst for change. “We really are in an age of transition,” Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s leading foreign policy adviser, recently told Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, “from a postwar world where the Soviets were the enemy, where the United States was a super-power and trying to build up both its allies and its former enemies and help the Third World transition to independence. That whole world and all of those things are coming to an end or have ended, and we are now entering a new and different world that will be complex and much less unambiguous than the old one.”