Desperate Campaign Aide Warned Dukakis: Don't Get in the Tank!

Those watching CNN's Race For the White House last night presumably weren't expecting hilarity to ensue, but that's what they got. Thank you, CNN!

This week's installment of the documentary mini-series revisited the '88 campaign battle between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the GOP nominee, and Democrat nominee Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts.

The excerpt highlighted here focuses on the campaign during the summer after both parties' national conventions, when national security was a major issue -- 

'RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE' NARRATOR KEVIN SPACEY (sounding wearily cynical as he does in every role): Two months to go until the election and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis hopes his visit to a tank factory will have the whole nation singing "Hail to the Chief."

Dukakis is introduced by Democrat Senator Carl Levin, sporting a comb-over for the ages (yeah, I know, it's sexist to criticize male politicians for their hair). Race for the White House combines archival footage (of Levin here, for example) with actors recreating scenes from campaigns in the series --

LEVIN: It is a real personal privilege to introduce Mike Dukakis of Massachusetts.

SPACEY: To show he's a real man, Dukakis is going to sit in a tank. What could possibly go wrong?

Dukakis campaign volunteer Matt Bennett describes his advance work at the factory, which included him donning a tank helmet emblazoned with Dukakis's name --

BENNETT: There are (sic) site advance person, there's press people in the motorcade, and my job was to deal with the site. They said, you should really get a sense of what this is like. Would you like to go for a ride yourself? However, when I looked at myself in the mirror (the scene here reacted with an actor playing Bennett) and I realized I have a bit of a nose, the way Dukakis does, and I thought, I look terrible in this helmet. So will he. And I got incredibly nervous about putting Mike Dukakis in this tank. (Anxiety shared by millions of other Americans two months later on Election Day).

So I called the Boston headquarters and told them he is going to look terrible if he wears this helmet ...

If only Dukakis ... hadn't worn the helmet while riding in the tank!

BENNETT: And they said, well, Bush was just sitting in an F-16. Now we're going to sit in a tank ...

Yes, Bush had planted himself in an F-16 for a photo opp -- which he could pull off as a decorated combat aviator who was the youngest American military pilot during World War II. Dukakis enlisted in the Army in 1955 after graduating from Swarthmore and served for 18 months in South Korea following the end of the Korean War in 1953 (though he appears to have spent little time in armored vehicles while on the Korean Peninsula).

BENNETT: ... this is our thing, just do it.

SPACEY (as footage is shown of Dukakis at a rally outside a General Dynamics tank factory in Sterling Heights, Mich.): Dukakis prepares to flex his military muscles before the national press.

BENNETT: And he was excited to ride in the tank because, you know, he's a red-blooded American male, he wanted to ride in this tank too. So he (mimics Dukakis), all right, terrific, let's go!

DUKAKIS: And I didn't think give it a second thought. (What me worry?) I mean, I was going to get into the thing and they told me to put the helmet on. I did so.

If only I'd gotten into the tank ... without the helmet!

BENNETT: So, the doors open and the tank emerges and I will never forget what happened. We have this giant riser full of press, at least 90 people. And they just burst out laughing. I mean, to a person, they're just guffawing. And I think, oh my God. We are in so much trouble.

But wait, it gets better --

DUKAKIS CAMPAIGN MANAGER SUSAN ESTRICH (sounding even more cynical than Kevin Spacey): You're looking at a guy who you say to yourself, Jesus Christ, that guy doesn't belong on a tank. Which is to say, that guy doesn't belong running the national security of our country.

To her credit, Estrich doesn't blame the head gear, which did cause Dukakis bear an uncanny resemblance to Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

The Bush campaign pounced with a campaign ad that included footage from Dukakis's adventure in the M1 Abrams (starting at 1:10 in this clip) while pointing out that the Democrats' nominee "has opposed virtually every defense system we've developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing Two missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the Stealth bomber and a ground emergency warning system against nuclear attack. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can't afford that risk."

We now return to our regularly scheduled fiction that the Willie Horton ads lost the election for Dukakis.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts