As everyone already knows, the 1988 presidential campaign was too long, too negative, and too dull, which is why Roger Simon’s book about the campaign comes as such a pleasant surprise. For unlike the politicians who ran this race — and unlike many of the reporters who covered it — Simon is droll, amusing, and instructive.
A prizewinning columnist for the Baltimore Sun, Simon offers sharply-etched portraits of all the candidates, from Babbitt and Gore to Bush and Dukakis, ”the man who can eat one potato chip.” He tracks down one of Gary Hart’s former mistresses, takes the reader backstage with the producer of one of the televised debates, and lets us peer over the shoulder of Bush adviser Roger Ailes.
Simon is especially good on the perverse interplay between politicians drilled to dissimulate and reporters eager to unmask. His profile on CHH newsman Bernard Shaw is fascinating, as is his account f how, in the final televised debate, Shaw came to ask Michael Dukakis the question that doomed the Democratic candidate: ”Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
As it happens, the other journalists on the panel all begged Shaw to drop the question, or at least tone it down. He refused. ”This whole process is too easy on politicians,” Shaw tells Simon later. ”They fly up and down the country asking for votes and they ought to be forced to stand up and say what they really feel.”
As the aftermath of this debate suggests, however, most of the media inadvertently collude in discouraging any spontaneous expression of real feeling. For as Simon points out, Dukakis, in answering Shaw’s question, did tell the truth: He really was, on principle, against the death penalty. ”Dispassionately, he expressed his true feelings. And he was savaged for it. He was savaged for giving a sincere and unemotional answer instead of giving an insincere and emotional one.”
Reporters, of course, knew that Dukakis had been told by his handlers to offer a more passionate response. If only he had delivered this response, the commentators would doubtless have applauded: ”By the final presidential debate,” comments Simon, ”we were demanding the road show. Fool us, we were saying. Trick us. Fake a little sincerity for us.”
What a system! ”To Bush, the campaign had been a role he played and now the play had come to an end,” concludes Simon. ”Yes, he had crushed and humiliated his opponents, and yes, he had used negative ads and low tactics?But, my God, that was something you did, not something you were. Didn’t everybody understand that?” Readers of Road Show certainly will. B+