An Election Day Remembrance
Current LABA fellow Mark Katz describes his time working on Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Election Day. November 1, 1988. A crisp sunny Boston day, maybe 45 degrees. If memory serves, it was a Tuesday. And because I has spend the previous twelve months as a campaign staffer who set an alarm clock for 5 am and returned to bed after midnight — all in the name of getting Gov. Mike Dukakis elected the 41st president of the United States — Election Day 1988 was once of the worst days of my life.
These many years later, I feel I am ready to share some of the details with you. (Full disclosure: these are details I have previously shared with the dozens of readers who purchased a copy of a political memoir I wrote a few years back, entitled Clinton & Me: A Real Life Political Comedy.)
When Election Day finally came to the Dukakis campaign headquarters, it was greeted like dawn on death row. Our “Rapid Response Team” squad — four guys consisting of three you never heard of (including me, then 23) and a shaggy-haired wunderkind named George Stephana-something — huddled around the keyboard for what we thought would be our final Talking Points and could not come up with anything more heartening than this: “If there was ever going to the a great political comeback, this is exactly what it would feel like on the morning of.” What we didn’t write was that the “it” of the previous sentence was the urge to flush your head in a toilet.
Our Last Supper came at lunch time, as a large group of staffers spent a good portion of what would be their last paycheck on a blow-out feast at Legal Seafood, as though we could harden our shells for the next twelve hours by ingesting crustaceans. On the way back to Chauncey Street, I stopped into a deli-mart and purchased a Mass Millions lottery ticket, thinking even a faint hope for the future might help me make it through the night ahead. It was right around then that I progressed to the next stage of loss, bargaining with God. I entered the lobby of Dukakis HQ at 105 Chauncey Street and rode the elevator two flights up. I was not prepared for what happened next. I stepped out of the elevator to find the second floor abuzz with an excitement. The first person I asked told me something that made no sense: “You’re not going to believe this. We are still in this thing!” I ran back to the communications office to see what was up. ABC had shared their early reports of their own internal polling and it had us doing better than we had a right to hope.
Although we had known for at least a week that we were not going to win, an unlikely but not impossible winning scenario was still an abstract possibility: if Dukakis won every state where he was within five points of Bush, we could get to 270 electoral votes. ABC’s numbers had us tantalizingly close to that very scenario. The campaign was already forty minutes into a desperate last minute effort, scrambling to book satellite interviews of Dukakis on afternoon newscasts in key states, as well as an organized telephone campaign urging likely Democrats in key states to go to polls before they closed. Chauncey Street was suddenly buzzing like it was Super Tuesday.
The only person in the building who had not jumped headfirst into the pool was sitting at the desk next adjacent to mine. George had come back early from lunch to check in with the networks and was in fact the person who brought the ABC numbers to the campaign’s attention. But he did not believe them. In the time since, he had continued working the phones, calling his contacts at the network polling units. CBS, NBC, CNN all had Bush ahead comfortably and laughed at the idea that the ABC numbers were accurate. In fact, it was an open joke in those circles that ABC’s polling numbers were always wrong.
“Guys, it’s over” he said, consciously echoing the phrase from a few days earlier that had the four of us hugging each other in glee. Undeterred, my partner Andy Savitz and I accumulated some spin from the powers that be and pumped out one last issue of Talking Points obviously written by two people who had sucking too hard on the pipe of false hope:
Talking Points 6:00 PM EST
MSD is on the verge of an historic upset. America will not know who its next president will be until very late tonight.
Americans are fed up with the Bush campaign of lies and distortions. Bush’s negative campaign simply ran out of steam.
Dukakis’ message – that he and Lloyd Bentsen are on the side of working families – has obviously gotten through to the voters. When it came time for America’s working families to enter the voting booth they decided that Michael Dukakis was on their side.
Dukakis did an hour of live television this evening to some of the key battle ground states. This reflects the fact that the election is very close and that millions of Democrats and working Americans have yet to vote.
States like Montana, Colorado, South Dakota could make all the difference. The large states are too close to call. We are surging.
Then, on the bottom of the page, in large handwritten block letters was the final, desperate, hopeful call to action: GET OUT THE VOTE!!!
We printed it out and handed it to Mike Peterson, our trusty intern, who dashed to the fax machine, as if each second mattered. Savitz and I were pumped and ready to do more, whatever it need be. We grabbed a call sheet of likely voters in western states and began working our way down the lists and in the next forty minutes, I personally spoke to more people from South Dakota than I had previously or since. On that day, I chose willful disbelief over the reasoned voice of a smart, dispassionate Greek guy and I will always e glad that I did. After thirteen months of work days that started at dawn and ended at midnight, having reason to believe that we might actually win on election day was its own reward – let the aftermath be damned.
The aftermath began not ten seconds after 7 pm sharp, when a large group of re-energized staffers gathered around the press office televisions to watch the network evening news. Dan Rather told us the way it was, that CBS was projecting a comfortable Bush victory. Throughout the fall, Rather had become a crowd favorite to those of us who crowded around the bank of televisions at the seven p.m. hour, as it was our opinion that he could barely disguise his antipathy for Bush. The news, as bad as it was, was better for having been delivered by someone we considered a friend. Nevertheless, the heartbroken staffers soon dispersed, not bothering to wait for a Peter Jennings rebuttal on ABC that would never come. Now it was over.
The open bar at the Election Night “party” at the Parker House Hotel was more open than most and I soon found myself holding my own bottle of gin. Back in the day of fraternity keg parties, I was well-known among the fratschmucks for my ability to nurse a beer but on this night, the alcohol was tending to me. I was standing there quietly brooding, next to Savitz, Stephanopoulos and Peterson, when Savitz (a former Rhodes Scholar) soon found an old Rhodes classmate of his, Walter Isaacson, then of Time magazine and our cluster expanded to include his posse of fellow name-brand print journalists. One of them made the mistake of asking how I was doing. By this point, my blood alcohol level had risen to the point where my vestigial Brooklyn accent more pronounced and I responded to his innocuous question with a long soliloquy of hard-edged humor. Some of my material was probably good enough to be worth remembering for future use but I was in no condition to operate a writing utensil. In fact, for all I remember, the words now coming out of my mouth a mile-a-minute might not have been funny at all, but the overall picture of a drunk, angry campaign joke writer spewing forth like Mussolini on the balcony seemed to generate some amusement. Of my few specific memories of that night, I vividly recall George standing three feet away with an amazed smile on his face that indicated he was enjoying the show I was putting on. A moment later, his fraternal instincts kicked in and interrupted me for my own good to say something to the reporters who were now hanging on every word of my discursive comedy diatribe.
“Guys, everything Katz says tonight is off the record, understood?” They agreed, if only out of compassion for someone so painfully drunk and defeated but a minute later, my audience had scattered. I continued to drink and spew my comic venom to no one in particular and before the long night was over, I would also the spew the remnants of my $60 oysters/chowder/lobster fra diavlo lunch.
The day after losing a presidential election is its own level of hell and not improved upon with a bottom-shelf gin hangover. To make matters worse, I didn’t win the lottery. The healing process continued when the others showed up and we decided to put out the final issue of the campaign talking points, the familiar morning ritual for as many mornings as I could remember. But on this day, there was nothing left to spin but spin itself.
DAILY TALKING POINT, WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 9, 1988
• Mike Dukakis only lost the presidential election once. Adlai Stevenson lost twice!
We brought printed it out, posting the first copy on the door to our office and the four of us set off with the second copy to deliver to our boss and spiritual leader for these past few months, Communications Director Kirk O’Donnell — on the hunch that he could use a laugh and that we could stand hear it. The four of us had come to the office that wearing the T-shirts and sweatpants of defeat but Kirk may have been the only person in the building wearing still wearing a shirt and tie. Upon seeing us standing outside his office, Kirk finished up a phone call and waved us in for one last meeting. “Come in here, you guys, I want to talk to you.”
Like all the memorable meetings of the last few months, this one began with the closing of door that sealed off a temporary cocoon. Kirk’s mood was upbeat and it was clear that we were not going to leave his office until we felt the same. He spoke to us in the same serious tone of a hundred meetings when we thought the future of an election could be won or lost. “Listen to me. This is not over between us.” At his prompt, we huddled. In fact we hugged. We left his office with our heads high while Kirk packed up his things to fly back to Washington later that day.
A half hour later, my head was still pounding from the night before and I set out to the elevator to find some kind of over-the-counter remedy. The elevator door opened and Kirk was in front of me, suit bag in hand on his way to the airport. Maybe it was slightly awkward to see him again, so soon after our male equivalent of a poignant farewell embrace. But in the minutes in between, I had thought up a joke I had yet to try out.
“Hey Kirk, I got Dukakis’ sound bite for tomorrow’s papers.”
“Yeah, let’s hear it.”
“’I have not yet begun to fight.’”
Pay dirt. Kirk’s roaring laughter simultaneously warmed my heart and rattled my hangover, and with last few raucous beats, he rolled out the words, “that’s terr-ific! That’s terr-ific!”
I will forever be proud to have worked on the ill-fated presidential campaign of Mike Dukakis. He was a smart and thoughtful Democratic, a progressive and accomplished governor, a good man, a genuine patriot and crushingly bad candidate. Today, he serves in my mind as the antithesis of the person so bereft of those virtues and values who is our president today. And my head spins like a centrifuge when I try to understand how the American people elevated one and disregarded the other.
I still think of my last day on the Dukakis campaign every first Tuesday of November, most vividly in an presidential election year. And so I did this morning as I entered the Brooklyn Borough Hall polling place to register my vote on some low-stakes elections and some higher-stakes ballot initiatives. But mostly, I went to the polls in preparation for the Biggest Election of Our Lifetime that will take place exactly one year from today.