Pledge Dukakis Made 31 Years Ago this Summer Still Challenges the Nation

Thursday, August 8, 2019

More than 30 years have passed since Mike Dukakis was nominated for president by the Democratic Party.  He was in his third term as Massachusetts governor when he accepted the nomination on the final night of the Democratic national convention, July 31, 1988. 

The day after his acceptance speech, Dukakis had a lead in the polls of 17 percentage points over his Republican opponent, Vice President George H.W. Bush.
I remember very well watching that speech on television.  It was a hot night, an exciting night: The Duke was on a path that few ever get to tread.  My extended family and I were vacationing on Cape Cod, staying in a rented house in Harwich, not far from Red River Beach.  I especially remember the pledge given at the conclusion of the speech. 

On the most prominent stage he had ever stood upon, here is what our governor told the world:
“…as I accept your nomination tonight, I can’t help recalling that the first marathon was run in ancient Greece, and that on important occasions like this one, the people of Athens would complete their ceremonies by taking a pledge.

“That pledge – that covenant – is as eloquent and as timely today as it was 2,000 years ago:
‘We will never bring disgrace to this, our country.  We will never bring disgrace to this our country by acts of dishonesty or of cowardice.  We will fight for the ideals of this, our country.  We will revere and obey the law.  We will strive to quicken our sense of civic duty.  Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this country greater, stronger, prouder and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.’

“That is my pledge to you, my fellow Democrats.
“And that is my pledge to you, my fellow Americans.”

After that convention, Lee Atwater, the Bush family retainer then serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee, infamously said he was going “to strip the bark off the little bastard (Dukakis)” and “make Willie Horton his running mate.”
Horton was an African American who, while on furlough from a prison in Massachusetts in the time of Dukakis’s governorship, raped a woman in Maryland. 

Team Atwater made a TV ad for Bush on the Horton case that stoked white-vs-black fears and biases.  It was a racist, dishonest piece of propaganda for which Atwater kind of apologized later, shortly before his death at 40 from brain cancer.
“I am sorry for both statements,” Atwater said, meaning his desire to (a) strip the bark off Dukakis, and (b) make Horton his running mate.  He added that he was sorry for the first part because of its “naked cruelty,” and for the second because it made him “sound racist, which I am not.”

He owned up only to doing something that multitudes – mistakenly, in his view -- experienced as racist; he was sorry he had made them feel that way because he himself, of course, was not a racist.  We hear similar things today.
By the end of September 1988, Dukakis’s lead over Bush evaporated.  Five weeks later, Dukakis lost to Bush by more than seven million votes and carried only 10 states and the District of Columbia in the electoral college.

If our country, as transmitted to us down to this moment, is greater, stronger, prouder and more beautiful than it was in 1988, and if dishonesty (on racism, for example) and cowardice (on gun control, for example) have diminished over the past 31 years, I’m having a hard time this week seeing it.




No comments:

Post a Comment