A Funny Judge of Civility

So George H.W. Bush used an interview with CBS News last Friday to decry the lack of civility in modern politics and to brand Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow “sick puppies.”

“The way they treat my son and anyone who’s opposed to their point of view is just horrible,” the former president said of MSNBC’s primetime duo.

Say what you will about Olbermann and Maddow, but there is rich irony in the former president-who has, in retirement, somehow morphed into a symbol of some bygone era of chivalry-lamenting the tone of today’s political dialogue: because he, as much as anyone else, is the one who created it.

“What’s 14 inches long and hangs in front of an asshole?” Bush, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s authoritative account of the 1988 presidential campaign, asked a friendly local in Kennebunkport during that race.

She beat him to the punch-line: “Oh, I’ve heard that one, George. It’s Michael Dukakis’ tie.” They both shared a good laugh over that one. How’s that for civil?

And when it comes to the Bush ’88 campaign’s treatment of Dukakis, that was on the benign end of the scale. It’s not hyperbole to say that Bush’s campaign, guided by Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater, essentially wrote the modern Republican political playbook-one that relies on vilifying opponents with personal smears, turning the word “liberal” into an epithet, and fracturing the electorate with barely-concealed appeals to prejudice and racism.

The Bush ’88 strategy was spawned by necessity. Contrary to the hagiography that has taken hold this decade, the country had actually grown tired of Ronald Reagan, whose second term was bogged down by revelations about arms-for-hostages dealings with Iran and an illegal war in Central America. As the ’88 primary season wrapped up, Dukakis built a solid lead over Bush in the polls-one that exploded to 17 points after that July’s Democratic convention.

The issues generally favored Dukakis and voters were ready for a change, so the Bushies fought back with an unprecedented blitz of personal attacks and wedge politics. Dukakis’ patriotism was challenged with claims that he was “soft” on flag-burning and the pledge of allegiance, and-borrowing from Joe McCarthy-Bush took to referring to him as “a card-carrying member of the ACLU.”

And then there was Willie Horton, the furloughed Massachusetts inmate (many states-including Reagan’s California-had furlough programs for violent offenders back then), who’d left the state on a weekend pass and committed a brutal assault and rape. A particularly menacing-looking photo of Horton’s black face became the centerpiece of an ad that purported to juxtapose Bush’s and Dukakis’s views on crime.

The issue of crime, of course, had nothing to do with it; it was pure, old-fashioned race-baiting slicked up for national television. The ad was Atwater’s brainchild, though in the grand dirty-tricks tradition, he quietly set up an independent committee to fund it and played dumb when reporters asked about it. (Any doubts about Atwater’s extensive role have long since been put to rest.)

Through all of this, Bush refused to condemn, or even comment on, his campaign’s actions. He was “above the fray,” he’d respond, somehow removed from culpability for the vile attack machine that was operating in his name. And he got what he wanted: The assault on Dukakis delivered a 25-point swing, with Bush winning the November election in a 40-state landslide.

Somehow, the media fell for Bush’s “above the fray” nonsense, treating him-even as they pummeled him for his domestic policy failures as president-as the quintessential gentleman. One of the sad injustices of presidential politics is that Bush has enjoyed such a reputation for 20 years while the truly decent man he slimed, Dukakis, has never lived down the gruesome caricature created by the Bush machine.

Oh, and about that “sick puppies” put down of Maddow and Olbermann: Just remember, this is the same George H.W. Bush who in June 1992 invited Rush Limbaugh to the White House for an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom-and who personally carried Limbaugh’s bags inside when he showed up.