It was Mr. Bentsen, of course, who earned political immortality with his “You’re no Jack Kennedy” put-down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate. Ms. Palin won better reviews for her debate performance last week than Mr. Quayle did 20 years ago (although, as Mr. Dukakis is quick to point out, she did this “by not answering any of the questions. And for reasons that I don’t understand the moderator did not say, ‘No, you’re not going to talk about energy. The question is X’”), but Mr. Dukakis believes that Mr. Quayle was “a better selection.”
“I didn’t think Quayle was a particularly good selection,” he said, “but he certainly dwarfs her in terms of his experience, knowledge and understanding. I mean, he’d done some things in the Senate.”
As is often noted, the absurd Bentsen-Quayle mismatch didn’t offer much quantitative help to Mr. Dukakis, who still lost to George H. W. Bush by eight points (426 to 112 in the Electoral College) in 1988.
“On the other hand,” Mr. Dukakis offered, “we had some polling information that indicated that if that race had been closer, the Bentsen-Quayle thing could have made a difference.”
Ms. Palin, he forecasted, “will end up being a negative” for Mr. McCain – in part because of her own shaky qualifications and campaign performance, but also because of the reassuring credentials and deep policy knowledge of Joe Biden, Mr. Obama’s running mate.
“Joe’s been a real plus for Obama,” Mr. Dukakis said. “They just go well together. It’s a good team.”
Those kind words for Mr. Biden may seem unremarkable, but not when you consider what can only be described as a difficult history between the two, dating back to the ’88 campaign, when they both sought the Democratic nomination.
After Gary Hart was forced from that race by accusations of marital infidelity, it was left to Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Biden to vie for the front-runner’s label. Mr. Dukakis got the early jump, but as the summer of 1987 wound down, Mr. Biden’s stock was on the rise. Ronald Reagan had nominated Robert Bork, an impeccably qualified hero of cultural conservatives, for the Supreme Court and Mr. Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was set to lead the fight against him – on national television.
It was then, just as the hearings were to begin, that Mr. Dukakis’ longtime strategist and confidante, John Sasso, edited together and quietly leaked to the media a videotape that showed Mr. Biden borrowing several deeply personal passages from a speech delivered by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock – without attribution. Mr. Biden had properly credited Mr. Kinnock on numerous other occasions, but the video evidence – especially when aired for casual viewers on national and local newscasts – seemed damning. The press immediately devoted itself to unearthing other supposed instances of fraud and dishonesty in Mr. Biden’s professional and academic careers, an unending – and impossible to beat – inquiry that led him to exit the race at the end of September, sealing Mr. Dukakis’ standing as the man to beat on the Democratic side.
All the while, a mystery lingered: Which of Mr. Biden’s rivals had leaked the tape? Suspicions initially revolved around U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (whose chief consultant, Robert Shrum, was a bitter enemy of Mr. Biden’s consultant, Pat Caddell), and Mr. Dukakis, unaware of Mr. Sasso’s role, declared that if it had come from his campaign, the perpetrator would be dismissed. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Sasso confessed his transgression and an anguished Mr. Dukakis, facing a torrent of criticism from Mr. Biden’s allies in Washington, followed through on his commitment. (Mr. Sasso ultimately returned to the campaign in the fall of 1988 – after the worst damage from the Bush attacks was done, leaving many to wonder how different history might have been if there had been no Kinnock tape.)
Mr. Dukakis personally apologized to Mr. Biden at the time, but he says the two haven’t really spoken in the 21 years since.
“But,” Mr. Dukakis quickly added, “he was nice enough – and frankly, I’m not sure I would have done it, given what happened – to make a big campaign appearance with me in Philadelphia during that campaign. He was nice enough to do that.”
Then, dropping his voice a notch, he alluded to Mr. Biden’s near-fatal experience with an aneuryism, for which he reluctantly sought treatment (with perhaps minutes to spare) in February 1988, just days before the New Hampshire primary.
“Ironically, and he himself has said this, if he had continued to campaign when he was starting to have those headaches, he probably would have not sought medical attention,” Mr. Dukakis noted. “And you have a kind of strange bit of irony here – the fact that he left the campaign I think probably had something to do with the fact that he got care when he needed it.”
The Joe Biden of 2008 isn’t a whole lot different from the 44-year-old Joe Biden that he competed with in 1987, Mr. Dukakis said, except that he’s a little more experienced, mature and has an even stronger reputation on foreign policy. The two of them also share at least one pet issue.
“I love his affection for Amtrak,” Mr. Dukakis, a former vice chairman of the government-owned passenger rail service, said. “He said the other day that if he and Obama were elected that this would be the most train-friendly administration in history, and I just glowed.”
Twenty years ago this week, polls showed Mr. Dukakis trailing Mr. Bush by somewhere in the mid-to-high single-digit range – about the margin by which Mr. Obama now leads Mr. McCain. He says he knew he was behind back then and was frustrated by his position, but never entertained any thought that it just wasn’t going to work out (at least not until the returns came in). But this time around, he’s finding that anticipating victory doesn’t take nearly as much effort.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Mr. Dukakis said, “but mindful that 30 days can be an eternity in this business.”