What if they ended a war and nobody noticed?
Herein lies the premise of political analyst Sidney Blumenthal's chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign, which he says was lived "as if the Cold War were raging and Stalin alive."
Yet, despite the war being declared over--by "Cold Warrior" Ronald Reagan five months before the election--George Bush and Michael Dukakis waged campaigns that focused on national security.
To Blumenthal, that was a huge mistake. He thinks "the public was ready for some risk" and was already seeing tried-and-true politics as "old and outmoded."
In his new book, "Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War," Blumenthal, 42, examines what he believes is the failure of Bush and Dukakis to acknowledge a new world stage with different players. He says they desperately clung to irrelevant issues.
The book's jacket design--juxtaposed photographs of a campaigning Bush at a flag factory in New Jersey and a campaigning Dukakis in flak suit and helmet aboard an M1 tank at a factory in Michigan--pretty much sums up Blumenthal's jaundiced view of U.S. politics-as-usual while one of the great revolutions in history was under way in Eastern Europe.
The presidential campaign was largely a contest to prove which man was "100% American," he says. "Pledging Allegiance" refers to Bush's castigation of Dukakis for not supporting mandatory pledges by public school children.
Blumenthal, in a recent interview, assessed Bush as a politician for whom the Nixon presidency was a model. Bush won, he contends, largely "by arousing fear about the future." This was the same tough-on-crime, tough-on-communism stance that has served Republicans well since the end of World War II, Blumenthal says.
Bush condemned Dukakis for being a card-carrying member of the ACLU and hit hard on Dukakis' stance on crime.
It is ironic, Blumenthal contends, that it was Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union--once dubbed by Ronald Reagan the "evil empire"--that rescued Reagan's presidency from the shadow of the Iran-Contra scandal, providing it with "a bravura last act." It also made it possible for Bush to be elected, he says.
And the Democrats--who had planned a campaign based on Reagan's incompetence, and a need for change--found themselves dealing with a voting public that was getting a change; Bush, who didn't really believe that the Cold War was ending, was now the candidate of peace. Dukakis did not grasp the implications, Blumenthal says, and "the floor underneath him began to disappear."
Bush, he believes, was a "very lucky" man, suddenly able "to present himself as the foreign-policy wise man," says Blumenthal, a senior editor at New Republic magazine and a former Washington Post writer. During the campaign he wrote speeches for a cable TV series for Jack Tanner, a fictional presidential candidate invented by Blumenthal and his friend Garry Trudeau, creator of the "Doonesbury" comic strip.
Blumenthal is not kind in his assessment of most of the real-life presidential hopefuls:
* Dukakis was "a man for all vacuums . . . the candidate for the age of safe sex--stable and steady, no peaks or valleys . . . the avoidance of intellectual risk became his strategic imperative."
* Jack Kemp "seemed like Sinclair Lewis' 'Babbitt' reincarnated as a financial newsletter author."
* Pat Robertson was bloated with "pretensions."
* Jesse Jackson was a self-serving publicity-seeker with a need always to "dominate the stage," who ultimately did blacks a disservice.
In 1986, Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) approached Blumenthal about writing a kind of "The Making of the President, 1988" book, in a format popularized by author Theodore H. White. But Blumenthal was not enthusiastic. "I thought the genre had been played out," he said, adding that he "already had a sense the Cold War was ending" and that was the real book.
Two years earlier, his friend Sergey Plekhanov, deputy director of Moscow's Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada Studies, had told him about "this person named Gorbachev" and his program for the Soviet Union.
Three weeks after the 1988 campaign, Blumenthal went to Moscow, accepting a standing invitation from Plekhanov to visit the institute, which Blumenthal describes as a place where "the Americanologists study us in the way our Kremlinologists study them."
His book opens with a scene at the institute, which is housed in a mansion that was once the home of a czarist aristocrat. There, Soviet analysts "chuckled over the foibles of Gary Hart and Dan Quayle, shook their heads over Michael Dukakis' haplessness and expressed a cynical appreciation for George Bush's cynicism. . . . "
He found that they were consumed by the end of the Cold War and they were astonished at how U.S. political figures were ignoring it.