'88 RACE: Michael Dukakis, right, lost to George H.W. Bush. (Lennox McLendon/AP Photo )
At a conference of first ladies the other day, Barbara Bush said that 2012 has "been the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life." I disagree. My vote would be for the repulsive 1988 campaign that her husband,George H.W. Bush, waged against Michael Dukakis, in which he accused the former Massachusetts governor of being soft on crime, anti-Pledge of Allegiance and pro-flag burning.
Bush the elder took the aristocratic view that games (like tennis, or politics) should be played to the death but that animosity should be suspended when the drinks cart arrives. He never understood why some people keep bringing up Willie Horton.
Still, Barbara Bush could turn out to be right in the end. Among the three remaining serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are old hands at dirty campaigning, and Mitt Romney has a bit of the old Bush attitude (except that the drinks cart is alcohol-free).
Recently, we have been given a couple of foretastes of what may lie ahead. First, there is the fuss over President Obama's failure to disassociate himself from or apologize for statements by comedian Bill Maher, who has given $1 million to a "super PAC" supporting Obama's reelection. And second, there's the ludicrous attempt to make an issue of Obama's embrace (literally), while at Harvard Law School, of Derrick Bell. The Bell story, with video, is the parting gift of Andrew Breitbart, who died of an apparent heart attack March 1 at age 43 — much too young, even for a right-wing hit man.
Conservative critics compare Maher, who used vulgar language to describe Sarah Palin in a comedy skit, to Rush Limbaugh, who is in hot water of his own for vulgar on-air comments about a young woman who testified before Congress in favor of Obama's plan requiring health insurers to include birth control under "Obamacare." Liberals pressured an apology out of Limbaugh; why aren't they demanding a similar grovel from Maher, or returning his money?
I wrote last week about the competitive sensitivity game that dominates politics these days, in which all sides leap to take insincere offense at remarks by others and demand equally insincere apologies. Maher actually defended Limbaugh, calling the campaign against him a "fatwa." For his troubles, he was attacked in the Wall Street Journal for using an Islamic term as a metaphor. Typical liberal hypocrite, was the point.
You can parse the difference between Limbaugh and Maher if you want: One is an overt political pamphleteer, and the other is a comedian whose scorn is bipartisan, even if on average it tilts left. But the ideal solution would be if everyone just developed a thicker skin.
As for giving back Maher's million dollars, under our ridiculous campaign finance laws, it would probably be illegal for Obama to attempt to influence an "independent" group in this way. More important, political candidates surely cannot be held responsible for everything said by a campaign contributor. Do Gingrich and Santorum want to defend the views of every one of their donors?
On the other hand, Obama's fundamental beliefs are a legitimate issue. Even after he's served a term as president, they're not clear, at least to me. But they're clear to many in talk-radio land, based on his association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. (his former pastor in Chicago) and Bill Ayers (a former authentic violent revolutionary, who called for blood and got it, now playing the more cuddly role of a harmless aging radical). These are characters left over from 2008.
For 2012, meet professor Bell. He seems to have been a genuine mentor of Obama's, although Breitbart's "gotcha" video of the embrace is hardly dispositive. Imagine how many people of varying views a politician hugs over the course of a career.
Bell, who died in October at age 80, was an eccentric and bitter man as well as a distinguished legal scholar. He founded a school of thought called "critical race theory," a cousin of "critical legal studies," a worldview that roiled Harvard and other law schools during the 1970s and '80s but probably won't last the ages. Nevertheless, to make him out to be radioactive and poisonous to the touch would implicate not just Obama but Harvard Law School (where Bell became the school's first black tenured professor — in 1971!), the University of Oregon's law school (where he was dean) and the legal establishment generally, of which Bell was, however ambiguously, a part. (Ayers, similarly, was embraced by the Chicago establishment in a way that makes attacking Obama for mere acquaintanceship ridiculous.)
Someone like Santorum may see no troublesome contradiction here. Of course Bell was embraced by the Eastern, Ivy League, blah blah blah media establishment. The outrageous passages that can be plucked selectively and misinterpreted from his books don't contradict this; they prove it. That establishment is as dangerously left-wing and un-American as Bell was, and so is Obama. Even Gingrich probably holds a more nuanced view of the American political landscape, and Romney may sense that a general attack on the establishment is going to be a tough case for him to make.
But then, you never know. Bush the elder, with four generations of Yale in his family, was able to make an issue of his rival's degree from Harvard Law School.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.