A Thousand Points of Light: George H.W. Bush and the 1988 Election
George H.W. Bush had three significant obstacles to overcome if he wanted to be elected president in 1988. The first was that Bush’s election seemed to be a referendum on eight years of the Reagan presidency. Americans were split over that legacy with conservatives wanting to build on his economic and foreign policy achievements in the Cold War, while liberals wanted to stop a third consecutive term by a conservative Republican. The recent Iran-Contra hearings had damaged the Reagan presidency and fed the partisanship.
A second obstacle was that some in the media charged that Bush had not done very much of note as vice-president and was thereby not experienced or qualified enough to be president. As a former fighter pilot, congressman, ambassador to the UN, envoy to China, head of the Republican National Committee, and director of the CIA before becoming vice-president, the charge was almost ludicrous.
The third was the charge—made first by journalist Evan Thomas on the cover of Newsweek—that Bush was “fighting the wimp factor.” This was a less tangible charge and therefore more difficult to deflect. He was seen to be too soft to handle the challenges of the presidency including standing up to the Russians. When CBS anchor Dan Rather ambushed Bush with questions about his role in Iran-Contra in what was supposed to be a softball piece, he flexed his muscles and fought back with a combative reminder of an embarrassing incident when Rather stormed off a television set. Many Americans thought Bush looked tough and plain-talking as he hoped. He consciously sought to craft this image throughout the campaign.
In May, Reagan finally endorsed Bush for president but did so in a message that some journalist observers thought—or maybe wanted to believe—was lukewarm and not heartfelt. Reagan quickly responded to the questions about his endorsement by issuing a more forceful statement of his unqualified support for Bush.
After beating back a primary challenge from Senator Bob Dole, Bush started to campaign in earnest against Michael Dukakis, Democratic governor of Massachusetts. Bush confided to his diary that, “I believe we’re going to have fun running against Dukakis, and it looks to me like the classic conservative [versus] liberal approach.” Bush’s campaign managers adopted the standard Republican attack on Democrats in the 1980s by portraying Dukakis as a tax-and-spend big government liberal, weak on national defense and confronting the Soviets, a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and weak on law and order issues.
The most controversial issue that remains contentious to this day was related to law and order. Governor Dukakis was not only opposed to the death penalty but supported prison furloughs to violent felons. He had even vetoed a bill preventing first-degree murderers from enjoying the furloughs. A Political Action Committee created a television ad linking Governor Dukakis to an infamous example of a convicted first-degree murderer, Willie Horton, who escaped while on furlough and committed additional horrific crimes against a couple. The “Willie Horton” ad somewhat provocatively displayed his mugshot but never mentioned the race of his victims in the original or furloughed crimes. Because he was an African American, campaign chairman, Jim Baker, correctly assumed that some observers would argue that it was a racist ad. Therefore, he wanted the PAC to stop running the ad.
The ad set off a firestorm that continues today with many writers continuing to assume that the ad was racist. However, the ad never mentioned the race of Horton’s victims in the original or furloughed crimes. Moreover, no one disputes the facts presented in the ad nor that they happened under Dukakis’ watch. Moreover, it was liberal Al Gore who originally attacked Dukakis on the furlough issue in a Democratic primary debate. Moreover, a Massachusetts newspaper had even won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Horton case. Nevertheless, it is taken for granted that the Bush campaign aired a racist ad in 1988 when it did not.
At the Republican National Convention, Bush delivered an acceptance speech written by Peggy Noonan. After touting the accomplishments of the Reagan years and his commitment to continuing those policies, Bush spoke somewhat ambiguously of “a thousand points of light” and hopes for a “kinder, gentler nation,” perhaps appealing to centrist Americans or countering the media image of Reagan administrations that were too conservative or Republicans who only cared about the rich. More memorable and straightforward was the pledge, “Read my lips—no new taxes.”
The convention erased an early large lead for Dukakis and gave Bush a small lead in the polls. The race was relatively bland except for a few gaffes. For example, Dukakis looked small and ridiculous riding in a tank trying to prove his chops on national defense. Dukakis then admitted that he would continue to oppose the death penalty even if his wife were raped and murdered. More humorously, Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Lloyd Bentsen retorted to his Republican counterpart: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy….Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” But, the vice-president picks had little overall effect on the outcome of the election.
George Bush won the 1988 election by a comfortable margin by winning 426 electoral votes and 53 percent of the vote. He would preside over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union while assembling a broad allied coalition of nations to expel Iraq from Kuwait which it had invaded and occupied militarily. However, the strong economic boom of the 1980s finally ended in a recession that doomed Bush to one term.
Tony Williams is the author of five books on the American founding including, with Steve Knott, Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America. He recently appeared on Bill O’ Reilly’s “Legends & Lies: The Patriots”