The Bentsen Backlash

Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 1988

If a Martian had plunked down in front of a television set this week, he might have decided that Michael Dukakis' choice of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) for a running mate was a media disaster.

After all, liberals, blacks and feminists were shown condemning the selection, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee got what NBC News described as a "frosty reception" at yesterday's NAACP convention, where Bentsen was actually booed. Meanwhile, runner-up Jesse Jackson, who presented an image of tightly controlled fury in a succession of television reports after receiving the bad news from the fourth estate, canceled his schedule yesterday, went home to Chicago and pointedly refused to bless the union.

But voters are not Martians, and most political observers pronounced the Bentsen announcement a public relations success.

"If you take a cynical view of it," said political analyst Robert Beckel, "Dukakis picked a good conservative, he moved to the middle and he stood up to Jesse Jackson. Out in TV land, I think what came across was a kind of continuing affirmation that Dukakis is a pragmatic, disciplined guy, a guy you can do business with." As former vice president Walter Mondale's campaign manager in 1984, Beckel saw firsthand how an initial blush of good cheer -- over the selection of Geraldine Ferraro -- can turn to media dust.

Democratic media consultant David Axelrod said the controversy surrounding Bentsen may actually redound to Dukakis' benefit.

"Coming at a time when the Republicans are trying to cut into him for being too liberal," he said, "the spectacle of Jesse Jackson being a little upset and the NOW people being a little upset may be precisely what Dukakis needs. The art of winning presidential elections is the art of moving to the center. You can't just do it by saying things. You sometimes do it by having people say things about you that are not necessarily positive."

Thus on Tuesday's installment of ABC News' "Nightline," Jackson supporter Maxine Waters charged that Dukakis had snubbed Jackson, the first black man to make a serious run at the White House. Dukakis, Waters said, "is not serious about involving Jesse Jackson and his supporters in a real way ... And Jesse Jackson and his supporters are not happy about it."

But on the same program, former Texas governor John Connally, a Democrat turned conservative Republican, called the choice "a stroke of genius" because it forces George Bush to fight for Texas in the fall. And on the evening news, while the Bush campaign feverishly pooh-poohed the choice -- "I can't remember any time when anybody's put so much on one thing [Texas] since Lady Godiva put everything she had on one horse," said Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater -- such GOP stalwarts as Sens. Robert Dole of Kansas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina appeared to be offering endorsements.

"A man of character and ability," Thurmond called his Senate colleague on the Cable News Network.

"My guess is that it's a good week for Mike Dukakis," said Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, noting that after several weeks of falling poll ratings in the wake of attacks from Bush, "he's finally back on the offense."

Hickman discounted the possible negative effect of Jackson's angry response. "People aren't surprised by it. They see that kind of thing in sports when somebody loses."

ABC's director of political coverage, Hal Bruno, predicted that the networks will soon be exploring Bentsen's connections to corporate political action committees and the oil industry, as well as his abortive plan last year to invite lobbyists to have breakfast with him for $ 10,000 apiece.

"Just wait," Bruno said.

But for now, the image projected on the network news was so appealing that Georgetown University political scientist Michael Robinson, who says he nurses "a particularly negative predisposition toward Bentsen," may be forced to change his mind. "I, who have been an anti-Bentsen type for at least a dozen years, went to bed last night with the thought that I'd better reconsider this."

© 1988 The Washington Post Company