In the presidential politics of 1988, no campaign manager was more indispensable to any candidate than was John Sasso to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Dukakis' loss of Sasso is immediately serious and could eventually prove fatal. Sasso was the politician whom both politicians and the press liked and trusted. He was that rare manager to whom such callers would rather talk than to the candidate, which is both a tribute to Sasso and a recognition that Dukakis can frequently display the light touch of Cotton Mather.
In this era of self-starting presidential candidates, John Sasso actually persuaded Michael Dukakis to enter the race. The governor and self-doubt are strangers. But, in part because he had experience in the 1980 and 1984 national campaigns, Sasso was able to give Dukakis the confidence that if he ran, the money and the people would be there, that his would be a serious candidacy and that Dukakis would have the only battle-tested staff in the field.
Better than probably anybody else, Sasso understood the People's Republic of Massachusetts problem that Dukakis faces. Because he comes from the only state George McGovern carried, the one Ted Kennedy owns, and which has elected two openly gay House members, Dukakis must first establish that he is not a left-leaning, big-spending, limousine liberal. Dukakis happens to be none of the above. But Sasso understood that in politics, public perceptions can be more persuasive than private reality.
And it was probably because Sasso also knew that alone of the 1988 candidates, Joe Biden had the potential to excite the passions of Democrats -- something the admired Michael Dukakis has never been able to do -- that the risk was taken to distribute the tape.
Now the question is whether Sasso's resignation will turn out to have been the first scene of the Long Goodbye for Dukakis.
The chief concern of Dukakis supporters, other than the rumors of other disclosures, is that Dukakis will return to his pre-Sasso fault of running his own campaign. There is no more demanding job in American politics than being a presidential candidate. But not too far behind it is that of presidential campaign manager. Nobody, not Thomas Jefferson nor Eleanor Roosevelt, was capable of doing both jobs. If Michael Dukakis tries to, then the Long Goodbye has indeed begun, but we'll have to wait and see.
On another matter, though, I have no hesitation in passing judgment right now, and that is in saying that the Dukakis affair has produced a bonanza of silly public statements.
The first was by Iowa Democratic vice chairman John Roehrick. Responding to the news that Sasso had provided reporters with taped evidence that Sen. Joe Biden suffered from periodic attacks of rhetorical kleptomania, Roehrick huffed, "We don't play that kind of politics out here." Let the record show that Roger Jepsen, the last Republican Iowa senator to lose his job, did so after a campaign in which it was disclosed that Jepsen had invoked constitutional immunity to avoid paying a Washington traffic ticket and had once, in spite of his "pro-family" platform, tried to join a Des Moines spa that was later closed for prostitution. So much for Hawkeye posturing.
The second was by Dukakis himself. At a Wednesday press conference, he declared that he was "running for the presidency and not against anybody," a statement that is simultaneously fatuous and self-serving. American campaigns, including at least three of Dukakis' own, are mostly won by candidates who prove to the voters that their opponents are not as good as they are. Any politician as successful as Michael Dukakis knows that Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's landslides were not affirmative testimonials to them but rejections of their unacceptable challengers.
The third was by The Washington Post, whose stories on the Dukakis matter referred to a faithfully reproduced tape of the Biden and Neil Kinnock speeches as an "attack video." Where is the attack? Where is the calumny, the defamation or the slander? Tell me: if Xeroxed, published transcripts of the Kinnock-Biden speeches had been provided to reporters, would the phrase now be "attack clips"?