top of page


By Andrea Stone

Never before had the personal become so political than during the 1988 presidential campaign. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis became the Democratic nominee after the presumed frontrunner, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, dropped out amid media reports of an extramarital affair.[1] Until then, politicians’ sex lives were considered off-limits by the mostly male press corps, which had refused to report the personal indiscretions of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. 

All that changed with the Hart scandal. Change became even clearer in the second debate between Dukakis and Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush in Los Angeles on October 13. After an unremarkable first debate, CNN’s Bernard Shaw opened the second faceoff with a shocking question for Dukakis about his wife: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"[2]

Dukakis hardly blinked in his reply: “No, I don’t Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

It was a cold and technocratic answer that reflected his principles but gave no hint of the person at the podium. While some criticized what they thought was a low blow by Shaw, viewers were jolted by the lack of emotion in Dukakis’ response.

His uninspiring words reinforced an image problem indelibly etched in voters' minds a month earlier when Dukakis sought to prove his commander-in-chief bona fides by riding in an Army tank. Photos of the diminutive governor in an oversized helmet sparked comparisons to Snoopy. Soon after the debate, Bush used the tank footage in a television ad[3] trashing his opponent’s record on defense.

Dukakis’ running mate, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, did better in his debate with Dan Quayle, the young senator from Indiana. When the Republican defended his qualifications to be vice president by noting that he had served in Congress for as long as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president, the gray-haired Bentsen famously responded, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."[4]

The riposte was devastating but Bush and Quayle went on to easily win the election.

Bush/Dukakis 1988

Second Full Debate October 13 in Los Angeles:

Dukakis Death Penalty Question: 2:02





bottom of page