Mr. President, Please: Learn From Dukakis' Worst Political Blunder

10/01/2010 12:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I remember the event, a presidential debate, like it was yesterday. The date, October 13, 1988. Susan Estrich, Michael Dukasis' campaign manager, knew that Dukasis was vulnerable due to his opposition to the death penalty. This vulnerability was intensified because while governor he supported a controversial prison furlough program. During his second term William "Willie" Norton, a convicted first degree murderer, committed a rape and assault in Maryland.

Estrich made sure that Dukakis was carefully prepped to show his empathy for crime victims, noting that his brother had been killed by a hit and run driver and his dad had been beaten in a robbery.

But Dukakis was broadsided when CNN moderator Bernard Shaw approached this vulnerability in an unexpected way. "Governor," Shaw asked, "if Kitty Dukakis (the governor's wife) were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

There have been many words (some kinder than others) to describe Dukakis' response: "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life." Perhaps there is validity in the criticism many directed toward Shaw, accusing him of injecting an unfair scenario into a policy discussion. Regardless, all I know is that when I heard Dukasis' words, my brain red flagged, and my heart sank. For the candidate, in his response, came across as robotic, uncaring, and devoid of emotion. That night Dukakis' poll numbers dropped from 49% to 42%.

On that fateful evening the candidate spoke only with his brain, and he completely disregarded his heart. This catastrophe would have been avoided had he said something like: "Barnard, I would want to murder, to torture, to rip from limb to limb anyone who even dared to hurt my wife or child. But, you see, with all of my heart, I want laws to protect me from the worst of me."

Fast forward to today, 22 years later, a time when we have candidates winning primaries by effectively capitalizing on frustration and fear. And these folks are good at what they do because they come across as if they care. In politics, however, true caring, so necessary in building consensus and healing divisions, involves the ability to know how to think clearly, and use this to speak from the heart. The policies of those capitalizing on legitimate terrors would take us back to a repeat of the malignancies and turmoil that Barack Obama inherited. At best, this is a totally misguided group.

As I write this, I look at a letter hanging on my office wall from President Obama, thanking my husband and me for working so hard for him. At differing times during his campaign for the presidency 8 to 12 young volunteers lived in our home as they worked tirelessly for him. My husband and I raised money, canvassed, took time off from work to do everything we could for a candidate we believed in deeply. And continue to.

But during the September 20th town meeting, the presidential response to thoughts expressed sincerely and respectfully by an exemplary, accomplished citizen (and felt by so very many others she undoubtedly spoke for) brought me stomach wrenching Dukakis deja vu. Her words: "Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending the administration, defending the man for change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class... I'm waiting sir. I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet... My husband and I joked that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives... Is this our new reality?"

The president responded as Dukakis had, from his extraordinary intellect and committed values. His thoughtful response described help for college students, help with credit card and mortgage violations, the fact that insurance companies can no longer refuse children who have pre-existing medical conditions, or drop citizens who become ill, all hard fought, extraordinary successes. And there have been so many more.

But, like Dukakis, passion was missing in the president, and this omission keeps all from seeing, feeling. knowing, valuing all this extraordinary man has accomplished and all he stands for. It keeps us from being calmed and knowing that, regardless of these tough times, and the lies and distortions spread, he is a leader worthy of being followed.

I am not a political advisor or a speech writer. But I know that all will be different if the president can take a lesson from Dukakis' fall. On September 20th his questioner touched a national nerve. For we are all understandably exhausted, and we need our president to talk to us and tell it like he knows it, from his heart. Something like, "I hear you. And here is the absolute truth. I was elected to lead a country in vast dangers on so many fronts. Think of it this way. I became president of a country that had developed a multitude of cancers, of the most complex types and varieties. To be cured, we needed not only surgery, but chemo and radiation as well. Those of us who have ever known illness up close understand that the cure can feel worse than the disease. But the cure, that we are still going through, is necessary. We cannot be seduced or frightened back to what caused this illness in the first place. So let's hold hands and get through it. Together we will make it to the other side, stronger than ever. I know it. I promise it. Now, I am going to tell you what we have accomplished so far to improve your lives, for we are healing... and what we are going to do..."