Friday Classic Clip: If Your Wife Were Raped And Murdered

In the summer of 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was a sure bet to become the next President of the United States.

Days after the successful Democratic National Convention that July, Dukakis led his Republican opponent, George H.W. Bush, by a whopping 17 points with just over three months to Election Day.

But in those three months, his candidacy came under siege—from his opponents, who launched the infamous “Willie Horton” ad against him—and from within, when Dukakis tried to show his military toughness by wearing a military helmet that turned him into a late night punch line.

Michael Dukakis Tank

By the time the candidates met for the second debate on October 13, 1988, Vice President Bush had opened up a six-point lead over the Massachusetts governor. Dukakis needed to seize the opportunity to help turn his candidacy around.

CNN anchor Bernard Shaw opened up the debate with an inflammatory question that many pundits thought was unfair:


“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis proceeded to deliver a wonky and emotionless answer, one that led people to conclude that he lacked the requisite fire for the presidency and, in the words of ABC’s Ted Koppel, didn’t “get it.”

Dukakis forgot that inflammatory questions about a loved one require an emotional—or at least a more human—response. He could have handled the question in one of two ways:

Approach One: “Bernard, if that happened to my wife, I would want to pull the switch on the man who did that to her myself.  But public policy shouldn’t be set from a standpoint of revenge, and here’s why…”

Approach Two: “Bernard, to invoke my wife’s safety during a presidential debate is beneath a journalist of your standing. You should know better. I’ll answer your question in general—but don’t even think about bringing my wife into this debate again. And I’d like to suggest that you don’t think about making Barbara Bush an issue in this debate either.”

According to Wikipedia, “Before the second debate, Dukakis had been suffering from the flu and spent much of the day in bed.” Perhaps his poor debate performance—like Richard Nixon’s before him—was simply an unfortunate consequence of feeling ill.

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