I can remember the election of ’88.
I was seven. I perched myself on the edge of my parent’s bed while my mom was ironing in the afternoons and watched Reagan’s heir-apparent, the baby-faced Bush Sr., talk about that vision thing. I was against his opponent, the squat and hairy New Englander, Michael Dukakis, from the start.
Take note: I wasn’t against Dukakis because he was Democrat. I favored the Democrats in fact, for as much as I knew about them. By the age of seven I had picked up enough bits of stray conversation from Thanksgiving dinners to equate Reagan and his Republicans with something bad. It was an impression that my family and their left leanings imprinted on my soul, as true as the fact that if I touched the hot stove I would burn my hand. After eight long years they were ready for a change.
But Dukakis wasn’t their man. He didn’t have the aura of hope, the atmosphere that could excite the genuine belief that better times were ahead. My parents and their brothers and sisters had grown up cheering for Kennedy, and then the second Kennedy after the first one had been shot, and then McGovern after that one was shot. Their hope was bound up in a stubbornly enduring exuberance—it survived Vietnam and Watergate—it could outlast Reagan. But, for some reason, that hope wasn’t attached to Dukakis. In the revered sound byte, Lloyd Bentson, Dukakis’s running mate, told Dan Quayle in the vice-presidential debate that he was no Jack Kennedy, but Dukakis was no Jack Kennedy either. Nobody’s face split into a youthful grin at the mention of his name—no eyes twinkled in anticipation of the future when he came on the TV screen.
I was watching old reruns of Saturday Night Live recently and I came across an episode that aired around the time of Dukakis’s defeat. Jon Lovitz played Dukakis, dense black wig on his head, and thick, dark rectangles pasted above each of his eyes. Dukakis was Greek born, but more than that, he was a hairy man.
That was when I knew Dukakis would lose—when I saw him standing side by side with Bush during their first debate. Bush was taller, relatively smooth-faced even among the blossoming lines and wrinkles. His hair was light, not sparse but not overly thick either. Dukakis’s face was dominated by two thick, gruff eyebrows that rested over each eye like wary sentinels. His eyes could never escape the shadow of those two massive clumps.
You can’t trust a man like that. Even his own people in New England didn’t trust him—they voted him out of the Massachusetts governor’s mansion in 1978 before reluctantly letting him back in ’82. Bush, him my family hated—he was an extension of Reagan, albeit somewhat less bad. But Dukakis they did not trust, and any man that radiates distrust from his eyebrows will never be president of these United States.
I started sprouting my own set thick eyebrows somewhere around age twelve—a full five years after Dukakis’s overwhelming defeat. My source of income at the time was soda cans. New York State offered five cents for each can, so I hoarded them whenever I could. The people in my neighborhood still liked each other well enough to throw street parties every now and then, and I was always there, looting their cans with the stealth and swiftness of a plump and pimpled summer breeze. A lengthy Saturday street party could yield more than two hundred cans—ten dollars, a massive fortune to a twelve year old. I redeemed cans at the corner store; I knew the clerk there—not his name, but I knew him and he knew me. He knew that I was the sweaty kid who always brought him cans by the dozen, and he would smile as I counted the cans off to him.
Except one day he didn’t know me. While browsing his candy selection he demanded to search my jacket. As he found my pockets empty he treated me with an unapologetic grimace. He had seen something criminal on my face, read something in my eyes—or maybe he could no longer read my eyes at all, hidden under two massive lumps of thick hair. My eyebrows justified his suspicion—morphed my hairy innocence into a source of distrust.
I still brought him cans, but he no longer smiled as I counted them.
After sixth grade, two things happened at once, and they happened fast. I got bigger, and I got hairier. This is the normal way of things, I’ve learned, but in my case I overshot the normal boundaries on both counts. When it was finished I was a different person—the kind that warranted suspicion.
And when there wasn’t suspicion, there was contempt. Americans are shrewd. They can pick out a dorky loser by the way he looks almost instantly, be that person Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, or me. My growth spurt and case of unchecked hairiness closed the door on any political aspirations I may have had, locked it, and then sealed it with bricks and concrete. So much of perceived personality and character is based on looks—you’ve either got it or you don’t.
And I didn’t have it.
Americans, perhaps more than any other people, like their presidents to have a certain look. A modern-day television-friendly president cannot be overly short, or fat. Or bald. Or in Dukakis’s case, hairy. Reagan had the look. Even Bush Sr. fit in well with the camera. John Quincy Adams, however, would have a hard time convincing Americans he would make a decent game-show host, much less president. The expectation of a certain appearance has been burned into the psyche of America, and Dukakis, his own politics and flaws notwithstanding, faced an impossible uphill battle against it.
During the ’88 campaign the Bush people ran an ad showing Dukakis driving a tank while a grim-voiced announcer gave Dukakis’s positions on military spending and missile defense: cut one and cancel the other. I knew that the commercial spelled the end for Dukakis. Here was a guy who looked so shady that most people wouldn’t trust him to sit and watch their laundry for them, and now the nation was falling asleep to nightmares of a gnomish man with thick eyebrows driving a tank around in their backyards. He was finished.
Some people think they know why Michael Dukakis lost to George Bush. They recall a young Senator from Tennessee, the ambitious Al Gore, and his harping on the Massachusetts Prison Furlough program that allowed convicted murderer Willie Horton out of prison on forty-eight hour leave. They remember how Willie Horton fled the state and assaulted a couple in Maryland. And, just as Al Gore did, they blamed Michael Dukakis and his long documented support of the Prison Furlough Program. Al Gore’s attacks weren’t enough for him to win the Democratic nomination, but they were enough to poison Michael Dukakis’s attempt to unseat eight years of Republican control in the White House.
Others think it was the infamous “raped and murdered” question that happened in the second presidential debate with George Bush. A longtime opponent of the death penalty, Dukakis was asked if he would be in favor of the execution of a man that had hypothetically raped and killed his wife. He gave a bland, unemotional negative. Dukakis’s eyes didn’t widen, his face didn’t register shock—he answered the question like he had answered a thousand other death penalty questions. He lost the election on that question.
That’s what most people think. I know the real reason.
It was his eyebrows. Those thick, hairy eyebrows.
You just can’t trust a man with those eyebrows—trust me, I know.
Nick Hoffman is a senior from Toledo, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and Creative Writing.