Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Voice of Experience

Lloyd Bentsen died today. He was 85. In 1988, Bentsen was the Democratic nominee for vice president alongside Michael Dukakis; and during an October debate against rival Dan Quayle, Bentsen delivered the most famous retort in American political history. Upon hearing Quayle compare himself to JFK, Bentsen answered coldly: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Today, WBZ telephoned Dukakis to comment on Bentsen's passing. Dukakis complimented Bentsen as a candidate and took responsibility for the loss, saying that if he had run a stronger campaign, Bentsen might have made the difference that won the election. Then Dukakis said something very interesting. He said that if he had spent more time planning, instead of blindly charging forward to campaign from state to state, they might have won.

You don't often hear unsuccessful candidates waxing about what went wrong, and certainly not when those campaigns were spectacular disasters that are remembered years later as textbook failures. It's almost like a magician giving away his secrets. So although careful planning might not sound like groundbreaking advice, you have to consider the context and give pause.

"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow." That admonition is attributed to General Patton, and it's damn good advice that I often seen practiced in politics. (No surprise, since politicians love to study war strategy.) The flip side is that politicians tend to rush headlong into action — which is why you see so many stupid, stupid mistakes in professional politics. You might be tempted to dismiss Dukakis' hindsight, to say he was never much of a candidate regardless of what strategy he employed...but his analysis rings true.

The mystery of politics is why every blue collar on a barstool knows exactly what the national candidate is doing wrong, while the candidate himself is surrounded by $350,000 paid consultants who tell him to keep on charging ahead. The answer is that those consultants and their candidate have spent the last ten weeks on the road, hopping from hotel to hotel to airplane; and after 70 days sprinting through the trees, it becomes difficult to see the forest.

Dukakis hit the nail on the head — and it might seem obvious, it might seem trivial, but it's absolutely the take-home lesson for every professional politician working a wide stage. Yes, it's important to seize every day; and yes, mistakes are better than inaction. But you need to retain perspective. You need to see the whole board.


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