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Jewish World Review April 11, 2004 / 21 Nissan, 5764

Roger Simon

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The Return of John Sasso | By quietly naming John Sasso to be general election chairman of the Democratic National Committee, John Kerry has served notice that he is no longer afraid of the Michael Dukakis curse.

Kerry does not exactly go out of his way to remind people he was Dukakis' lieutenant governor in Massachusetts. The official biography on Kerry's website says merely, "In 1984, after winning election as Lieutenant Governor in 1982, Kerry ran and was elected to serve in the United States Senate…."

You can't exactly blame Kerry for not mentioning Dukakis' name. The Dukakis 1988 presidential campaign is not considered one of the high points in Democratic history and few in the party today want to be cursed as a "Dukakis liberal."

But by naming Sasso to a very important job at the DNC, Kerry is signaling he really isn't worried about labels or curses. Because few people were as closely identified with Michael Dukakis as John Sasso.

Come with me down memory lane: In September, 1987, Dukakis was running for president and Sasso was not only his campaign manager but a person Dukakis considered "like a brother."

One of Dukakis' chief rivals and a man neck-and-neck with him in fundraising was Joe Biden, senator from Delaware.

Sasso found some dirt on Biden. At the Iowa State Fair, Biden used some of the same words in a speech that Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labor Party, had previously used. It was not exactly a felony and Biden previously had given Kinnock credit. This time Biden had merely forgotten the rule that if you steal from one person it's called plagiarism and if you steal from many it's called research.

But when Sasso got his hands on a videotape of the Kinnock speech and a videotape of the Biden speech, Sasso figured he had a way of damaging Biden.

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Sasso put the two tapes together on one tape and leaked the "attack video," as it came to be known, to the New York Times, NBC and the Des Moines Register. All three published the story. None revealed its source.

The story immediately snowballed. Other Biden character flaws were discovered (he had inflated his academic record and had insulted a voter in New Hampshire) and Biden withdrew from the race.

But one question still remained: Who had leaked the attack video?

At first, Biden thought it was the Paul Simon campaign and then suspicion turned to the Dick Gephardt campaign.

Eventually, attention turned to the Dukakis campaign.

Here, Sasso made his fatal error. He denied being behind the Biden attack. And Dukakis denied it, too.

Eventually, Sasso went to Dukakis and came clean. Dukakis held a news conference and apologized, saying he had no idea that Sasso had done it. He was reluctant to fire Sasso, the most important figure in his campaign. But this just kept the snowball rolling and Dukakis was forced to dump Sasso.

All of which led to one of the more esoteric jokes of the 1988 campaign: Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Gary Hart, Joe Biden and Mike Dukakis are all on a cruise ship when it hits an iceberg and begins to sink.

Carter says: "Women and children first!"

Nixon says: "Screw 'em!"

Hart says: "Do you think we have time?"

Biden says: "Do you think we have time?"

Dukakis says: "Did you hear what Joe Biden just said?"

Sasso's departure from the campaign was a major blow, even though he would rejoin it after Dukakis' nomination.

Some felt that without Sasso the campaign never went about the essential task of establishing a clear and appealing persona for Dukakis (who seemed to lack one of his own).

But what had Sasso really done that was so terrible when he leaked the attack video?

There was ample precedent for digging dirt on opponents. The Republicans had a "truth squad" following Harry Truman around the country in 1948, leaping on his every word and reporting on its findings to reporters. And in 1968, the Republican National Committee tape-recorded every Hubert Humphrey speech and provided reporters with lists of what it considered inconsistencies and errors.

Today, campaigns make e-mail accusations on a daily basis. Dirt is dug and served up to the press regularly.

But Sasso got bounced, not so much for what he did, but for not coming clean about it from the very beginning.

Soon afterwards, U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison, D-Conn., met with Dukakis. Dukakis was wooing congressmen, looking for their support.

"I asked Dukakis the question that nobody else had asked him," Morrison said. "I asked: 'What would you have done if Sasso had come to you with the Biden tape?'

And Dukakis said: 'I would have burned it.' "

"And right then," Morrison said, "I knew Mike Dukakis would never be president."

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