When politicians are campaigning they often try to make use of photo opportunities to boost their popularity. A striking image appearing again and again in the press can help make or break a campaign. For Michael Dukakis in the 1988 US Presidential election it was the latter.
Up until this point Michael Dukakis had faced problems on a range of fronts, including his record as Governor of Massachusetts, his perceived lack of warmth and his opponent George Bush questioning his patriotism. In particular it was felt by many that Dukakis was weak on the issue of defence. Ronald Reagan had won in 1980 and 1984, in part by being extremely aggressive towards the Soviet Union. Michael Dukakis had stated that he planned to cut spending for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile shield, helping to create the impression that he wouldn’t be an effective Commander-in-Chief.
In order to try to rectify this Dukakis and his campaign managers came up with the idea of staging a photo-op of Dukakis riding in a tank. A similar image had worked for Margaret Thatcher earlier in the decade, cementing her reputation as the Iron Lady. Sadly in this case it didn’t work. The general consensus amongst the press and public was that it just made Dukakis look stupid and the image was endlessly parodied by comedians and the media.
The irony was of course that while Dukakis planned to cut experimental programmes like SDI he actually favoured increasing levels of conventional weapons like tanks. The photo had actually been taken at a tank factory to try to help make this point. Unfortunately the photos didn’t work and to this day the phrase “Dukakis in a tank” is used to describe a public relations campaign that ends in disaster. Dukakis lost the 1988 election by a landslide partly thanks to the tank image, but questioned years later remained philosophical about it:
“Now, should I have been in the tank? Probably not, in retrospect. But these days when people ask me, “Did you get here in a tank?” I always respond by saying, ‘No, and I’ve never thrown up all over the Japanese prime minister.’ But, you know, things happen”