In 1988 Presidential Election, the Democratic party nominee was Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who charmed his party with the “Massachusetts Miracle”, the transformation of his state into an economic engine. However, this magic didn’t work with the general public, which saw him as ignorant and weak on military matters. He was running against Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Dukakis proposed cutting the budget for the controversial “Star Wars” SDI program, but to counter this perceived softness on national security, he decided to pose for a photo-op that scuttled his entire campaign. In 1986, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, had been photographed in a Challenger tank while wearing a scarf–an image that presumably reelected her. So outside a General Dynamics plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan he rode in an M1 Abrams tank in front of reporters.
The move ended up being a massive public relations blunder, with many mocking Dukakis’s dopey appearance as he stuck his smiling, helmeted head out one of the tank’s hatches to wave to the crowd. Compared with the dashing WWII pilot Bush, the little Dukakis came off a clown. Although he served in the United States Army, Dukakis was widely mocked for what was perceived as martial posturing. Footage was even used in the Bush campaign ad as evidence that Dukakis would not make a good commander-in-chief, and “Dukakis in the tank”–or the “Snoopy Incident” (because of a Snoopy style helmet)–remains shorthand for backfired public relations outings.
Then came the story of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts prisoner who killed a woman while on furlough. On the election day, Dukakis lost the election, carrying only 10 states and the District of Columbia.