Dukakis And The Tank: The Inside Story

Dukakis Tank

Josh King has a lengthy piece in the new Politico Magazine about the inside story behind what is undoubtedly one of the worst Presidential campaign photo ops of all time. It’s far too long to excerpt here, so I’ll just include the video that goes along with the piece:

In the end, I think Mike Dukakis would’ve lost in 1988 even without this photo op disaster, but it certainly didn’t help.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    That picture tells you just how lost the Democratic Party was at that time. From 1972 until 1988 Democrats offered up McGovern, Carter, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis. The whole party was in the tank for 16 years.

    Recently, Republicans have offered up GW Bush, GW Bush, McCain and Romney. Inexplicably, the public liked the mental image of GW Bush in the tank.

  2. Mikey says:

    I remember this so well–I was in the military, and very familiar with the M1A1 and the helmet in question (not the specific one he wore, but CVC helmets in general). And wow, does he look stupid. First of all, the humongous nametag across the front…I think he’d have had far less damage if that hadn’t been there. It looks unbelievably stupid. And he’s wearing the helmet wrong, the chin strap is all wrong, it looks terrible.

    Page 3 of the Politico piece has a picture of Dukakis, sans helmet but still in the tank, getting something explained by the General Dynamics guy. That picture doesn’t elicit a reaction anything like the picture with the helmet. I don’t want to roll my eyes and bust out laughing when I see the no-helmet picture.

  3. Pinky says:

    This photo is one of the reasons I’m mainly interested in policy stuff rather than politics. For the life of me, I don’t know what’s wrong with it. That ability to sense what the public reaction is going to be, the instinct for which moments are going to stick, is completely lost on me. If you could package it and sell it, it’d be the most valuable commodity for a campaign. And everyone claims to recognize those moments when they happen. I don’t. Lewinsky seemed like just another sex scandal to me. The “Mission Accomplished” banner was accurate, because the particular military mission had been accomplished. It’s just something I don’t get.

  4. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I remember this, and remember thinking it shouldn’t have been so bad. Yes, the helmet looked silly, but it was standard issue. And Dukakis’ height? Most tankers tend to be short so they can fit in the things. The same with Kerry and the NASA “bunny suit” — in both cases, the circumstances dictate the wardrobe, and it’s a sign of respect by the candidate to put on the outfits.

    There were plenty of reasons to laugh at Dukakis and Kerry, but those shouldn’t have been among them.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    I suppose the unforgettable fuzzy security cam shot of Willie Horton walking through the turnstile ranks highly in Politico’s top 10 best photo ops.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    Saw a video (what we used to call a ‘film clip’) of JFK in Fort Worth the day before his murder. Someone presented him with a really nice stetson hat. He didn’t put it on. Not too long ago, President Obama was also presented a first-rate western hat. He didn’t put it on.

    Governor Dukakis should have had the same lesson drilled into him pretty early in his political life: Don’t put on the hat.

    But I agree, that election was the Repub’s to lose and they weren’t yet crazy enough to give up elections they ought to win.

  7. Barfour says:

    Talking about losing elections you are supposed to win, I use to hear about democrats being famous for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but when did this happen, apart from 2000, when Gore lost.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: There’s plenty of reasons to laugh at you Jenos but the ponytail isn’t one of them…

  9. Pinky says:

    @Barfour: I think it’s one of those POV things. Each side thinks it’s obvious that their guy should win; after all, he’s smarter and a better person and understands things. The other guy is a dope. But 50% of the time, the other guy wins. Must be our guy snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    There were plenty of reasons to laugh at Dukakis and Kerry, but those shouldn’t have been among them.

    Sure they were. In fact, I have yet to find a politician I can’t laugh at. Reagan was hilarious, and Clinton?? “I never inhaled.” Clinton? The only thing funnier than that was that people accepted it. They didn’t believe it, but so what?

    Anyway, just ’cause I’m laughing at them doesn’t mean I can’t vote for them.

  11. Anderson says:

    The only GOP contender I can think of is G.H.W. Bush looking at the supermarket scanner.

    (Which IIRC was kind of a raw deal, because it really was more than just your usual laser scanner. But photos like that take on life because, like the Dukakis one, they reinforce what people already want to believe.)

  12. Anderson says:

    Saw a video (what we used to call a ‘film clip’) of JFK in Fort Worth the day before his murder. Someone presented him with a really nice stetson hat. He didn’t put it on.

    Too bad. Shoulda worn it the next day. Might’ve thrown off Oswald’s aim.

  13. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Have the alien pod creatures taken over our Jenos? Can we keep this one?

  14. angelfoot says:

    To this day I don’t understand how Howard Dean’s “yaarrgghh” moment disqualified him from serious consideration. Or how Sarah Palin “knocked it out of the park” at the convention in St. Paul…talk about cringe worthy… McCain gave a much better speech.

  15. Pinky says:

    @angelfoot: Dean had fallen badly in the polls over the previous month. He was seen as the ideologically pure guy they wished they could vote for, and Kerry was the moderate they had to vote for in order to win the general election. Dean came in second in Iowa after having lead for a long time. The Scream wasn’t a turning point (although it may have crystalized the image of Dean as a loose cannon). It just came a week after his political high-water mark.

    And remember that there are two distinct things that can happen at the “definitive photo-op moment”. The press can decide that something is a turning point or tells the story perfectly, and the voters (or a sizable number of them) can latch onto it. The press and the voters don’t go hand-in-hand. One follows the other quickly, out of fear of looking out-of-touch if they don’t, but it could be either one in the front. What happened with Dean was that the voters made up their minds against him, and then the press caught a funny clip that captured the narrative.