Death and Penalties

One of the most famous communication blunders in political history occurred during the 1988 presidential debates, when Michael Dukakis, running against George H. W. Bush (and enjoying a sizeable lead in the polls) received this question from the moderator:

“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

His answer – distant, a little cold – probably tanked his entire campaign. But to be fair to Mr. Dukakis, that’s a tough question. It asks someone who has to think in terms of state and national policy to respond to a profoundly emotional issue. Was there an answer that wouldn’t have either painted Dukakis as a policy robot, or as a hypocrite?

I think there is. It would have required careful preparation, because the answer’s a little delicate. Perhaps that’s where Dukakis feel though. But here’s what I would have said, in his place.

“Mr. Shaw, if my wife were raped and murdered, I would want revenge. I would hate the man who violated her with an intensity that you could not imagine. Every fiber of my being would call out to me to take from him in equal measure what he took from my wife.

“But I am a man, not the state. The state is not in the business of expediting the desire for revenge that its citizens may have. And if you are asking me if I think that I would use the apparatus of the state to seek personal revenge, then I must decline. When a man, in anger or passion, takes the reins of the nation and bends it toward his own preferences and ends, then we have begun down an irreversible path toward tyranny. If I assumed the power of the American people to seek vengeance, then I would have misused that great force and dishonored its source.

“The nation must punish criminals, and must keep its law-abiding citizens safe from harm. It does so through the prison system and the system of laws developed by our predecessors. Death is no deterrent, and merely forces upon the state the role of executioner, vengeful killer, even murderer. I would be furious, Mr. Shaw, if my wife were so violated. But to use the state to seek my revenge would be to throw evil after evil, and that I could not do.”

Imagine if Dukakis had given this response. Bush’s simple response would have sounded tinny by comparison, and his “kill ‘em, Shaw” attitude would have seemed cavalier and ill-thought. I’m not saying a Dukakis presidency would have necessarily been better than Bush I’s. Perhaps, though, things would have been different, if Dukakis had imagined something just a little greater.



  1. I think it’s a wise thing to distinguish between personal desires and the functions of state. And wise might have been a little beyond the Dukakis campaign.

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