Reagan on Dukakis: "I'm Not Going to Pick on an Invalid"

How a president used psychological stigma for political advantage.

Posted Sep 20, 2020

Sometimes the presidency is a bully pulpit. Sometimes it is a platform for innuendo. 

In August of 1988, President Ronald Reagan was speaking at a press conference at the White House. Reagan, then in his second term, was there to announce a veto of a defense bill. But at the time, George W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis were vying to succeed Reagan—and their contest unexpectedly took over the occasion.

The conservative Washington Times had just published a report that Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, had once received treatment for depression

A reporter asked Reagan whether Dukakis should release his medical records in light of the report. The president, known for his easy, sometimes glib handling of contentious issues, smiled.

"Look," he replied, "I’m not going to pick on an invalid.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, the comment caused an immediate “uproar.” Even Reagan’s aides were disconcerted. The president later claimed his comment had been a joke. “I was just trying to be funny,” he said, but “I don’t think I should have said what I said.” The comment dominated headlines for days afterward.

Dukakis had, in fact, never seen a psychiatrist. Years later, he discussed the incident with me and my colleagues in an interview.

As he told us in the 2014 interview, Dukakis thought the comment was irrelevant and simply “off the wall.” As for the rumor about mental health treatment, he told us “there was nothing to it.” The Reagan incident, he said, did not upset him personally. And indeed, in public Dukakis was forgiving and said no apology from Reagan was needed: “We all occasionally misspeak.”

It was a move that anticipated Michelle Obama's later slogan "When they go low, we go high." Despite the provocation, Dukakis did not hit back.

But politically, Dukakis was forced to go on the defensive. The comment, he told us, “definitely had an effect on the campaign.” The candidate's personal physician had to refute the claim and to document that Dukakis was healthy. Leading in the polls before the comment, Dukakis lost ground afterward.

“I think it was somebody’s idea of trying to slow us down and toss a little sand in the gears,” Dukakis said of the White House incident, “and in point of fact it worked.”

Vice President Bush's negative campaign was orchestrated by Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater. Among other things, Bush and Atwater played up white fears about African-American men with racially charged attack ads suggesting that the Democrat was soft on crime.

Bush beat Dukakis decisively in November.

By the standards of the time, the White House incident signified a new low. The flippant use of mental health stigma in politics was particularly shocking because it came from a sitting president.

In 2017 the American Psychiatric Association adopted a position statement against the use of stigma in politics.

“We consider it particularly unreasonable,” said the APA, “to hold a history of consultation or treatment against anyone.” Such a history “does not disqualify qualified people from any political office.” In words relevant to the 1988 campaign and to today’s politics, the APA decried any “political tactics that discredit candidates by exploiting misguided prejudices about psychiatric illness and emotional distress.”

Years earlier Dukakis’s brother Stelian had experienced a major mental illness and had made at least one suicide attempt. “What happened to Stelian wounded Michael so deeply,” wrote his wife Kitty much later, “that it was a long time before he could talk about it.”

After the 1988 campaign, Kitty Dukakis disclosed her own history of mental health struggles. Her book Shock is a pathbreaking discussion of the reality of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and her positive experiences with it.

Since the Reagan-Dukakis episode, many political candidates have decided to disclose their history of treatment for depression—and have gone on to do well in elections anyway. Former Senator Lawton Chiles, who had been treated with Prozac for depression and then was elected governor of Florida, is one example.

A history of mental health treatment, as Dukakis told us, is far less damaging for political candidates today than it was in 1988. He advises young candidates to be open about their mental health treatment and thus take the issue off the table.

The stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is said to have remarked: “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” Years later, while seriously ill at the end of his life, Lee Atwater apologized to Dukakis. He regretted, he said, the “naked cruelty” of the campaign he ran in 1988.

Next time: In search of Bill Clinton’s psychology.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2017). Position Statement on Use of Stigma as a Political Tactic. Accessed on March 23, 2020 at www.psychiatry.org/File Library.

Blakemore, Erin (2018). How the Willie Horton Ad Played on Racism and Fear. History.com. Posted on November 2, 2018. Accessed on September 19, 2020 at https://www.history.com/news/george-bush-willie-horton-racist-ad.

Dukakis, Kitty, and Larry Tye (2006). Shocked: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy. New York: Avery.

Martin-Joy, John, Sagar Vijapura, and Jonathan E. Carey (2014). Interview with Michael Dukakis. A transcript is available at the Hans Sachs Library and Archives, Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Newton, MA. Dr. Vijapura and I presented videotaped excerpts from the interview at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association; the exceprts ere available at http://www.scattergoodethics.org/revisiting-the-goldwater-rule.

Reagan on Dukakis: “I Won’t Pick on an Invalid”: “Just Trying to Be Funny,” President Later Says of His Answer to Question on Medical Records.” Los Angeles Times. August 3, 1988. Accessed on August 7, 2019 at https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-08-03-mn-6862-story.html.

Rosenthal, Andrew (1988). Dukakis Releases Medical Details to Stop Rumors on Mental Health. New York Times. August 4, 1988. Accessed on March 24, 2020 at https://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/04/us/dukakis-releases-medical-details-to-stop-rumors-on-mental-health.html