Measuring The 1988 Candidates By A Jfk Yardstick

Posted: October 09, 1988

WASHINGTON — Both Dan Quayle and Michael S. Dukakis have likened themselves repeatedly this year to John F. Kennedy, the martyred leader who inspired their generation of Americans.

On the surface, there are similarities between Kennedy and the other two.

But the underlying differences are much more substantial. Lloyd Bentsen's

put-down of Quayle in their debate Wednesday night - "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" - could also apply to Dukakis.

Quayle and Dukakis both are picking out elements of the Kennedy experiences that best fit their own situations.

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's chief speech writer who is now trying to add sparkle to Dukakis' rhetoric, summed up the resemblances between the two candidates he has worked for:

"A Democratic nominee from Massachusetts with a Texas senator as his running mate is campaigning against an incumbent Republican vice president after eight years under a popular, elderly president," he said. "The Republican is accusing the Democrat of raising doom and gloom and running down the country. The Democrat is responding that this is a great country but we can do better."

Sorensen conceded that Kennedy, like Dukakis, provided few hard specifics during his campaign about what he would do as president. "Kennedy had only two substantive proposals - the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps," he said. "The rest was thematic."

The comparisons between Quayle and Kennedy are also interesting. Both were sons of rich, right-wing fathers who played major roles in the sons' success. Like Quayle, Kennedy was considered a lightweight playboy by many of his contemporaries before his election. Both deliberately sought to appeal to a new generation of young voters.

And Quayle was on solid ground Wednesday night when he likened his almost 12 years in Congress to Kennedy's experience when he ran for president - 14 years in the House and Senate.

"Their records are comparable," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has written several books on Congress. "I don't think even Kennedy's most extravagant supporters think he cut a wide swath in the Senate."

Quayle's congressional record is not brilliant, either. "This is not a guy you would consider a master legislator by any means," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, who ranks Quayle at about the middle of his Senate colleagues.

Quayle boasts of his authorship of one significant piece of legislation, the 1983 Job Partnership and Training Act. The closest Kennedy came to legislative achievement was a labor reform bill he co-authored in 1959 but failed to get out of Congress.

An expert on the presidency, Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, said, "I don't know of any legislation that bears John Kennedy's name. . . .

He had a reputation as a playboy in the House. In the Senate, he was a backbencher who spent most of his time running for president."

Still, substantial differences divide Kennedy from both Quayle and Dukakis.

According to Baker, the Quayle comparison fails because Kennedy had more natural gifts and had accomplished more outside the Congress.

"You have to distinguish between experience and aptitude," Baker said. ''In Kennedy's case, the raw material was better."

Baker and others point out that Kennedy had a high intellect, was fast on his feet and would never have had to memorize answers as Quayle did for his debate with Bentsen. "Kennedy was capable of great impromptu wit - you can't be programmed for that," Baker said.

Before he ran for the presidency, Kennedy had written two books - Why England Slept, based on his college thesis, and Profiles in Courage, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

He was an authentic war hero, decorated for rescuing his comrades when his Navy patrol boat, PT-109, was sunk by Japanese in the Pacific. His television commercials showed pictures of patrol boats; Quayle's military service - in the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War - has been a subject of controversy.

Quayle's relative obscurity also contrasts with Kennedy's broader public exposure. Bush plucked the junior senator from Indiana from relative obscurity less than eight weeks ago; Kennedy had been aiming at the White House for almost eight years before his nomination, and he nearly won the vice presidential nomination in 1956.

Kennedy surrounded himself with high-quality talent in his Senate and campaign staffs, and was clearly their master. Quayle, on the other hand, has an undistinguished staff in the Senate, according to Baker. On the campaign trail, his every move is controlled by experienced "handlers" assigned by the Bush campaign.

Dukakis, too, is a far different candidate from the one Kennedy was.

The cool, reserved governor lacks the enormous personal magnetism that Kennedy used to charm politicians and reporters alike and that created rock- star-like excitement in his fans.

Dukakis has based his campaign largely on his claim to be a competent manager - something Kennedy never pretended to be. "He wasn't interested in administration," Sorensen said. "As a senator, his job was policy, not administration."

Kennedy called for sacrifice and appealed to Americans' idealism. Dukakis is careful not to talk about anything painful.

As Bush and Quayle like to point out, Kennedy advocated a more muscular foreign and defense policy than many Democrats, including Dukakis, do now.

Baker observed that Kennedy was speaking in a different era, when the Soviets were on the march and Democrats were accused of being soft on communism.

The times are different, and so are the candidates, Baker said.

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