WASHINGTON — There’s at least one politician who can legitimately claim that he knows what Hillary Clinton is going through as a target of wild speculation about her health: Michael S. Dukakis.
The episode has been largely forgotten. But Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee and former Massachusetts governor, remembers it well.
As with questions over whether Clinton is healthy enough to be president, the rumors about Dukakis began on the fringes. But they eventually found their way to the mainstream through powerful surrogates: President Ronald Reagan, in the case of Dukakis. He felt compelled, as Clinton has, to reassert his fitness for office. (This year, some Democrats have questioned the “mental health’’ of Donald Trump, the GOP nominee, as well.)
Dukakis told STAT that he believes that accusations about his health hurt him in his race against George H. W. Bush. One question for the Clinton campaign is whether she will also see her support slip as a result.
“People don’t do this because they don’t think it’s going to work,” Dukakis said in a phone interview. “You’re behind, you’ve got to do something. What do you try to do? You try to raise doubts about your opponent’s character, about your opponent’s health.”
Early in the 1988 campaign, Dukakis released a standard letter from his doctor certifying his good health. His wife, Kitty, had also preemptively discussed her history with depression and substance abuse. (Clinton and Trump have perhaps been even more sparing this season about putting out information on their health records.)
But by the end of the Democratic convention in July, a political organization led by Lyndon LaRouche Jr. — a group that had previously accused Queen Elizabeth of running a drug cartel and Walter Mondale of being a Soviet spy — was alleging Dukakis also had a history of depression. It seemed to be founded on nothing more than passages in Dukakis biographies that he had been unhappy after his brother died in 1973 and, again in 1978, after he lost his reelection for governor.
At the time, the Miami Herald reported that a flier handed out at the convention said: “Is Michael Dukakis his own man or a broken man?”
For weeks, the Dukakis campaign ignored the calculated whispers. In the interview with STAT, Dukakis also recalled rumors being spread at the time that his wife had a sexually transmitted disease. He said he believed it was an attempt by the Bush campaign to force him to release his full medical records.
“They thought there was something there,” Dukakis said.
But then in early August, in those pre-Twitter days, Reagan made the gossip front-page news. The president said at a White House press conference, in response to a question about Dukakis, that he didn’t want to “pick on an invalid.”
Reagan quickly apologized, but the story was off and running. The New York Times and Washington Post wrote editorials denouncing the attacks. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald published lengthy stories about the rumors and their source.
A few days after Reagan’s comment, Dukakis released another report from his doctor, reiterating that he was “in excellent health and physical shape.” He tried to make light of it. While he was in Denver for a Democratic Governors Association meeting, he challenged his traveling press corps to a three-mile power walk.
“Maybe one of them finished with me,” Dukakis said. “We had a big laugh about it.”
The press moved on after a week or so, but Dukakis believes that the damage was already done. Coming out of the Democratic convention in July, he was leading Bush by 17 points. By mid-August, Bush had pulled ahead and Dukakis trailed the rest of the race.
It’s always difficult to know precisely why polls shift, but “you don’t drop 8 points in a week for nothing,” Dukakis said.
The one-time Democratic nominee considers the attacks on Clinton to be “par for the course.” If there is a difference from what he faced in 1988, he said, it’s that prominent public figures like Rudy Giuliani are sticking with these rumors — “He ought to be ashamed of himself,” Dukakis said of the former New York City mayor.
The Internet also provides more fertile ground for gossip to grow.
“With Drudge and the rest of these characters,” Dukakis said, “people don’t care if it’s true or not.”