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Tuesday, November 6, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Death-Penalty Question Was Death Knell For Dukakis

The most famous question asked in the 1988 presidential campaign was asked by Bernard Shaw, the CNN anchorman. In the third of four part excerpted from his book ``Road Show,'' Roger Simon tells the story behind the question.

Bernard Shaw liked to see them sweat. He liked to see the panic in the candidates' eyes. Reporters were too easy on the candidates. In the words of Bill Moyers, reporters ``ask bumper-sticker questions to get fortune-cookie answers.'' But not Bernard Shaw.

He had asked Al Gore what he would do if he or one of his children got AIDS. He asked Dan Quayle if it was ``fear of being killed in Vietnam'' that caused him to join the National Guard. He had asked Al Haig, flat out: ``Do you think Bush is a wimp?''

Bernard Shaw was one tough customer.

``As reporters, we are not doing our jobs if we don't ask the toughest questions possible,'' Shaw said. ``I couldn't not do that. I'm from the Chicago school of journalism. I believe in asking tough questions.''

Shaw, 48, anchorman for CNN, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, went to a tough high school and at age 13 had seen how Edward R. Murrow had stood up to Joe McCarthy. While others had cowered, Murrow had taken McCarthy on. A lot of people had told him he was being too tough, he was committing professional suicide, but Edward R. Murrow was a tough man who did not care what others said.

``He was,'' Shaw said, ``my idol.''

Now it is 2 a.m. and Bernard Shaw is smoking menthol cigarette after menthol cigarette in a cheesy Holiday Inn room in Los Angeles not far from the UCLA campus, where George Bush and Michael Dukakis will have their final debate. Shaw stares at the ceiling. As the moderator of the second and last presidential debate, he was allowed just one question of each candidate. After that, he was reduced to a glorified timekeeper. So his questions had to be good.

Coming up with a question for Bush had been easy. He had come up with that one on the way to the airport. Shaw was in Washington and had gotten the call at 1:45 p.m. on a Tuesday that he was going to be the moderator for the Thursday-night debate. So as he rushed out the door to catch a limo to Dulles Airport for the flight to Los Angeles, he grabbed a book on the Constitution. On the ride to Dulles, he flipped through it and came upon the Twentieth Amendment, ratified in 1933, which declared that on Inauguration Day, if ``the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President.''

That would be his question to Bush. What if he were elected and died before Inauguration Day? How would he feel about Dan Quayle's becoming president?

It was perfect. It hit at Bush's greatest vulnerability - the selection of Dan Quayle - and it asked Bush about his own death in front of 62 million people! It was an archetypal Shaw question; daring, offbeat and just a little grotesque.

But what would he ask Dukakis? What would skewer him? What would shake him up? Shaw didn't know.

``I finally came up with the question at 2 a.m. in the Holiday Inn the morning of the debate,'' Shaw said. He would ask Dukakis a crime question, a capital-punishment question, a Willie Horton question, but

also a personal question. One that nobody in the world would dare to ask: What if some criminal had raped and murdered Kitty? Would Dukakis still oppose capital punishment?

Shaw loved his question for Dukakis. But he was the only one. The three reporters on the panel, Ann Compton of ABC, Andrea Mitchell of NBC and Margaret Warner of Newsweek, listened to it, shuddered and asked him to change it.

``I said: `I disagree with each of you and I'm not changing anything.' ''

The reporters sat at long blue tables in the pressroom, waiting for the debate to begin. TV sets had been set up on carts every few yards. Onstage, Bush entered from the left and Dukakis from the right. Dukakis stuck out his hand about 15 feet away from Bush and had to carry it across the stage like a spear before Bush got near enough to shake it.

The panel of reporters was introduced. Everybody look appropriately stiff. Shaw, looking commanding and stern, said: ``By agreement between the candidates, the first question goes to Gov. Dukakis: You have two minutes to respond.

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

There were gasps from the reporters in the pressroom. Then a few murmurs. ``Whaaa?'' ``Did he really say that?'' ``Un-believ-able.''

He answered instantly and smoothly. ``No, I don't, Bernard,'' he said, ``And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life.''

He had been on the record for years and years on that subject. Massachusetts had no death penalty and also had one of the lowest crime rates of any industrialized state in the country. Dukakis didn't believe in capital punishment. He had seen all the studies and he didn't believe it deterred crime.

So should he throw out that principle because the hypothetical victim was now his wife? Is that what principles were all about? They were good when others' loved ones were involved but not good when your own were involved?

In the pressroom, the murmurs over Shaw's questions now turned to mutters over Dukakis' answer. ``He's through.'' ``Get the hook!''

The reporters sensed it instantly. Even though the 90-minute debate was only seconds old, they felt it was already over for Dukakis. He had not been warm. He had not been likable. He had not shown emotion. He had merely shown principle.

Afterward, his aides would try to explain that he had been sick. He had seen two doctors before the debate. He had a fever, a virus. He wasn't himself.

But while he may have been sick, he was himself. That was the problem.

Yet was Dukakis' position that outrageous? Dukakis believed that people of principle make principled decisions. And they stick to them. That is what integrity is about.

OK, the critics said, but even if Dukakis didn't favor the death penalty, couldn't he have shown a little emotion in answering the question? After all, Dukakis' handlers had said before the debate that they were preparing him for a ``Willie Horton type'' question. And they had written an ``emotional'' answer for Dukakis. But when the time came to give the answer, Dukakis did not. Instead, he told the truth. Dispassionately, he expressed his true feelings. And he was savaged for it. He was savaged for giving a sincere and unemotional answer instead of giving an insincere and emotional one.

Another candidate might have survived that first question and answer. But not Dukakis. It devastated him because his coldness was already an issue.

``Afterwards,'' Shaw said, ``I shook hands with Dukakis and Kitty (Kitty would later say of Shaw's question: ``It was inappropriate. It was pure theater.'') and then I shook hands with Bush and he lingered with me for two or three minutes.

``Then Bush said to me: `When are we going to have dinner? What are you doing tonight? Have dinner with Barb and me tonight.'

``And I thought to myself: There is no way in hell that I'm going to be seen having dinner with him tonight!''

Three weeks after his election, the president-elect called Shaw.

``Bernie,'' Bush said, ``how does Peking duck sound?''

They met at the vice president's residence and then went to a restaurant in Falls Church, Va. ``People heard about it later and said: `Now the payoff is apparent,' '' Shaw said. ``Then there were rumors that Bush wanted me for director of the USIA (United States Information Agency) or press secretary.''

And did he offer you either of those? I asked.

``There was a desire to have me in the government,'' Shaw said, ``but I told the president-elect I had three reasons not to. One, I believe once you cross the line into government, you can never come back to journalism. Two, a pay cut is not progress to me. Three, I value my wife and children and the privacy of my family.''

And if you had taken a job with Bush?

``It clearly would have been seen as a payoff,'' Shaw said. ``And your credibility is all you have in this business.''

Shaw's question to Bush about Quayle taking over as president posed no problems for Bush.

``Bush played that answer like a violin,'' Shaw said. ``But all you can do is ask the question. And leave the rest to the intelligence of the voter.''

(From the book ``Road Show,'' by Roger Simon. Copyright, 1990, Roger Simon. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.)

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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