A popular, two-term Republican President is about to leave office. Hoping to succeed him is his loyal vice-president, recognized for his expertise in foreign affairs. The Democratic opponent is a man from Brookline, Mass., who - little known outside his state until recently - has swept to a dramatic series of primary victories. Nineteen sixty meet 1988. The similarities between the Richard Nixon-John Kennedy election and this year's battle between George Bush and Michael Dukakis could easily lead one to conclude that - as Groucho might have said - 1988 is d'ej`a vu all over again.
But a panel of experts on the 1960 and 1988 elections noted Tuesday that there are at least as many differences between the two contests as there are analogies. Among the differences:
The length of the current presidential race and the proliferation of primaries have imposed enormous financial and organizational burdens on the candidates, far in excess of 1960.
To win the nomination in 1960, a relative unknown like Jack Kennedy had to impress the party bosses - smoke-filled rooms still existed. To establish himself as a viable candidate in 1988, Mr. Dukakis above all had to impress the news media.
Although the first Kennedy-Nixon debate was a pivotal event in 1960, television played a relatively small role in the campaign. Today, TV is all important in American politics.
In 1960, the press observed accepted boundaries in reporting on candidates' private lives. In 1988, almost no subject is off limits.
Because of widespread polling, a more sophisticated press, and other developments in the ways in which political information is shared, voters know more about candidates and candidates about the electorate than was true a quarter century ago.
America itself has changed markedly in the last 28 years. Suburbia has supplanted cities, the Sunbelt overshadows the rust belt, and the high-tech service economy has overtaken the industrial economy. Attitudes toward religion, race, and ethnicity have changed. And after the assassinations of the '60s, Watergate, the oil crises, and other shocks, Americans have lost some of their innocence, optimism, and faith in government's ability to solve problems.
Panel members involved in the current race were Susan Estrich, Dukakis's campaign manager; Gerald Austin, Jesse Jackson's campaign manager; Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee; Edward Rollins, President Reagan's campaign manager in 1984 and the head of Jack Kemp's bid this year; and Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. Veterans from the 1960 contest included Kennedy insiders Richard Goodwin and Lawrence O'Brien, and Nixon lieutenants Robert Finch and Herbert Klein. Washington Post writers Mary McGrory (who has covered both races) and Sidney Blumenthal also participated.
Journalist Jeff Greenfield moderated the panel, which assembled at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston under the auspices of Life magazine.
It was a day of humor as well as insight. Mr. O'Brien remembered a telephone conversation between Kennedy and an aide in West Virginia before that state's crucial primary. ``How can I win West Virginia?'' the Roman Catholic candidate asked. ``Convert,'' retorted his gloomy aide. (Kennedy won the primary.)
The GOP's Mr. Fahrenkopf argued that the 1988 election would most resemble 1948 - with Mr. Bush in the Harry Truman role. Moderator Greenfield saw in this a new campaign slogan for Bush: ``Give 'em heck!''
The participants agreed that this election, as in '60, would turn on public perceptions about the desire for continuity vs. the need for change.
But they saw this difference: Today, even many Americans who are content with the present - and thus ordinarily would favor continuity - are concerned about the future. They cautioned Bush that the election will be future-oriented and will not be a referendum on the Reagan years.
But if they foresaw danger for Bush, they also concurred that the '88 election - as in '60 - would be very close, and could hinge on events that occur during the campaign.