To understand where the presidential campaign is heading in the four weeks still ahead of us, look back 20 years.

Two decades ago, I would talk to voters in the South and hear the unequivocal — indeed, positively adamant — assertion that Kitty Dukakis had burned the American flag. The wife of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Mike Dukakis, I was told again and again, could be seen on videotape and in photos that recorded the dastardly act. When pressed, the voters never could recall just where they had seen this video, where the photograph had been printed or even who might have passed it around. But, several swore to me in interviews, they had indeed seen it, and were disgusted.

The entire idea was preposterous. Kitty Dukakis had graduated from college in 1963 — before campuses were convulsed with protests against the Vietnam conflict, let alone occupied by flag-burning “hippies.” A dancer and the daughter of a beloved Boston musical figure, she was far more likely to wear a demure sweater than to be seen in a ragged T-shirt.

But a rumor had been planted and in the hothouse of the 1988 campaign, falsehood was believed as fact. That is how Lee Atwater, the “Boogie Man,” operated.

If you want to know why Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin keeps talking about how Washington “elites” just don’t get it when she says what the country needs is a fast-talkin’, straight-shootin’ pit bull of a hockey mom — see Stefan Forbes’ documentary about Atwater, the late Republican mastermind, titled “Boogie Man.” If you want to know why rumors that Democrat Barack Obama is a Muslim continue to be accepted as fact — despite the simultaneous story line of Obama’s incendiary former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is being pushed by “independent” Republican groups — see “Boogie Man.” If you want to know why John McCain — whose 2000 campaign was a call for Republicans to eschew the politics of intolerance and inflammatory rumor — now turns to the pages of the old playbook, see “Boogie Man.”

As Mary Matalin, the Republican talking head and author, puts it: “This is play big or go home.”

Matalin was speaking in the film about the point in the 1988 Republican primaries, when Vice President George H.W. Bush went into New Hampshire with the imperative of defeating Bob Dole, who had emerged the victor of the Iowa caucuses. The idea was to “get inside” Dole’s head, to provoke the former Kansas senator into one of his trademark flashes of public pique. The moment came after Dole lost the New Hampshire primary. During a television interview, Dole snapped that Bush should “stop lying about my record.”

The remarkable transformation McCain has undergone since 2000 is itself an unsettling tribute to the lasting poison Atwater poured into the political waters. Consider that Tucker Eskew, who helped craft a smear campaign against McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, is now a McCain campaign adviser. His task is in part to tutor Palin in her role as the misunderstood and maligned outsider. “Resentment became the destiny of the Republican Party,” Eskew opines in the documentary, speaking of Atwater’s early tactics and triumphs in Southern contests.

Just as Atwater in 1988 made Willie Horton into a household name, now the McCain campaign seeks to do the same for the Vietnam-era domestic terrorist William Ayers. Obama sought Ayers’ political support when he needed the help of Chicago liberals to launch his political career. The two have had a number of associations over the years — none that seemed particularly recent — but that may turn out to be of little import. By the time he ran for president, Dukakis already had ended the flawed Massachusetts prison furlough program under which Horton had been released. This did not soothe the fears evoked by the image of a black inmate having been freed to commit more violence.

Fear was Atwater’s stock in trade. If there was nothing to be legitimately feared, then he would conjure something up.

We have, at the moment, a collision of fears so powerful it is probably not possible to predict how the election on Nov. 4 will turn out. As voters peer into the economic abyss, they see Obama as most capable of managing the financial crisis and of reversing the downward economic spiral. But they also see the first African-American poised to win the White House, and one with an unusual name, at that.

What might Atwater concoct if he were running this race? I recoil at the thought.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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