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Dukakis and the `fair play' vote

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, the political analyst, flatly rules out Albert Gore as a running mate for Michael Dukakis. ``Too tall,'' he says of Mr. Gore, pointing out how Gore's height would underscore Governor Dukakis's short stature to the possible political disadvantage of the governor. ``Think what it would look like when the two raise their locked hands in the victory salute at the national convention,'' Mr. Ornstein says. Ornstein is not joshing. He thinks that Dukakis must avoid TV pictures that accentuate his size. He says that Jimmy Carter, a man of medium height but slight in build, insisted in his debates with the tall Gerald Ford that the two platforms on which each stood be adjusted so that the TV audience would see their two heads on the same level.

There is indeed a rather widespread view among political observers who see shortness in a presidential candidate as a distinct liability. No matter that James Madison was about Dukakis's size. No matter that Stephen A. Douglas was viewed as the ``little Giant.'' There's this feeling that the TV image is so important now and that tall connotes leadership ability and that short connotes something less than strength.

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Now I've looked hard at Dukakis, early on when he was a breakfast guest and more recently in a multitude of TV appearances. He comes through as a man of determination, sturdiness, and substance. I've yet to get a firm grip on his views. But here, clearly, is a strong man. No one is going to push this fellow around.

So it seems to me that Dukakis is just the right person to put an end to all this nonsense about shortness being a political liability.

I've always (for good reason) been sympathetic to the shorter person's point of view. I never liked what that giant, Charles de Gaulle, said about short people: ``We must show them no mercy.''

It was a quip - but I still didn't like it when the equally tall John Kenneth Galbraith repeated the story recently over breakfast.

Why shouldn't Dukakis's stature help him in picking up what is sometimes referred to as the ``fair play'' vote? Seems to me that a small Dukakis who stands right up to the tall George Bush could well be perceived as a modern-day David. There might well be a lot of votes there. Dukakis seems just the right person to put the perception of size on the political rubbish heap.

Actually, Dukakis seems very likely to win a lot of fair-play votes from Americans who like to see big opportunities come to those from ethnic groups that have felt prejudice in the past.

When I was a boy back in the 1920s, the few Greek-Americans in my hometown were often scoffed at - their accent laughed at. They were viewed as exceedingly hard workers. But they had few, if any, expectations of rising above running a restaurant. Certainly the presidency was not on their horizon.

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Over the years this prejudice has faded. But it may very well be that a lot of people will feel that, just as John F. Kennedy provided a breakthrough for the Irish in 1960, the governor of Massachusetts is just the right man to provide a similar breakthrough for Greek-Americans.

But there's even more in the Dukakis candidacy for those who like to root for the underdog.

Not too many months ago that gangbuster of a politician, Bob Strauss, was asked if he were interested in running for president. It was a logical question. Mr. Strauss had proved himself in a number of major governmental roles. And he had such a winning way about him: Everyone who knew him liked him.

But Strauss said that he very much doubted that a Jewish candidate could make it to the presidency. He didn't think the time had come.

He may have been wrong; I hope so.

But Dukakis's wife, Kitty, is Jewish, and having her on the ``ticket'' - albeit indirectly - might pave the way for a Jewish presidential candidate sometime soon.

Barry Goldwater's father, of course, was Jewish. But he himself was Episcopalian.

So it is that Dukakis seems well positioned to be the beneficiary of the fair-play vote. His apparent weaknesses could end up as his hidden strengths.

I recall how hard Kennedy worked to convince the voters that he would not inject his religion into his presidency. Little by little the Protestant leaders came to believe Kennedy's assertions on separation of church and state.

Then something strange happened. In the West Virginia primary, a lot of Protestant Democrats who loved Hubert Humphrey came around and voted for Kennedy. And why? Well, some of them simply wanted to show how unprejudiced they were.

Clearly, Dukakis has no such barrier of prejudice to leap - perhaps no barrier at all. But, like those in West Virginia, there may be voters who will like the idea of the American democratic process opening its doors to a member of an ethnic group that has suffered restrictions in the past.

And - finally - there's that shortness thing. Dukakis seems to be of just the right stature - small but possibly mighty - to bury that shortness myth once and for all.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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