Lessons learned: Michael S. Dukakis

Lessons learned
No stranger to tough politics, ex-governor keeps a close eye on current presidential race
By Pamela  H.  Sacks


Former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is crystal clear about what’s at stake for him in the upcoming presidential election.

“If I’d beaten old man Bush you’d have never heard of the kid, and we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Mr. Dukakis said the other day, alluding to former President George  H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, who will occupy the Oval Office until Jan. 20. “I have a real stake in this campaign,” he added. “I have to make up for losing.”

Mr. Dukakis, a Democrat, served as governor of Massachusetts for three terms, from 1975 to 1978 and 1983 to 1991. He was his party’s nominee for president in 1988, losing to the first President Bush by a wide margin after a nasty and highly charged campaign. The Republicans attacked Mr. Dukakis as soft on crime for his support of a furlough program for convicts and his stand against capital punishment.

Mr. Dukakis, speaking by telephone from his office at Northeastern University, where he is a professor of political science, said he didn’t understand negative campaigning at the time. In contrast, he said, Sen. Barack Obama, the current Democratic presidential contender, is well prepared for personal attacks by his Republican opponent, Sen. John S. McCain.

“Not a single McCain attack goes up without an immediate response,” Mr. Dukakis observed.

The media, now electronically driven, are far more intense and noisy than 20 years ago, Mr. Dukakis said. As a result, people don’t pay much attention to TV ads; they hit the mute button or record on TiVo and cut out the spots. What isn’t different, Mr. Dukakis said, is that an effective political campaign must be carried on at ground level.

“What I did not use effectively, to my everlasting shame, is old-fashioned grass-roots organizing,” Mr. Dukakis said. “I spent too much time listening to the people who said, `It’s all money and media.’”

In the view of Mr. Dukakis, Mr. Obama has used to his advantage both the old and new ways of campaigning. He has raised tens of millions of dollars over the Internet and developed a superior grass-roots organization. That’s what gave him an edge over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Now, Mr. Obama has to take 3 million contributors and turn them into precinct workers, Mr. Dukakis said.

Mr. Dukakis went on to talk about the country’s priorities in the face of a looming global recession, widespread criticism abroad, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a crumbling infrastructure. The former governor will be in Worcester Friday evening to speak on current political issues at “A Celebration of Authors,” an annual fundraiser hosted by the Worcester Public Library Foundation. The event will be held from 6 to 10 at Worcester Technical High School. Mr. Dukakis will share the stage with Juan Williams, an author, journalist and National Public Radio commentator.

The library foundation reached out to several prominent Republicans, but none was available to participate, said Maria Lockheardt, the foundation’s executive director.

“We had hoped to create a balanced program, but we think this will be an intriguing insight into what is going on from a politician’s and a journalist’s perspective,” Ms. Lockheardt said.

The single biggest issue facing the United States, Mr. Dukakis said, is getting the economy back on track. Much of the stock market plunge is based on fear rather than reality, he said.

Deregulation of the financial markets, the dominant economic philosophy introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1980, has ultimately been disastrous. Mr. Dukakis recited a Greek expression, pathima mathima, to explain his own philosophy.

“Loosely translated it means, `Things happen and you learn from them,’” he said. “We went through the Great Depression and the junk bond and Savings and Loan scandals. Now we’ve got this. What does it take to learn that we have to regulate financial markets, and we have to regulate them thoroughly? You can’t let all these geniuses, or manic depressives, depending on your viewpoint, take charge.”

Improving the country’s position in the world will call for a collaborative style rather than a polarizing one, Mr. Dukakis said. He said that to claim that the United States is the world’s only superpower, as the Bush administration has done, has alienated other countries and left the reputation of the United States in tatters.

“It was hubris – a Greek word – the notion that we could go anywhere and do anything we wanted and be successful at it,” he said. “Iraq is a perfect example. `My way or the highway’ doesn’t work anymore.”

Mr. Dukakis, who will turn 75 next month, served as a member of the board of directors of Amtrak from 1998 to 2003. He has long promoted rail transportation along the Eastern Seaboard and throughout Massachusetts. He said he was disappointed to see that initiative dropped after he left office as governor in 1991. The economic crisis is an opportunity to put people back to work at rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, he said, adding that he considered the stimulus package that returned $600 to most taxpayers in the spring to have been a foolish use of money.

“Had that been divided on a per capita basis among the states, the Massachusetts share would have been $3.5 billion,” he said. “Think about it. Instead, we gave it away in $600 checks, and half were used to pay down credit cards and the other half to buy stuff from China.”

Mr. Dukakis is relieved that President Bush has said he will sign Amtrak legislation authorizing nearly $13 billion over five years for passenger rail service and corridor development. Both Mr. Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden, were co-sponsors of the bill. Mr. McCain voted against it.

“I don’t know how you can look at global warming, gas prices and the energy situation and not put it at the top of the list,” Mr. Dukakis said.

Mr. Dukakis has his doubts about the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. He’d like to see money invested in other ways. “A few million bucks on the commuter line between Boston and Worcester could do wonders to speed commuting,” he said.

Solving the health insurance crisis also has to be a top priority, given that 46 million to 47 million Americans go without coverage, Mr. Dukakis said. The best thing about turning 65, he said, was his eligibility for government-sponsored Medicare.

Asked why anyone would aspire to the presidency at a time like this, Mr. Dukakis replied, “It’s a terrific opportunity.”

“We love pressure,” he said of those who seek the highest public offices. “We want to make decisions. You have to be able to pick excellent people, surround yourself with first-rate folks, exercise some judgment and work with members of Congress.”

Since he left public office, Mr. Dukakis said, he and his wife, Kitty, have done well. It was difficult to have gotten that close to the presidency only to see it slip away, he said, but life is good. The Dukakises have three children and seven grandchildren. Through electroshock therapy, Mrs. Dukakis has brought a recurring problem with depression under control. “That part of our lives has improved dramatically,” he said.

“Even though we’re in our 70s, we feel we are in our 30s,” Mr. Dukakis said. “We hope we are going to be smiling on the 4th of November.”