President Duke

Twenty years after Michael Dukakis came so close to taking the White House, and with another election upon us, Charles P. Pierce and the former governor himself step back in time and pretend Willie Horton and that embarrassing tank gaffe never happened.

(Illustration by Josue Evilla)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Charles P. Pierce
August 3, 2008

Festooned with bunting and full to the windows with dignitaries, the special high-speed train left North Station smack on the dot at 7 in the morning. There were strolling bouzouki players on the platform and long counters loaded with tiropita, spanakopita, and bougatsa for the benefit of the people who arrived without having had time for breakfast. As the music played, the train roared out of the shadows of the station, northbound in the bright spring sunshine.

It had taken 20 years to build the Michael Dukakis Presidential Museum and Library in Lowell. There were a number of reasons for this. The first was that he had insisted the library be built in Lowell in the first place. It was the city to which Panos Dukakis had first come to America in 1912. Michael had turned down a grant of land from Brookline, where he was born, on the grounds that a library built there would tax the capacity of the MBTA's Green Line, especially the stations at Brookline Hills and Brookline Village. Instead, former president Dukakis arranged to renovate an old mill building in downtown Lowell. Construction was further delayed by his refusal to accept not only corporate contributions to his library, but also any contribution at all in excess of $10. "Geez," one old State House hand guff awed, "nothing was ever easy with this guy."

But just as responsible for the delay was the fact that the former president insisted his library include a working commuter-rail station - now called Dukakis North - in order to highlight his administration's signature achievement in mass transit. He cited the fact that the Red Line's JFK/UMass stop was a considerable distance from the John F. Kennedy museum and library. Four Republican governors dragged their feet on the project but, as Governor Mitt Romney was reaching the end of his term, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill creating the station and the last roadblock to the library's construction was cleared away. It was dedicated on November 8, 2008, exactly 20 years after Dukakis had defeated George H.W. Bush to become the country's 41st president.

The train made the trip in a brisk 25 minutes, and another band was waiting at the station as the invited guests disembarked. President Al Gore got off the train first, followed by former president Jack Kemp, who'd succeeded Dukakis in 1996. Kemp came down the stairs with Dick Gephardt, whom he'd defeated, Gephardt having replaced Vice President Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket when Dukakis was reelected in 1992. The two were heard to joke about the now legendary problem that Gephardt had had with his original choice of a running mate, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who was forced to resign from the ticket after a tabloid TV program caught him leaving a Little Rock hotel at 5 in the morning in the company of a failed lounge singer. Former Cabinet officials mingled with retired military officers and with members of Congress, past and present, as they all rode the escalators up from the station to the main lobby of the museum, where former president Dukakis greeted them.

He quizzed all the dignitaries on how much they had enjoyed the ride on the train. Gradually, however, as he talked at length about the future of high-speed rail, some of the guests began to drift off toward the first of the exhibit halls, in which the story of the 1988 election unfolded before them again. Early on, Dukakis had piled up a 17-point lead over Bush, but the power of incumbency began to whittle that away. Most political observers believe that Dukakis managed to recover his lead because of two pivotal moments. On a television screen on one wall of the museum, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw is shown asking Dukakis if he would support the death penalty for a criminal who had raped and murdered his wife. "If this were anyplace else and any other time, Bernie," Dukakis memorably replied, "I'd ask you to step outside for a minute." Raucous applause broke out in the studio audience.

Not far away, on another wall, was the famous photograph of Dukakis riding in a tank outside a General Dynamics plant in Michigan. The visual might have become a blunder of historic proportion had Dukakis not deftly saved the situation by quipping, "I looked silly in a tank for 15 minutes. George Bush has been in the tank for 30 years." Both incidents had worked to undermine the image of Dukakis as a bloodless technocrat and are widely credited with helping him to his narrow victory. As the crowd moved away toward the first exhibit hall, Dukakis was spotted picking up a discarded soda can and tossing it into a nearby recycling bin.

. . .

HE WORKS NOW IN A CLUTTERED OFFICE TUCKED away on the south part of the campus at Northeastern University. "As I say to people, kiddingly, blame this mess on me," Michael Dukakis says. "If I'd have beaten the old man, we'd have never had this kid and this stupid war and all."

His enthusiasm - for grass-roots political organizing, for high-speed passenger rail, for his grandchildren - remains undimmed, although, at 74, he walks with something of a stoop. There have been 40 men who have run for president on behalf of the Democratic Party since Thomas Jefferson in 1796. He is one of them. In the spring of 1988, Dukakis had a lead over the nominee of the incumbent Republican Party, just as Barack Obama does at this moment. Yet he lost, 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent, and by a whopping 426-111 in the Electoral College. To be fair, he did come closer than either of the previous two Democratic nominees, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress were narrowly increased. But he lost, and he has no illusions about why.

"I made a huge mistake in 1988, and we all know what it was," he says. "I decided that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack stuff , and the lesson to be learned is that you just can't do that. That reminds me of Steve Symms. Remember him? He was the senator from Idaho who accused Kitty of burning an American flag during a Vietnam War demonstration. Now where in the hell did that come from?"

He was pilloried over the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and over a prisoner furlough program that had begun under his Republican predecessor. America got to know who Willie Horton was because the Republicans introduced them to each other, and the Dukakis campaign seemed incapable of fighting back. When unfounded rumors arose concerning Dukakis's mental health, then-president Ronald Reagan chimed in that he "wasn't going to pick on an invalid." Much of the campaign was so feverish that Lee Atwater, the Republican consultant who was its principal architect, apologized for it on his deathbed. After winning the Democratic nomination, Dukakis never found his feet again.

He dwells less on the tactical blunders now. As it turns out, the 1988 race elected the last president of the Cold War. By 1992, the Soviet Union had crumbled, the nations of Eastern Europe were free, and the great boogeyman of the 20th century had sunk swiftly and without a trace. There was some stirring of that during the campaign. "I saw a story in 1987," Dukakis recalls, "and it had an account of what sounded like a speech that [Soviet premier Mikhail] Gorbachev had made, when in fact it was a paper he'd released, where he talked about expanding the authority of the UN, creating a permanent standing UN police force, and creating a kind of international EPA to deal with international environmental issues. I'd never seen anything like this coming out of a Soviet leader. I called Madeleine Albright, who was my foreign policy adviser at the time, and she faxed it to me, and I said, there's something different about this guy.

"That was about as far as it went at the time. Meanwhile, we were observing, and participating in, one of the worst wars in history, between Iran and Iraq. That was all going on - tilting toward Iraq, but supplying some arms to Iran. So were dozens of other countries. I must have made 50 speeches. What were we doing involved in this thing, supporting both sides? What was going on? Nobody was listening. That was the backdrop at the time."

Later, of course, the Republicans would charge Dukakis with being inexperienced in military matters and in foreign affairs. "They accused me of being a multilateralist," he laughs. "It almost sounded pornographic at the time. But I am. I don't see how you can not be and seriously look at the world and provide any meaningful leadership. As soon as we started calling ourselves the world's only remaining superpower, we were in big trouble. The Greeks have a word for it - hubris."

. . .

The second floor of the Dukakis Library is dominated by a multimedia presentation concerning the Persian Gulf Crisis of 1991. After President Dukakis cut off all aid to both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein felt his grip on power threatened. He appeared to be mobilizing his army to move south into Kuwait. Secretary of State Joseph Biden - who'd taken the Cabinet job after reconciling with Dukakis over the role the latter's campaign had played in hanging a plagiarism charge on Biden during the primary season - warned Hussein against such a move.

The story is now well known as to how Biden and Gary Hart, whom Dukakis had appointed a special envoy to the Middle East, enlisted the help of Republican operative James Baker to build an international coalition to resist Iraqi aggression. The United Nations passed a resolution threatening massive military action if Hussein moved into Kuwait. For two weeks, the Iraqi president fumed and dithered but, ultimately, his troops stayed in Iraq. Hussein's capitulation caused his regime to gradually become less and less stable in the face of a Kurdish independence movement in the north and a restive Shiite majority elsewhere in the country.

. . .

"Domestically," Dukakis says now, "it would have been heavily economic, because, while we weren't in a recession, it was clear that we were living on a credit card. The deficits were out of sight, and many regions were hurting badly even without a national recession. You had to move pretty quickly on it, and Bush didn't. The one thing you had to do was to believe in the ability of government to stimulate the economy."

Dukakis specifically mentions universal healthcare as an issue on which he would have pushed very hard. At the time he ran, there was a decades-old bipartisan consensus that the country's healthcare system needed to be reformed. Harry Truman had proposed a universal system in 1945, after having been president for only seven months. In 1971, Richard Nixon had proposed a universal system that involved a mix of employer-employee programs and a Medicare-type wraparound plan to fill in the gaps. Bob Dole gave a speech in support of the plan in the Senate. This consensus held all the way until Bill Clinton's doomed attempt to enact a universal healthcare system in his first term. His complicated scheme collapsed, at least in part because the Republicans, including Dole, simply walked away from the issue. He says when people ask him about healthcare, "I tell them, 'I'm with Truman, but if I can't get Truman, I'll take Nixon.'"

He also talks at length about the drug problem; as president, Bush had once famously held up a bag of crack cocaine during a nationally televised address on the subject. Dukakis says he planned to lean heavily on solving the demand side in this country. "You've got this giant vacuum cleaner up north sucking up [cocaine]," he says. "I spent a lot of time talking about this during the campaign, that we would have a very strong emphasis on education and prevention, on treatment on demand. The governors themselves got a lot of legislation through Congress on this. You have enforcement, sure, but if you don't attack the demand side, you're going to fail."

But his eyes really light up when our discussion turns to his signature cause - the revitalization of the country's passenger-rail system. He enthusiastically advocates regional systems such as the 10-state arrangement that would connect many of the cities in the Midwest, an idea first proposed by former Wisconsin governor - and, very briefly, a candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination - Tommy Thompson. "We have an incredible rail system around this country," Dukakis says. "We have rights of way all over the place. We don't have to acquire a single house. Would it be a 200-mile-an-hour train? Maybe in selected places. But it would be the same stuff that the Japanese and Europeans have been enjoying for years, if we're talking about the Midwest plan or the Southeast, down to Atlanta and across. It's all there. It's all there already. I'm not hearing enough about this. I'd really like Barack [Obama] to talk more about this."

. . .

Throughout his first term in office, Dukakis was the political beneficiary of a vicious fight within the Republican Party between the old-line GOP stalwarts and the Sun Belt and Christian conservative elements of the party that were rapidly becoming the GOP's base. Both blamed the other for the failed Bush campaign of 1988, and the party was never really able to coalesce until after the midterm elections of 1990, when the Democrats made some modest gains in both houses of Congress. (One surprising result came in Georgia, where Congressman Newt Gingrich, an outspoken leader of the conservative faction, was defeated for reelection by Democratic challenger Tim Worley. In October 1996, Gingrich took a job as a commentator for Rupert Murdoch's new Fox News Channel, in which capacity he would eventually win three Emmy awards.) The Republican split had not yet healed in 1992, when the party nominated Kansas senator Bob Dole to oppose President Dukakis for reelection. This was widely seen as little more than a gesture honoring Dole's long service to the party.

By then, Dukakis had built a strong, grass-roots election effort bolstered by his solid poll numbers. The success of his diplomatic efforts in the Middle East gave him the political capital to spend on reforming the nation's passenger-rail system. The third floor of the museum is built around a central hall celebrating what Dukakis had come to call "The Steel Interstate." There is a scale model of the system of regional rail networks in the middle. And the walls are full of photos in which the president, surrounded by local officials and smiling citizens, is opening yet another station.

However, Dukakis's attempt in his second term to reform the nation's healthcare system failed. Seeing the 1996 election down the line, the Republicans finally organized themselves around the task of making Dukakis into a lame duck. (Rhode Island Republican John Chafee, a longtime advocate of healthcare reform, was increasingly marginalized within his caucus.) The administration's agenda on almost every issue stalled. In 1994, running against what they called the dead-in-the-water Dukakis administration, Republicans finally made substantial gains in the congressional elections, nearly capturing the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. The tide was clearly running their way, and two years later, Vice President Gephardt lost to GOP nominee Kemp by a razorish 10 electoral votes. On Inauguration Day, President Dukakis congratulated his successor and then left Washington - taking the Metro to Union Station and catching the 2:15 Acela Express to Boston.

. . .

"A LOT OF IT'S HUBRIS," MICHAEL DUKAKIS muses, "and it happens in the second term, not in the first term." He mentions Eisenhower and spy planes, Watergate and Irancontra. "You start imbuing these people around you with wisdom they don't really have.

"You know, it's less getting grandiose than it is getting walled off. It drove me crazy during the campaign. You're so walled off that you don't get the kind of feedback you'd get while you were riding on the Green Line or in Filene's Basement. I mean, Harry Truman took a walk every day. Kennedy used to put on a hat and go out. Could you do that today? I don't know, but that's the danger - the isolation. If I don't see another holding room as long as I live, I'll be happy."

There are roughly 75 people who've done what he did - run for president on the ticket of one of the two major parties. He lost honestly, if not entirely fairly. He is no Samuel Tilden, sold down the river in Washington, or Al Gore, hung up upon a chad, to name two other failed Democratic candidates who had a rougher haul than Dukakis had. And he is just as enthusiastic as ever - about trains and the grass roots and his grandchildren - in this little office not far from the renovated Ruggles Orange Line stop, which still bustles with students coming to Northeastern for summer session. There is a sense that, had he actually been elected, this might be the place he wound up anyway. It's hard to see him chasing $100,000 speaking fees at some trade show or another. This is where he'd be, still picking up stray pieces of trash on his way to the T to go teach tomorrow's generation of leaders, if he were ex-president Dukakis.

"I mean, in a general sense, you have some idea what you might have done, since, in a campaign, you spend an enormous amount of time talking about it," he says. "But I'm a guy who doesn't spend a long time looking back."

. . .

THE TOUR ENDS IN A RECEPTION, WITH souvlaki and tzatziki with ouzo for the more daring souls, in the Great Hall on the museum's fourth floor, its wide windows looking out over downtown Lowell as the afternoon declines. The room is a collection of ephemera from the Dukakis years, a sample of the accumulated gewgaws to which any president becomes heir. The bat that Dukakis borrowed from a forgotten Red Sox farmhand named Roger LeFrancois during a 1988 campaign stop in Winter Haven sits there under glass. Next to it is a picture of President Dukakis throwing out the first pitch of the 1994 World Series. Next to him is the former co-owner of the Texas Rangers who became the baseball commissioner, George W. Bush, the son of the man Dukakis had defeated in 1988 and widely regarded as the man who saved baseball from its own folly.

In 1992, baseball's owners had forced out Commissioner Fay Vincent. It was thought that Milwaukee owner Bud Selig would succeed Vincent in the job, but a rump faction of owners, opposed to Selig's succession, elected Bush. For a time, it looked as though the owners might force the game's ongoing labor-management problems to a strike, possibly even endangering the 1994 World Series, although many observers believed that management would never dream of adopting such a radical course. Working tirelessly with the owners and the players, Bush brokered a settlement that included enhanced revenue-sharing and an agreement that provided for not only a salary cap, but also a salary floor, below which teams were not allowed to drop. The deal saved a historic season in which Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox broke Roger Maris's single-season home run record, San Diego's Tony Gwynn hit .400, and the Expos, behind ace Pedro Martinez, who won three games himself, took the World Series championship back to Montreal. Many of the people in attendance lingered a long time in front of the historic photo, President Dukakis and Commissioner Bush, smiling and shaking hands.

Too bad we don't have more people like that in Washington these days, someone says wistfully. Uniters, not dividers.

When he's not off daydreaming, Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at

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