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Running from Dukakis?

CALL IT coincidence or call it fate. The day after Senator John F. Kerry ended his presidential campaign announcement tour in Boston, Michael S. Dukakis, the last Massachusetts politician to win the Democratic presidential nomination, was speaking to a classroom filled with law students. It was a vivid reminder of the differences between the two presidential hopefuls. "I am blessed," Dukakis told the students, summing up his life, political and personal, and urging them to get involved in campaigns and public service no matter what their politics.

Blessed? In 1988 Dukakis lost the general election to the elder George Bush after the Republican presidential nominee defined, denounced, and trounced him as "a Massachusetts liberal." Dukakis proudly remains one. Speaking as forcefully as ever about universal health care, he told the students he finds it incredible that "the country is incapable of doing what Richard Nixon, of all people, proposed in 1971."

Dukakis also strongly championed Kerry's presidential campaign -- even though he called Kerry's nemesis and challenger, Howard Dean, "a good guy" and "a pretty good governor" and added that he agrees with the former Vermont governor on Iraq that "going in was a mistake." Dukakis and his wife attended a recent fund-raiser for Kerry that was hosted by Senator Ted Kennedy in Hyannis.

Dukakis's loyalty to Kerry, his onetime lieutenant governor, springs to mind after reading this sentence in a recent AP story following a sitdown between Kerry and AP editors: "While he would `absolutely and with pleasure' welcome Senator Ted Kennedy on the campaign trail, Kerry noted that he didn't always agree with former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee who lost to Bush's father." (The Kerry campaign was asked last Friday to elaborate on Kerry's comments and specify Kerry's differences with Dukakis. Yesterday afternoon there was still no response.)

Kerry's zeal to distance himself from Dukakis began last year when he was announcing his intention to announce for president. At the time, he told the Globe, "I am not Michael Dukakis, and Michael Dukakis is not me, and the first person who would tell you that is Michael Dukakis." Meanwhile, Kerry has "absolutely and with pleasure" already welcomed Kennedy to the campaign trail. Kennedy presided over the final Boston stop of the Kerry announcement tour. Last week, Kennedy sent out a letter on Kerry's behalf, asking recipients to "rush a contribution to the Kerry campaign."

The letter, while praising Kerry's leadership, avoided specific mention of Iraq, and with it, mention of a very significant policy disagreement between the senior and junior senators from Massachusetts: Kennedy voted against the resolution that allowed President Bush to wage war with Iraq. Kerry voted for the resolution. Apparently that difference in opinion has no bearing on Kerry's willingness to embrace Kennedy on the campaign trail.

Why the need to dramatize differences with Dukakis? The answer is obvious. The Dukakis presidential campaign is still a bad memory for Democrats who remain fixated on its weaknesses and forget its strengths -- most notably, a candidate who stubbornly clung to his beliefs, even when he was ridiculed for them by his opponent.

The snapshots of Kerry decision-making in this campaign show a different kind of candidate. From his Nantucket home, Kerry is often described as being surrounded by a circle of aides numbering from 12 to 21. From that cumbersome group comes one cumbersome decision after another: Attack Dean; don't attack Dean. When someone gets really creative, they ask for that old standby, a one-on-one mini-debate with Dean. If anyone ran a war like Kerry is running his presidential campaign it would look a lot like the war George W. Bush is waging in Iraq. The enemy looks fleet of foot; everyone else looks flat-footed.

There are many lessons in the Dukakis presidential run of 1988. What gets talked about most is the need to avoid the Massachusetts liberal label. What is talked about least is what there was and still is to emulate about Dukakis. He is a man of dignity and conviction. After all that he has gone through in politics, he remains idealistic and loyal. When he was a political candidate, he took knocks for intellectual arrogance. But today he shows welcome humility, acknowledging mistakes, such as not fighting Bush hard enough.

Perhaps it is time for Kerry to be more like Dukakis, rather than less?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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