Yvonne Abraham

A seat fit for Dukakis

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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And now, to the very difficult business of moving forward.

It’s looking like state lawmakers might do the right thing and grant one of Senator Ted Kennedy’s final wishes, installing somebody to act in his stead until voters choose a permanent replacement.

That somebody should be Mike Dukakis.

Do I hear a groan or two out there? It’s possible some of you might not share my soft spot for the former governor. He’s too liberal for some, too much of a scold for others. He’s obsessed with trains and trash. Also, the tank and the helmet.

But you don’t have to adore him to see that he’s the guy for the job, for a lot of good reasons.

Other people might sit in that storied US Senate seat for a couple of months and start getting used to it, reconsidering promises not to seek a full term in the winter special election. Not Dukakis. The former governor and Democratic presidential nominee is 75, already a national figure, and content. He’s not in the market for a new career. And even if he were, he has too much integrity to go back on his word.

He’s also a passionate expert on the issue Kennedy held dearest. The senator devoted his life to the task of providing decent health care for everyone, and he died within sight of that goal. The point of the placeholder senator would be to give voice to Kennedy’s wishes on sweeping health care reform.

Dukakis, who had Kennedy’s support in his presidential campaign, joined that battle long ago. In 1988, he signed a universal health care bill that would have given comprehensive health insurance to everybody in Massachusetts, reined in hospital costs, and protected people who were unemployed or otherwise uninsurable. Then, faced with a cratering economy, his Republican successor Bill Weld throttled it. (Another Republican governor, Mitt Romney, signed a bill 16 years later that gave Massachusetts almost universal coverage.)

If the federal health care legislation survives the gutting it’s getting from the cynics, the loonies, and the legislators, it’s only fitting that Dukakis should be the one to vote on it.

And not only because of what Dukakis knows, but because of who he is.

One of the most remarkable things about Kennedy was that, even though he didn’t need to, he devoted his life to people who weren’t as lucky as he was. Dukakis doesn’t have Kennedy’s means, or his giant platform, but he is equally devoted to service. The idea of going into the private sector after leaving politics was as likely for Dukakis as relocating to Mars, or even New York. Since his last term as governor ended, he has devoted himself to teaching, as well as his causes: improving public transportation, safeguarding public spaces, reforming health care.

“What you see is what you get,’’ says Phil Johnston, the former Dukakis staff member who ran the state Democratic Party for years. “There’s no pretense. He just sits down and rolls up his sleeves and he goes to work on whatever the problem is.’’

And he’s done it with a humility you can’t help but admire. The guy still rides the T and loves it as much as he always did. He walks through the Fens picking up trash. He paints over graffiti on the mailboxes in his neighborhood (with permission from the postmaster, of course).

A turn in the Senate would be a capstone for his career, and a tribute he deserves.

It would be a tribute to Kennedy, too. Because, like the senator, the man who would be taking his vote on health care reform would be one of the last of an increasingly rare breed of politician in this state that was once famous for it: someone who knows what he stands for, and makes no bones about it.

Yvonne Abraham is a globe columnist. She can be reached at