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The lessons of Mike Dukakis

Nearing 70, the former governor, now a professor, reflects on what he's learned

The phone rings in the Northeastern University office where professor Michael S. Dukakis is scribbling away at his desk. On the other end of the line is a friend who wants to know how he is doing. Asked of anyone else, it would be an innocuous question.

"Well, I'm living under the worst national administration of my lifetime," Dukakis barks in his trademark staccato, his caterpillar eyebrows arched to signal a punchline is coming. "If I'd beat his old man, you'd never have heard of this guy, so blame me."

A portrait of Abraham Lincoln may hang on his office wall, but the partisan juices still flow within Mike Dukakis, Democrat of Massachusetts. It's probably just as well, because the Republican Party is likely to make him a campaign issue in the 2004 presidential campaign and resurrect negative images of him if his former lieutenant governor, Senator John F. Kerry, wins the Democratic nomination that Dukakis once held in his grasp.

Dukakis seems prepared for all that. What he finds a bit jolting is the fact that he will turn 70 on Monday. "The big 7-0," he groans. Yet he still has that almost alarming alertness about him, that eagerness to slice and dice a policy question within an inch of its life, that unblinking certitude about what he believes. Those qualities were admired in the good times and reviled in the bad times, when the name Dukakis became a virtual epithet, its harsh consonants expelled through gritted teeth.

Yet here he is, still. Other former governors have moved on: Bill Weld is in New York City, practicing law and writing novels. Paul Cellucci is in Canada, living the ambassador's life. But Mike Dukakis is here, except for the three winter months he spends teaching at UCLA. He still lives in Brookline, the town where he was born on Nov. 3, 1933. He rises each day at 5:30 a.m., makes coffee, and reads the papers. He limbers up, then does 80 or 90 sit-ups before walking 2 miles to Northeastern, scooping up litter along the way. He arrives at his office by 7:30 and buckles down to work, preparing lectures -- he teaches an undergraduate course in public policy and administration and a graduate course in "functions and techniques of public management" -- while constantly fielding calls to speak at this function or support that cause.

His days still seem hectic, measured out in tightly scheduled increments. "Life never seems to slow down," he says. The words are not spoken with regret. The man who always seemed most at home in a dark suit (though he famously wore a sweater while presiding over cleanup efforts during the Blizzard of '78) is attired in a red flannel shirt, khaki pants, and, fittingly, running shoes. "I love teaching. I love working with these young people," he says, adding that he plans to teach a course next summer on presidential politics that will be linked to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. "I can't imagine sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair," he says. "I just couldn't do that."

Mass. state of mind

Dukakis never really disengaged from the political life that claimed him for so long. In the years after he left the State House, a reporter who called to solicit his opinion on an issue would be invariably greeted with: "How goes the Commonwealth?" Even today, the mention of his name can raise hackles in some quarters. Barbara Anderson, head of Citizens for Limited Taxation, says she wishes Dukakis well as a person; but as a politician, she contends, he turned Massachusetts into "taxpayer hell."

"He's reaching age 70, and his `temporary' income tax is 14," Anderson says. "Maybe they can celebrate together."

Perhaps in a spirit of empathy, Dukakis has closely followed the fate of another politician who fell into disfavor with voters, Governor Gray Davis of California. "If there had been a recall statute in this state, I'd have been recalled 20 times," Dukakis says. "I'm serious. How can you make tough decisions with that kind of thing hanging over your head?" He maintains that in the face of a massive budget gap in 1989-'90, "We did everything we could to get that situation as close to balanced as possible, including raising taxes," which he says provided a solid underpinning for Weld, his successor as governor.

He first won the governor's office in 1974, then lost in the Democratic primary to Edward J. King in 1978, then beat King in a ferocious rematch in 1982, and won reelection to a third term in 1986. That set the stage for his presidential run, as the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle" propelled him to the Democratic nomination. He says he bears no grudge against the man who beat him in 1988. "George Bush Sr. is OK," he says. "He beat me, that's all. It wasn't his fault that he beat me. I mean, I was never a guy who got mad at people."

For a while, plenty of Massachusetts Democrats were mad at Dukakis. He is the last Democrat to be elected governor here -- a fact that some say is no coincidence. Yet for a guy not known for his passion, he has always been passionate about this state where he has spent his life. Philip Johnston, a former human-services chief under Dukakis who is now chairman of the state Democratic Party, recalls flying back with him from Washington in December 1990, when he was in his final days as governor. The previous two years had been punishing ones, and Johnston presumed Dukakis was sunk in gloom as he gazed out the window at the Boston skyline below. But he startled Johnston by suddenly turning to him and exclaiming, apropos of nothing, "Philip, this state has a great future!"

"This was at his nadir, the lowest point in his career," remarks Johnston. "And his focus was on Massachusetts."

Advice from experience

So what is his focus on these days? Everything, it seems. It will surprise no one that Dukakis still overflows with opinions and statistics about the nuts-and-bolts issues he always considered of paramount importance, such as transportation (he served on the Amtrak board for five years, including a stint as interim chairman) and health care reform. He is pleased overall with the Big Dig project he helped set in motion, though he is "not pleased with the cost or the time" it has required. If he had won the presidency, he says, "I think we would have had universal health care by this time."

On foreign policy, he notes with some amusement: "I was accused in the '88 campaign of being a multilateralist, and they made it sound almost pornographic"; now, on issues involving Iraq and North Korea, "the guy in the White House is probably waking up to the fact that you need your allies." He believes that while Bill Clinton "did a damn good job as president," the "mess" he was involved in -- presumably a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- might have kept Al Gore from a decisive victory in 2000.

Dukakis has warned Kerry that if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination, "He'd better be ready from the get-go for a massive attack campaign by a president who's going to have more resources to use on such an attack campaign than any presidential candidate in history." So far, he says, Kerry is "running a good campaign. He's just got to go out and win it now.

"If they try to attack his patriotism as they did mine and Clinton's," Dukakis adds, it will backfire because Kerry "was getting shot at on the Mekong River while these guys were filing for deferments and going AWOL." Still, he says, Kerry has "got to be ready with a well thought out strategy that not only blocks the attacks but turns them into a character issue on the guy who's doing them. Which I didn't do."

He is referring to 1988. In August of that year, a poll gave Dukakis a 17-point lead over George H. W. Bush. By the end of the month -- as the Bush campaign and its surrogates hammered Dukakis on issues such as the Massachusetts prison furlough system and the environmental condition of Boston Harbor -- the Democrat had fallen 10 points behind. Dukakis concedes that he "failed miserably" when it came to responding to Bush's attacks. Then, returning to Massachusetts in defeat, he cemented his unpopularity by pushing through massive tax increases to cope with a state budget crisis. In Anderson's view, "He ran for president and wrecked the [state's] economy." In Johnston's view, "People needed a scapegoat, and this can be a very mean town. It was never meaner than in 1989-1990."

With the passage of time, Johnston argues, Dukakis will be remembered for setting "completely new standards for ethics and honesty and integrity in state government." Johnston is helping organize a 70th birthday party for Dukakis and says more than 1,000 tickets have already been sold at $150 each for the event Monday at the Park Plaza. Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the actress Olympia Dukakis, the ex-governor's cousin, are among those chairing the event.

With age, inevitably, comes loss, and Dukakis was buffeted this year by the loss of two important people in his life: his mother, Euterpe, who died in April at 99, and his father-in-law, Harry Ellis Dickson, who died in March at 94. He brightens, however, when he talks about his four grandchildren (a fifth is on the way) and about a heartening turn in his wife's longstanding battle with depression.

Kitty Dukakis recently spoke publicly about receiving electroshock treatments, known as electroconvulsive therapy, to combat the illness that has long bedeviled her. "Let me tell you, it's been a miracle in Kitty's life," her husband says. "I cannot tell you what a difference it's made in her life, in the lives of those of us who love her." The knowledge that another bout of depression was always around the corner, he says, contributed to the drinking problem that Kitty has previously acknowledged. The ECT treatments have succeeded, he says, where antidepressants failed.

"I'm so proud of what she's done in helping others to get help. Believe me, the last three years or so have just been very different and terrific. And she's going to be 67 in December. She's the best-looking 67-year-old on the planet, but she's 67."

As he prepares to mark his own milestone, Dukakis seems a bit surprised by the swift passage of time. It was 40 years ago that Dukakis entered the Legislature as a young reformer bent on changing the ethical climate in a state legendary for political corruption. "I'm not sure I was the most loved guy in the place," he says dryly. But back then, he says, "this state, sadly, was one of the three or four most corrupt states in the country. Crime commissions, indictments, convictions . . . It was everywhere. I remember ringing doorbells, and people would literally look at me and say, `You look honest. I'll vote for you.' "

A lot of people reached that conclusion about Mike Dukakis over the years. And even if he didn't make it to the political summit, he seems content with the peaks he was able to reach. "It's been a great run, with all the ups and downs, the support, the successes, to have been able to live the kind of life that I've been able to lead," he says. "It was a rare privilege."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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