Michael Dukakis

Michael Dukakis (born 1933) is a former Governor of Massachusettes who lost his bid for President of the United States to George Bush in 1988.

Michael Dukakis is the type of person who would take along a book called Swedish Land-Use Planning as light reading on a family vacation. With Michael Dukakis the "Mike" of campaign signs is just that, a campaign device, with even his wife calling him "Michael" at home—"what you see is what you get," according to his octogenarian mother, Euterpe. What people see is a liberal Northeast ethnic governor committed to what has nearly become the archaic notion of "public service," who is also, according to U.S. News & World Report, "the local version of the Jack Benny joke." He rides the Green Line trolley to his Massachusetts State House office, buys his clothes at Filene's Basement discount store in downtown Boston, and frugally prepares the post-Thanksgiving turkey tetrazinni from leftovers in the Dukakis household. Time magazine even calls his political world-view "liberalism on the cheap" for trying to make ever rarer social service dollars stretch farther.

But Dukakis also gets high marks for intelligence and hard work. His high school yearbook calls him "Big Chief Brain in Face." If elected, he would be the nation's most conversant president, speaking Spanish and Greek easily, and French, Italian, and Korean passably. Dukakis—the name is often shortened to "The Duke" in Massachusetts— shocked Hispanic crowds all across the country during the 1988 presidential primary season with speeches in nearly flawless Spanish. Newsweek may have written that Dukakis "scores high on the 'Nerdometer"' but also admitted that unlike fallen candidate Gary Hart, brought down by charges of womanizing, "nobody watches [Dukakis's] town-house door." Dukakis, the magazine wrote, has a "cable-ready glow" designed to win if not the hearts of voters, then at least their votes.

Dukakis's three-term reign as a governor in Massachusetts is broken down locally into two distinct eras. The split terms he has served are known as "Duke I" and "Duke II, The Sequel." Duke I incorporates everything through his first four-year term as governor, which ended in a disastrous defeat in 1978, an event Dukakis freely describes as the low point of his life. Duke II is everything after that, including reelection in 1982 and to a third term by record margins in 1986.

The first campaign for governor in 1974 had little humor. It ran on the official slogan "Michael Dukakis Should Be Governor." The New York Times observed, "It was a sign of the hubris that sometimes grows out of his self-confidence." It was also a sign of some problems to come. But in 1974, voters wanted a change after six years of Republican governor Francis Sargent, who had left the state in dire economic trouble. Dukakis won the election handily. But the honeymoon with an independent-minded state legislature was short-lived. Dukakis didn't bother to include anyone from the state House or Senate in his plans or triumphs. By the end of six months, the revolt was in the open. The biggest problem: a growing reputation for arrogance, both from Dukakis and the Harvard-trained "technocrats" who surrounded him. One Dukakis veteran of that period told Time, "We were brighter than anyone else and not embarrassed about showing it." But after taking office the Dukakis administration discovered a $600 million deficit in the budget they inherited from the Sargent era, which forced the new governor to cut social services and raise taxes— something he had vowed during the campaign not to do.

Dukakis's bent for "reform" of traditional backroom politics during this time made him an inflexible compromiser. Kevin Harrington, then state Senate president, told the Chicago Tribune," His approach to government was: 'This is it.' It was his way or no way." Duke I, according to the Washington Post, was "a man of such humorless self-righteousness that he alienated most of the politicians around him; a man with visionary ideas but a distaste for traditional politics." State legislators rebelled in big ways and small. William Bulger, then House majority leader and now Senate president, told the Post that because they knew of Dukakis's dislike for smoking, "We'd all light up cigars [at meetings with him]. Even guys who never smoked would light up." Critics called him "Michael the Good" or "The Boy Scout." Massachusetts, on the strength of Dukakis's tax increases, became "Taxachusetts," in what the Nation calls "an exaggerated but effective play on words and facts." It is a sobriquet that political opponents—in the state and out— still use to bludgeon Dukakis.

By the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primary, voters were frustrated with Dukakis. In his place, they elected conservative Edward King, who went on to win the general election. The loss, as Dukakis has frequently described it, was "the most painful thing that ever happened to me in my life." Kitty Dukakis, his wife, told the Washington Post, "At one point I was really worried about him." Dukakis plaintively asked, "Was I really that bad a governor?"

Shunning the public spotlight, Dukakis went into internal exile at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he was director of intergovernmental studies and led a seminar for senior managers in state and local government. He was, by appearances, just another academic. He biked to work and brown bagged his lunch—or stood in line at the school's cafeteria.

It was during this period that the transition to Duke II began. Insight magazine wrote that longtime friend Paul Brountas said: "I think what he learned was that he did make some mistakes. He didn't maintain the ties to the people and to the groups that got him elected [to his first term], and that was the key reason for his defeat." Dukakis explained the change to the Washington Post this way: "I learned how to listen, how to think a little bit longer before I do things. I learned to do better at building coalitions. I understood a lot better than I did that you've got to involve people from the beginning in what you're doing— legislators, constituency leaders—and if you involved them, you get not only greater commitment but a better product." Still, cynics wondered—and still wonder—how much of Duke II is real and how much is just an adaptation to political realities. Michael J. Widmer, Dukakis's director of communications during his first term as governor, told the New York Times: " He still doesn't listen easily to others. The only real change is that he's become more cautious. He may have learned how to handle politicians better, but he is also less willing to take risks because he doesn't want to lose again." And the Chicago Tribune reported: "Some critics complained that his new governing style lacks leadership. His aim, they say, was to avoid making enemies and ensure re-election."

After Duke II won his 1982 rematch against King, he was careful—unlike Duke I—to share credit with other elected officials in the state whenever key legislation was enacted. By 1986, Newsweek ranked Dukakis as the nation's most effective governor. And later that year, after winning a third term in the November general election by a landslide margin, Dukakis was already putting the machinery in place for his presidential bid two years hence.

Dukakis, born November 3, 1933, outside Boston in suburban Brookline, is, as he frequently said on the presidential campaign trail, the "son of Greek immigrants." The elder Dukakis, who died in 1979 at age 83, came to the United States in 1912 without speaking a word of English. Eight years later, he was the first Greek to enter the Harvard Medical School, where he became an obstetrician. Euterpe Dukakis went to Bates College in Maine and became a teacher. Even at 83, she campaigned for her son's presidential bid. There was no allowance and plenty of discipline in the solidly middle-class home when Dukakis was growing up. The Chicago Tribune wrote, "Dukakis is fond of recalling his father's admonition: 'Much has been given to you. Much is expected of you."'

Dukakis got his start in politics early. When he was just seven, he and his older brother, Stelian, sat glued to the family radio, "listening to the Republican convention, and taking down the delegate vote state by state," he told the Washington Post. At Brookline High, Dukakis was president of the student council and highly regarded in athletics, including basketball, which is surprising given his adult height of just 5 feet 8 inches. As a senior, he finished 57th in the Boston Marathon, which was considered a major accomplishment for someone his age. School chum Haskell Kassler told the Washington Post:

"The marathon was something all of us watched, but none of us dreamed of running it. Michael trained, and did it." At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Dukakis was again a student government leader. He also led a fight against a local barber who refused to cut the hair of black students. Dukakis set up his own barber shop, scoring a blow for civil rights and also making some money on the side. Even then, classmate Richard Burtis told Time, Dukakis talked of becoming governor of Massachusetts.

After Swarthmore, Dukakis entered Harvard Law School in 1957. Two years later, he tackled Brookline politics, winning a seat at the town meeting on a platform of "ousting the dominant working-class Irish politicians," whom he derided as corrupt hacks, according to the New York Times. That reform impulse would continue to mark his career. By 1962, now a practicing lawyer, he won a seat in the state legislature. For eight years there he was known as a maverick reformer. But Dukakis, running for lieutenant governor, lost in his first bid for statewide office when the Democratic ticket was defeated in 1970. He reentered private law practice with a big-name Boston firm and also hosted a public television talk show called "The Advocates," which gave him valuable on-camera experience. Within four years, Dukakis was back, this time running successfully for governor against Sargent.

Dukakis's decision to enter the presidential sweepstakes, like everything else he does, was made deliberately. The first seeds were planted during Walter Mondale's defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1984. John Sasso, probably Dukakis's closest aide (he was forced to resign from the Dukakis presidential campaign because of criticism over a video he secretly released to the media that attacked another Democratic contender) served as campaign manager for Mondale's running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. Dukakis himself had earlier made Mondale's list of possible running mates. The Boston Globe reported that a week after Mondale's humiliating loss, Sasso was back in Boston, and Dukakis asked for a postmortem on where the Democrats had gone wrong. Sasso gave his assessment, then added that Dukakis would not be likely to suffer the same fate. Dukakis was not convinced, but during the next two years Sasso marketed the "Massachusetts Miracle" across the country. By late summer in 1986, Dukakis got reassurances that enough campaign donations would roll in to fund a presidential bid. In November, he won his landslide third term and began a public exploration of a possible candidacy. Dukakis entered the presidential race on March 16, 1987. He told a Boston press conference, "I have the energy to run this marathon, the strength to run this country, the experience to manage our government and the values to lead our people."

The Dukakis strategy in the early primaries was to survive the Iowa caucus (he did, placing third against two regional candidates), win the New Hampshire primary where he was the regional candidate (he did, with nearly twice the votes of the closest competitor), and go on to a big day on Super Tuesday when 20 states voted or caucused. It worked. On Super Tuesday, Dukakis took his own state, the major delegate prizes of Texas and Florida, and several others. Overnight he became the front-runner, a distinction he would hold on to right into the Democratic convention.

How did a little-known governor pull it off? The Boston Globe wrote: "He was lucky. The Democratic Party's best known names—Kennedy, Bradley, Cuomo—bypassed the race. Front-runner Gary Hart dropped out just nine days after Dukakis announced his candidacy. His opponents (with the prominent exception of the Rev. Jesse Jackson) were as little known as he was, and his arsenal included a world-class fund-raising operation." The New Yorker observed: "Dukakis' 'Mr. Goodwrench' approach to government is selling somewhat, but it isn't the only reason he may prevail. If he does prevail, it will also be in large part because he had the best campaign plan and the money to implement it."

There were mistakes early in the campaign. The problem, according to several observers, was that Dukakis had lived virtually his whole life on the banks of the Charles River, which divides Boston from Cambridge and Harvard. That seemed to lead to cultural nearsightedness, such as the time he urged Iowa farmers to grow Belgian endive as an alternative crop—a Yuppie food few in the Bread Belt had ever heard of. The Boston Globe reported that at a small-town Midwest campaign stop, the candidate lectured wizened Iowa farmers "who looked as if they had never left the state" about the need to cut that "Caribbean vacation" instead of the grocery budget.

More seriously, critics—and not just in other campaigns—question how much Dukakis is responsible for the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle," which he touts at nearly every campaign stop. In Business Week, Dukakis said, "We took an economic basket case and turned it into an economic showcase." Opponents say key elements of the "showcase" were already in place when Dukakis won his rematch with King in 1982. Also, Massachusetts's recovery was fueled, at least in part, by the defense spending of President Reagan, something Dukakis may have to rationalize with his more liberal defense policies. Christopher Anderson of the Massachusetts High Technology Council told Newsweek," We could have had a personal computer running the government and we'd still have a healthy economy." But the New York Times said other studies showed Dukakis indeed helped the Massachusetts boom by steering new industry into economically depressed areas outside of Boston, such as the former mill towns of Lowell and Lawrence.

Dukakis the man is more difficult to isolate than his policies. Dukakis, who comes off as cool and cerebral, "is more apt to stir the mind than the soul," according to the Chicago Tribune. Thomas P. O'Neill III, son of former House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill, told the paper: "Michael is not the type of person you'd have a beer with. He would consider that a waste of time." In fact, the Dukakis campaign tried to capitalize on just that stuffy image. A television commercial aired during the Illinois primary featured a bricklayers union spokesman from Boston making the same observation, but adding: "If you want somebody to drink with, call your buddy. If you care about your job, vote for Mike Dukakis." In Illinois, though, where Dukakis finished third behind the local favorites Jesse Jackson and U.S. Senator Paul Simon, this approach may have backfired. The New Yorker said many Illinois voters asked themselves, "What's the matter with Dukakis that he's not a shot-and-beer kind of guy?" Clearly, though, that image doesn't bother Dukakis. Close friend Boston surgeon Nicholas Zervas told the Chicago Tribune:" He has absolutely no material needs. He's more interested in ideas."

Lighting a cigarette, Kitty Dukakis—she has been trying to quit for years—often pleads, "Don't tell Michael." The couple has been Massachusetts' first Odd Couple since they emerged into the public eye. She is Jewish; he is Greek Orthodox. She loves spending money; he abhors it. At one point, she had to keep part of her wardrobe at her parents' home—her father is former Boston Pops associate conductor and violinist Harry Ellis Dickson—for fear of what Michael would say. They both went to Brookline High School but didn't start dating until 1961; he a Harvard Law School student, she a divorced mother working and going to school part-time. They married in 1963 and, besides Kitty's son, John, from her first marriage, have two daughters, Andrea and Kara.

One of the few bumps in Dukakis's road through the presidential primaries came when Kitty Dukakis admitted a 26-year addiction to diet pills that only ended in 1982 after treatment at a private clinic in Minnesota. She has turned the revelation to her husband's advantage, campaigning as a friend to people who have experienced chemical dependencies. But opponents of Dukakis questioned how he could not have noticed his wife's addiction over the course of more than two decades. The New York Times wrote, "Some wondered if he was practicing a form of self-deception." Kitty Dukakis openly despises those "silly wife questions." When she was asked how her husband's shirts always looked so wrinkle-free at the end of the day, Time magazine reported her answering: "I don't do his shirts. You'll have to ask him." Not surprisingly, it turns out that Dukakis does his own shirts.

Michael Dukakis chose Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr. of Texas as his running mate in the 1988 campaign, but Dukakis's candidacy never lived up to expectations. The Massachusetts governor was buffeted by the now notorious Willie Horton television ads and repeated images of himself riding in an Army tank wearing headphones that looked like Mickey Mouse ears. Republicans George Bush and Dan Quayle easily won the White House by a margin of over 7 million popular votes. The Bush campaign also exploited the word "liberal" by claiming that Dukakis and Bentsen represented the worst that liberalism had to offer: unwarranted federal intervention and social engineering, high taxes, and the coddling of criminals. The Democrats could only rejoin after the election that it was difficult to run against the "peace and prosperity" of the Reagan years. Being a little more dispassionate, Commentary in a post-election analysis summed up Dukakis and his failure at national politics by quoting from In These Times, an "independent socialist weekly": "In three terms as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis has been an effective liberal reformer with a strong managerial bent. Liberal groups have generally found Dukakis sympathetic to their causes and willing to devote state resources to solve social and economic problems of poor and working-class people, but often too willing to compromise on regulation and taxes for the sake of political consensus."

The voters saw Dukakis as basically a nice guy with good intentions who didn't know when to stop or say no. Commentary went on to claim that "Dukakis was, of course, aware from the outset of the low regard in which voters have come to hold liberalism." In his acceptance speech Dukakis told the convention's delegates that " … this election isn't about ideology. It's about competence." Two weeks before the election he told Ted Koppel: "Ted, I'm not a liberal." The voters weren't buying it.

In late 1989, while he was still reeling from the criticism of the media and his fellow Democrats, Dukakis's personal world began to fall apart. Reports were leaked to the press that Kitty was suffering from alcoholism and had resorted to drinking rubbing alcohol in a bout of depression on the one-year anniversary of her husband's defeat. A close friend described Kitty as giving "a cry for help." Kitty was hospitalized in Boston, and it was further revealed that she had been taking prescription antidepressants and had been attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. A spokeswoman implied that Kitty's drinking rubbing alcohol may have been a suicide attempt.

Dukakis's "Massachusetts Miracle" also began falling apart during the waning years of his governorship. Newsweek reported in early 1990 that his unfavorable rating had climbed to an incredible 79 percent as Massachusetts faced a $825 million deficit. Upon hearing the approval rating, Howie Carr, Boston Herald columnist and longtime opponent of Dukakis, quipped "What's wrong with the other 21 percent of the population?" The looming flood of red ink in the state budget prompted the dismantling of many of the government programs and services the three-term governor had fought so hard to implement. Massachusetts was also facing the lowest bond rating in the country. Dukakis wisely declined to seek another term in office.

For the next two years Michael and Kitty Dukakis shunned publicity and all but disappeared from public life. Dukakis turned to the academic world and began teaching political science at the University of Australia and the University of Hawaii. By late 1992 the couple had returned to Massachusetts and the former governor was teaching at Northeastern University near Boston and grading papers in a cramped third-floor office. Still notorious for his personal parsimony, Dukakis was walking two miles to work and standing in the lunch line at the school's cafeteria. People reported in 1994 that Kitty Dukakis had enrolled in a master's program in social work at Boston University. In addition to teaching at Northeastern Michael Dukakis still feels committed to public service. "Public life is my life," he told one reporter. In October 1996 Dukakis, Lamar Alexander, and Richard Lamm were in Washington, D.C. to tape an episode of a television series, Race for the Presidency, produced by TCI News, to discuss what went wrong with their presidential campaigns.


Further Reading on Michael Dukakis

Kenney, Charles, and Robert Turner, Dukakis: An American Odyssey, Houghton, 1988.

Boston Globe, February 14, 1988; May 8, 1988.

Business Week, March 23, 1987.

Chicago Tribune, August 7, 1987.

Insight, May 9, 1988.

Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1987.

Nation, May 16, 1987.

New Republic, October 26, 1987.

Newsweek, March 24, 1986; July 20, 1987; November 30, 1987.

New Yorker, April 4, 1988.

New York Times, April 10, 1988.

New York Times Magazine, May 8, 1988.

Time, March 30, 1987; July 27, 1987; February 22, 1988; May 2, 1988.

U.S. News & World Report, March 30, 1987; July 6, 1987.

Washington Post, June 29, 1987; August 25, 1987; October 5, 1996.

Commentary, February, 1989.

Detroit News, November 9, 1989; December 16, 1992.

Newsweek, January 8, 1990.

People, November 28, 1994.

USA Weekend, March 1-3, 1991.