MICHAEL DUKAKIS did not pick himself up from searing campaign losses or persevere to serve longer than any governor in Massachusetts history by viewing the glass as half empty, and he’s not about to start doing so now.
Dukakis has long been fueled by a steadiness of purpose and belief that better days are to come. His stride may have slowed from his power-walking days of the past, but the one-time Brookline High School cross country standout is still firmly oriented toward forward motion. That’s true whether it’s talking up the need to build more housing, or continuing the push to link North Station and South Station, a campaign on which he’s found an unlikely bedfellow in Bill Weld, the Republican governor who succeeded him in office.
“He’s a long distance runner,” said Ira Jackson, a protege and close confidant who served as state revenue commissioner under Dukakis. “He’s indefatigable. He’s tenacious.”
He’s also 90 years old, a milestone Dukakis reached earlier this month that might be expected to put one in a reflective mood.
Sitting comfortably in his Brookline living room with a sweater layered over a functional flannel shirt, Dukakis was happy to take a spin in the wayback machine. He marveled at the pluck of his immigrant father, who arrived in the US speaking no English with $15 in his pocket, and went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School. And recalled how he completed the Boston Marathon while still in high school – a race whose roots carry added meaning for a proud Greek American.
But staying true to form, Dukakis was more apt to steer the conversation to the present and the future, maintaining a positive bearing in the face of events that seem to invite despair.
Global turmoil, centered on the war in Israel and Gaza, weighs heavily on him, but he has faith that the situation will improve. While others focus on the toxic climate in Washington, he thinks things are going well domestically, pointing to the predictions of recession that have not come to pass. Remarkably, Dukakis doesn’t view the country as dangerously divided, invoking the long view that we have endured far worse moments – a civil war, followed by “something called Reconstruction, which was hardly the greatest period in American history, to put it mildly.”
After being elected governor in 1974, Dukakis lost his first reelection race, a crushing blow that his wife Kitty famously likened to “a public death.” After four years in the political wilderness he recalibrated, heeding criticism that he had come off as too aloof or arrogant to mount an impressive comeback. After reclaiming the governor’s office in 1982, he cruised to a third term four years later, and rode the success of the tech-based Massachusetts Miracle to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. His loss that November to George H.W. Bush is something Dukakis continues to assume blame for, expressing befuddlement to this day at his decision not to hit back at devastating attack ads tagging him soft on crime.
I profiled Dukakis 25 years ago this month, as he turned 65, for the Boston Globe. At the time, it had been 10 years since his failed presidential bid, and he had already assumed the status of elder statesman in the political realm. But not one for idle days or anything resembling conventional retirement, Dukakis was in the early years of what would be a long second act teaching public policy at Northeastern University and UCLA.
His more than three decades in campus classrooms after leaving office seem to have given him almost unbridled faith in young people to do the right thing and get the world onto a better track. “I think there are lots of hopeful and promising signs,” he says of the impact today’s younger generation will have.
“Michael looks ahead,” Sandy Bakalar, a Brookline High School classmate who set him up with Kitty, told me 25 years ago. “The glass is always half full for Michael, and he’s always been that way.”
Dukakis is credited with reorienting the state’s Democratic Party away from big-city machine politics and toward the more policy-focused outlook of suburban voters and progressive activists.
“He’s inspired whole generations and more to take seriously state and local government,” said Jackson. “For many of us, he’s our generation’s John F. Kennedy, inspiring us to do what’s right for your community, not just your country.”
He was ahead of the curve in pushing a universal health care law in the late 1980s. He saw the need for a robust public transportation system to power a major metropolitan economy when others were still fixated on the auto age. And through it all, he managed to think big about important public policy issues while living his values at the most grass-roots levels, whether it was regularly riding the T to the State House as governor or picking up litter along the Muddy River on the walk from his Brookline house to the Northeastern campus during his teaching days.
“He’s a very hands-on, applied, unpretentious guy, who builds things from the ground up,” said Jackson. “He’s the consummate public servant, in the best sense of the word. He’s honest, he’s sincere, he’s authentic, he’s committed. What you see is what you get, and what you get is a consistency over a lifetime of caring for the public good.”
I sat down with Dukakis at his Brookline home to hear how he sees things at 90. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH BEACON: When we spoke 25 years ago, you were turning 65 and teaching at Northeastern, and you said, I can’t imagine ever retiring. It seems like you’ve mostly made good at that.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I finally decided at the age of 87 that it was time to retire. Of sorts. I’m still trying to be as helpful as I can be and do good things where possible. But I’m now 90, for God’s sake.
CWB: So I’ve heard. How does that feel?
DUKAKIS: Doesn’t feel any different from when I was 89 or 88, but, you know, I’m getting a little older. But on the whole doing OK. We’re blessed with great kids and grandkids and lots of good friends.
CWB: When you think about the world today, it feels pretty grim both globally and domestically.
DUKAKIS: Well, domestically, we are doing remarkably well at a time when everybody was predicting recession and all this kind of stuff.
CWB: Yet the polls show the president is in deep trouble, and the former president, who’s facing 91 different criminal charges, is in the lead in five key swing states.
DUKAKIS: You figure it out.
CWB: How do you account for it?
DUKAKIS: I haven’t figured it out. There’s a long time between now and election day, and we’ll see what happens.
CWB: I guess you know a lot about the swings and ups and downs as we approach elections.
DUKAKIS: I do indeed.
CWB: Do you think more of the ups or the downs, or both, that you’ve experienced?
DUKAKIS: Well, something of both.
CWB: Having been involved in politics for what is probably approaching 70 years, how has it changed?
DUKAKIS: There’s good news in a lot of ways. I spent almost 30 years teaching and loved the response I was getting from my students. More and more young people are getting into public policy, into politics, and doing very good work. Now, in the meantime, we’ve got this other fellow [Trump] who’s kind of out there, who I don’t quite understand. And I hope we won’t have to continue to try to understand him. But clearly young people are getting more and more involved, and, on the whole, are philosophically progressive, but at the same time really into participating actively. And I think that’s a great thing. Now, what’s happened with the international community is hardly encouraging. This is a time, I hope, when good people, thoughtful people are going to be deeply and actively involved in making it a better time and a better world.
CWB: So it leaves you more hopeful than pessimistic about the future?
DUKAKIS: Yes. But, needless to say, this is not a happy time at the moment for obvious reasons.
CWB: What about the polarization that we see across the country? States are so…
DUKAKIS: Well, that’s always been.
CWB: You don’t think it’s more pronounced today?
DUKAKIS: No, not at all. In fact, among young people, I think there are lots of promising and hopeful signs. You know we had a Civil War once, right? And then we had something called Reconstruction, which was hardly the greatest period in American history, to put it mildly.
CWB: Closer to home, how do you feel like Massachusetts is doing?
DUKAKIS: I think we’re doing extremely well. It’s a state that’s really thriving in many, many ways.
CWB: On the upside we’re thriving, but on the downside, housing’s become impossible for young families and even those with middle-income salaries to afford.
DUKAKIS: Well, you’ve got to build affordable housing. I mean, there’s no mystery to this.
CWB: Meanwhile, the transportation system’s kind of in shambles.
DUKAKIS: Don’t get me started on that.
CWB: I’d like to.
DUKAKIS: Look, we’ve got a public transportation system that ought to be one of the best in the country. It was at one point. It has not done well over the past eight or 10 years.
CWB: What went wrong?
DUKAKIS: You’ll have to ask Charlie Baker. I don’t want to criticize him, but there was no reason why we shouldn’t have had a first rate public transportation system. We have had it from time to time, and it’s time to get back to that. We’re in the process of getting there, but it’s gonna take some time.
CWB: Meanwhile, on another rail interest of yours, I don’t know if you saw that the Biden administration said it’s allocating $10 billion to upgrade Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.
DUKAKIS: I saw Indeed. That’s a good thing. Also, this north-south rail link [connecting North Station and South Station] is a no-brainer. It would take 50,000 cars off the road every day. It’s not that complicated, but you’ve got to build it, you’ve got to maintain it.
CWB: Where does the presidential run [in 1988] figure in as you think about things? It was obviously the moment of your greatest national or international prominence.
DUKAKIS: Well, I made a serious mistake. Bush was coming after me on the death penalty. Well, the homicide rate in Houston, where Bush was from, was six times the homicide rate in Boston. They had the death penalty, we didn’t. And for a reason I still don’t understand, I didn’t just take that thing and run with it. I mean, it was just so obvious. I should have made it a major issue and I didn’t.
CWB: At 65, you were only half joking in saying one of the exciting things was you were going to be able to get the senior discount pass on the T. Are there perks to turning 90?
DUKAKIS: Just the good luck of being able to be alive and well and reasonably healthy.
CWB: Do you think a key part of your make-up and success has been that you’re a very forward looking guy? It seems like your inclination is not to ruminate, it’s to move ahead.
DUKAKIS: I think that’s true.
CWB: But when you think about your own life, how do you reflect on it and what its trajectory has been or what its impact has been? What do you want your legacy to be, how do you want to be thought of?
DUKAKIS: Just as a guy who was deeply committed to public service and was able in many ways, with the help of lots and lots of other people, to achieve important goals that help people to live well, do well, and, in particular in this state, provide a good life for folks.