In the weeks leading up to the convention, we're talking to leading party figures — both national and local — for what we're calling Creative Conversations.
For the first installment of the series we speak with former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. The son of Greek immigrants, Dukakis rose rapidly in politics in the 1980s while his party was desperately trying to rebound from the Reagan revolution.
Dukakis was a stoic politician who professed a confidant liberalism with a sense of idealism. He won a presidential primary field that included Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon, Joe Biden and Gary Hart, and accepted his party's nomination at the '88 DNC in Atlanta. The rest is history, as the Republicans turned to racist campaign advertisements to ensure Dukakis' defeat in November.
Twenty-four years later, Dukakis spends most of his time in the classroom as a visiting professor of public policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and a distinguished professor in the department of political science at Northeastern University. He spoke with CL about his presidential campaign, the '88 DNC and why we can blame him for George W.
Creative Loafing: Where is the country, and where is it heading?
Michael Dukakis: I share everyone's concerns about the state of the economy. Now, I'm a Democrat obviously, and I thought the policies of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress were disastrous. They practically created another Great Depression, and we were going right over the cliff when Obama took over. So I think the president has done a hell of a job under very difficult circumstances. I also know all about Mitt Romney, as does every citizen of Massachusetts, and the notion that he's the guy to turn this economy around is laughable. When Romney was governor, this state was 47th out of 50 in job creation. Only Michigan, Ohio and Louisiana after Katrina were worse. And when he left office our state's infrastructure was wrecked.
It does seem like we have come an awfully long way since 1988, when then-Vice President Bush's campaign used wedge issues like a Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning and the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools to portray you as unpatriotic and "a card-carrying member of the ACLU." It seems remarkable that someone with a diverse background, and the middle name Hussein, is about to be re-nominated for the presidency.
I'm a guy who was born the year that Hitler took over, so I've been around for a while. We talk about schools ... good Lord, when I graduated from high school, over half the kids in this country never finished high school. We didn't talk about a dropout rate in those days. It is a much better country today than it was then, and that's because a lot of good people got deeply active in public affairs. This "good ol' days" notion that things used to be so great is a fantasy.
Were you surprised that America was finally able to cross a racial barrier by electing an African-American president, when only a few years earlier it seemed impossible?
Yes I was, and I think it was a terrific step forward. The students that I am teaching these days come from every conceivable race and ethnic background there is. Speaking as the son of immigrants, it is great to see these young people doing big things and wanting to serve in public life. That's one of the reasons teaching is so fun these days.
Tell us about the '88 convention and your campaign.
The convention was great. Unfortunately, I peaked in Atlanta, and I made one huge mistake. I decided that I would not respond to the Bush attack campaign. You can't sit there mute if somebody is coming at you.
Where were you when Bill Clinton gave your nominating speech, and what were your thoughts when it dragged on and took forever?
I think I was in my hotel watching it. In fairness to Clinton, we all looked at it, read it, and thought it was very good. It just went on a little too long. When Clinton announced in the fall of '91 for the presidency he went on Johnny Carson, and when asked why he was running Clinton said, "I want to finish my speech for Dukakis."
If you had to pick one issue that, above all, you wish you had been elected to take on and solve, what would it have been?
One of course was the economy, it always is. And the other was health care. I had just signed a universal health-care bill in Massachusetts, long before Romney or anyone else around here. In fact, had my successor not done his best to screw it up, we would have had decent affordable health care for everyone years ago. And I wanted to do that nationally, I was very committed to that.
How do you think the U.S. would have developed differently, had you been elected president in 1988?
Well, as I say to people, I owe you all an apology because if I had beaten Bush No. 1 you would have never heard of Bush No. 2 and we would never be in this mess. So you can blame me.