In part one of this extended interview, Next Generation co-founder and Master Class leader Michael Dukakis talks about his early career as a “young Turk” in Massachusetts politics, recalls the best advice he ever received, and tells us why he encourages young people to pursue public service — through programs like the Next Generation Initiative. Excerpted from an interview with Jeff Pearlman.
“Drive onto the UCLA campus,” writes New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, “head over to the Luskin School of Public Affairs and you’ll likely run into a bunch of students, some teachers—and (ho-hum) the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.”
“The professor sits behind a desk, typing at a computer. He looks like any number of other professors you and I have had in our lives—worn shoes, a slightly wrinkled collared shirt, grayed hair going this way and that way. Here, on the UCLA campus, in an office on the sixth floor of the Luskin School of Public Affairs building, Michael Dukakis blends in like the brownish walls. Students pass, faculty pass, hi, bye, see ya later, let’s grab a bite to eat…
“It is a strange place to find the man who was almost president.”
ON BOUNCING BACK FROM DEFEAT
Question: After you lose a big election, is it hard to bounce back into life and say, “OK, let’s do this!”?
Michael Dukakis: Of course it is.
Q: Were you watching TV and eating ice cream?
M.D.: No, I wasn’t doing that because after the presidential thing I had to go back to the governor’s office… Now was I a better governor the second time around because of the defeat? No question.
ON BEING A “YOUNG TURK”
M.D.: …when I went into the legislature in 1962, Massachusetts was one of the three or four most corrupt states in the country. Here we were, we’d just elected this terrific young president in 1960. And we are who we are. So a bunch of us younger Democrats got elected in 1962, and then again in 1964. And we were determined to clean this thing up. And I kind of became the leader of the young Turks. It used to give my father heartburn. He was this Greek man born in Western Turkey, who comes to the United States and reads in the paper that his son is the leader of the young Turks. I had to explain that it was just a figure of speech. So I was a reformer; I was a rebel of sorts, even within the legislature. And pretty effective as a legislature. But the party establishment—I was the last guy they wanted to see in the governor’s office.
ON BASKETBALL — AND THE BEST ADVICE HE EVER RECEIVED
M.D.: I had a great high school basketball coach named Johnny Grinnell. He had been a great basketball player at Tufts in the 1930s. He couldn’t stand Joe McCarthy during the McCarthy period. And because I lived in the south side of town and a buddy of mine named Bob Wool moved to Newton, and Grinnell lived in Newton, at the end of practice we’d jump in the car with him and he’d take Wool to Newton and leave me off at the intersection of Route 9 and Hammond Street and I’d hitchhike home. I was 17 at the time, and we were talking about McCarthy. He said, “You know, Mike, you ought to seriously think about running for public office.”
ON PUBLIC SERVICE AND GIVING BACK
M.D.: You wanna go out there and win because you think you can make a real contribution… you don’t run for the presidency for the hell of it. You run because you really want to do things and you think you can do things… there’s nothing like being the president of the United States, and having that kind of opportunity.
…People say, “It must be better now that you’re out of politics and the pressure is off.” I say to them, “You don’t understand us guys. We love pressure.” I’m as deeply involved in stuff today as I was 20 years ago.
Q: Would you run for office again?
M.D.: No, no. I think at some point you have to put that to one side. I like teaching, I like working with young people, trying to open up doors to public service for them.
ON HIS FIVE FAVORITE REPUBLICANS
M.D.: Abraham Lincoln—not just because of the Civil War. I’m a train fanatic, and Lincoln was the guy, in the middle of the Civil War, who pushed the transcontinental railroad. He’s the president responsible for the transcontinental railroad, which transformed the country; Teddy Roosevelt—Who, by the way, was the first serious presidential candidate to propose universal health insurance, in 1912; George Norris—George was a Republican senator from Nebraska who was the father of the TVA. And he was a close ally of Roosevelt’s during the Great Depression. A remarkable guy; Dan Evans—He was the governor of the state of Washington when I was first elected. A wonderful guy. Just a great guy. Who really reached out to guys like me and shared experiences and thoughts. Just a lovely man; Tom Kean—He’s a remarkable guy. From New Jersey. And a good person, and a gutsy person.