At 82, “the Duke” looks pretty much the same as he did 28 years ago, when he came from behind to win the New Hampshire primary, beating the 1988 campaign’s early frontrunner, Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt.
When Next Generation Master Class leader Michael Dukakis talks today with students about his experience, he often speaks to a more personal side of running for president.
“The first thing he said was he knew that he had the support and the donors, but the major factor was his family,” says one of his students. “He also spoke about integrity. He spoke about staying true to yourself and ‘finding you’ before you decide to run.”
Few people have the insights that Dukakis brings to running in a presidential primary — and even fewer can say they’ve won their party’s nomination. The former Democratic candidate certainly knows first-hand what it’s like to go from being the underdog to winning in New Hampshire, and then being branded the primary season’s front-runner — the sort of media flattery that invites trouble for a campaign, and a candidate.
Dukakis has three important lessons for any candidate who hopes to win a race: don’t buy the hype, don’t trust the polls — and don’t think “momentum” is a substitute for a solid ground game.
“God forbid anybody calls you the front-runner. We used to work overtime to make sure I wasn’t called the front-runner,” Dukakis told an interviewer.
He certainly wasn’t the frontrunner to start with.
In the very first contest of that year’s presidential campaign, the Iowa caucuses, Michael Dukakis had come in third, behind Dick Gephardt and Illinois senator Paul Simon, suddenly putting the little-known three-time Massachusetts governor in the national spotlight.
Foreshadowing the 2016 Iowa caucuses — in which two of the three top Republican finishers were Hispanic — Dukakis’ third place showing also catapulted a Greek American for the first time into the very top tier of a presidential race.
The night before, at a caucus night celebration in Des Moines, Iowa, the second-generation Greek American Dukakis told supporters,
“I’m a guy who went out to Iowa 10 months ago, and nobody knew what a Dukakis was,” making fun of his (to most voters) foreign-sounding last name.
In fact, Dukakis’ third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses was deemed “respectable” by the media — and when he might have undergone the searing scrutiny accorded the favorite in New Hampshire, as the candidate with the most to lose by not meeting suddenly higher expectations — the news media were instead consumed by a bitter Republican primary contest, and his Democratic rivals were consuming one another.
Dukakis knows that success in Iowa or New Hampshire can hold just as much danger as promise for a candidate, bringing the kind of new-found attention that has upended many front-running candidates in the past.
The New Hampshire primary is no shoe-in, no matter who you are and what you bring to the race. To start of with, winning the Iowa caucuses rarely guarantees victory in New Hampshire. Just ask all those Iowa Caucus winners who went on to lose the follow-up primary in New Hampshire — Mike Huckabee, Tom Harkin, Rick Santorum and Paul Tsongas.
In the famous words of Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy in the wake of Dukakis’ third-place finish in Iowa:
“Eight years ago in Iowa, I came in second and my campaign was finished. Yesterday in Iowa, Mike Dukakis came in third and he’s on his way to the White House.”
“When you appear at the end of the caucuses in Iowa,” says Dukakis, “you are talking to the biggest audience you would have so far in the campaign, because this is the first contest and a lot of people are watching – especially folks in New Hampshire. So what you’ve got to do, with whatever time you have, is in essence begin your New Hampshire campaign.”
Dukakis said candidates and voters alike should discount polling. “Take these polls and throw them in the trash.”
“Trust me, 80 percent of the people in New Hampshire haven’t made up their minds. What good reporters have to do is knock on 50 doors and talk to people.”
“This is a marathon,” says Dukakis. “It’s is a long race,” and the tough thing to do is not only win in New Hampshire, but stay strong, week to week to week, until hopefully the field narrows down.
After his own victory in New Hampshire, and hard-fought wins in six of the 17 Super Tuesday contests in the 1988 Democratic primary, Dukakis consolidated his hold on the nomination in April, and went on to become the Democratic candidate for president, nominated in a speech at the Democratic convention by the young governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton.
At one point in the 1988 election, Michael Dukakis led George H. W. Bush by 17 points.
But it was not to be, and Gov. Dukakis went on to lose the presidential election in the fall.
Dukakis is surprisingly clear-eyed about what went wrong in 1988. “I mean, look: I blew that election,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was very winnable, and I made two big mistakes
“First, I spent too much time talking to folks who I thought knew more about winning the presidency than I did, all of whom pooh-poohed the idea of precinct-based, grassroots organizing. Now, I got elected around here three times because I knocked on every door, and I’m really kind of a fanatic about it. It took Barack Obama not once but twice to prove to us that [it’s] just as effective on the presidential level.”
“The second thing was that I made this decision — which in retrospect turned out to be one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made — that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign.” Dukakis says he thought people were tired of the politics of conflict, so much so that they’d be willing to ignore the salvos from the right.
Atwater would later make a deathbed apology to Dukakis for what he called the “naked cruelty” of the Bush campaign’s attacks on him. “It was nice of him,” says Dukakis, “but if you know anything about Atwater …” His response is essentially “Thanks for the apology, but we didn’t do what we should have done.”
After losing the race to George H.W. Bush, Dukakis announced that he would not seek a fourth term in office as governor of Massachusetts. Dukakis now spends his time as a political science professor at Northeastern University, and a visiting public policy professor at UCLA.
Fittingly for a man of Greek origins, the Washington Post found, Dukakis is fond of the Socratic method. If he is asked what he thinks about, say, abortion — as he was before the Catholic students in Des Moines — he turns the question around: “What do you think?”
“If they’re under 30, they have no idea who I am,” says Dukakis. “It doesn’t bother me at all”.
As Marin Cogan writes in New York magazine, Dukakis “still has the same slight figure, the same owlish eyebrows, though the hair is more salt than pepper now. Because Dukakis has been depicted… as a man who tried to run his campaign honorably and instead got kneecapped by Lee Atwater and the Bush campaign — I expected to find him in a solemn place, reflecting on what he could have done better, as the 2016 campaign rolled out. But that was all wrong.”
As Cogan points out, there is the public image of Dukakis — the private man better known in Boston for religiously taking public transportation, for regularly picking up trash on his daily walks in his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, for collecting turkey carcasses to make soup for his extended family every winter, and reading to kindergartners at local schools — and “there is the warm, excitable man sitting in front of me, who still loves politics, maybe now more than ever.”
When it comes to the two leading Democratic candidates coming into today’s New Hampshire primary — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — Dukakis says both candidates fundamentally agree on core issues, including the need for higher wages, making health care more affordable, combating climate change and even going after those one per centers.
“There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on virtually all of the issues,” Dukakis says, pointing out that seeking out differences between the candidates is something that always happens.
“When you have candidates, who are very much in the same political world philosophically and otherwise, as the thing starts to heat up, and it always does, people start looking for differences,” Dukakis says. “But there is very little difference between them.”
When it comes to some of the issues that have bedeviled the once- and maybe-future frontrunner, Dukakis is itching to fight on behalf of Hillary Clinton:
“This stuff about Hillary’s email is absurd,” he says. “There isn’t a person in Washington that doesn’t have a private email and a private cell phone and use it all the time, because that’s the way I get ahold of them!”
A week earlier, Dukakis was on CNN and decided he couldn’t hold his tongue anymore. “I said, ‘This stuff about Hillary’s email is the biggest load of baloney I’ve ever seen.’ ” He isn’t sure whether the Clinton camp saw his remarks or whether they liked them. But he knows something about the dangers of not responding to your opponent, and he wants to share it.
“My concern at this point is that Hillary and her folks have not mounted more of an effective offense on this thing. Why not get a bunch of us who have experienced presidential campaigns — and some former colleagues in the Senate who have a lot of respect for her — and let us go at these guys and just say, ‘This is the biggest load of crap’? It won’t die unless you kill it, you know? And it’s up to the attackee to do that. We didn’t do it. Kerry didn’t do it. Given what happened to me … as you can imagine, I’m rather sensitive to these kinds of attacks,” he says.
If Dukakis isn’t too worried about Hillary’s chances, writes Cogan, it’s thanks in part to her competition. He’s enjoying the way Donald Trump is exposing the rift between GOP voters and the party’s political elite.
“Since he hasn’t mortgaged his soul to one of the seven billionaires that finance these campaigns, he’s free to say things that the rest of them won’t. Like, for example, that carried interest is nothing but income and should be taxed.” He jumps into a Trump impression: “ ‘And don’t you worry, I’ll take care of these hedge-fund guys!’ And then you get Jeb Bush saying the same thing, which is remarkable.”
As Cogan reports, Dukakis had a chance to debate Jeb in 1996, during the second Bill Clinton campaign. “I grew up in Massachusetts with a lot of moderate Republicans, strongly pro-civil rights and civil liberties. I guess I just assumed that — ” He pauses. “I was just astonished when I found out how conservative the guy was.”
He is bemused by Ben Carson (“He’s an African-American, for God’s sake, who says that Muslims should be disqualified from being president! Of all people!”) and Marco Rubio (“A majority of Cuban-Americans voted Democratic in the last election, which tells you something, and more power to them. The young Cuban-Americans I know all think the embargo ought to be lifted. They love going back.”).
Dukakis may not be campaigning these days, writes Cogan, but he’s heavily involved in state and international issues. His wife, Kitty, has become an important advocate for the electroconvulsive therapy that saved her from crippling depression — “Kitty would not be here today without it,” Dukakis says — and he’s taken on a supporting role in that work.
And there are other connections as well, reports Cogan. Kitty’s ex-husband’s son, Jason Chaffetz, is running for Speaker of the House. Dukakis’s foe in the ’88 primary, a guy who flamed out in a plagiarism scandal, is weighing whether to run again. Dukakis says he’s impressed with Joe Biden: When he went to the White House with a bunch of Greek-Americans to talk about the euro crisis, Biden, he says, was “extremely knowledgeable on the issues. He really had a clear sense of what we might be able to do. People say, ‘Well, he tends to talk a lot on his own,’ but that’s him. He’s not a fake.”
Still, he’s a Hillary supporter, writes Cogan, and not in a provisional way. Earlier this year, someone put up a website trying to draft Dukakis himself into the 2016 race. At the mention of it, Dukakis bursts out laughing. “Ridiculous! Look,” he says, “I’m 81. I feel like a million bucks — my mother lived to 100. We’ve had a fabulous life, Kitty and I, with one exception: We didn’t go to the White House. But we’ve got three fabulous kids, eight grandkids. One run is about it. We’ve had a few situations where people have had a second chance, but those have turned out pretty badly, for the most part. So I’m not running again. What could be better than this?”
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.
Earlier this year, someone put up a website trying to draft Dukakis himself into the 2016 race. At the mention of it, Dukakis bursts out laughing. “Ridiculous!” Read more at: nymag.com