My Interview with Michael Dukakis

For over three decades, Michael Dukakis dedicated his life to public service. He is most remembered as the Democratic Nominee in the 1988 presidential election. Dukakis would ultimately lose the election to George H.W. Bush in a bitter campaign. However, he will be forever associated with the state of Massachusetts. After several years in state legislature, Dukakis served as governor of the Commonwealth for three terms during the 1980's. He was just the second Greek-American governor in the history of the United States. Currently, Dukakis is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and a visiting professor at the School of Public Policy at UCLA.

Michael Bendetson: What propelled you to enter public service? Could you please elaborate on some of the experiences growing up that inspired you to enter the anarchic field of politics?

Michael Dukakis: I cannot tell you why I have always been interested in politics, but I always have. In 1940, when I was just seven and my brother was ten we carefully followed the presidential election in the pre-television era. We put together a chart of the then 48 states and a series of columns to take down the delegate count for both Parties conventions. The following year, I ran for the presidency of Mrs. Ripley's 3rd grade class. Thus was the beginning of my political career. Like a lot of folks who enter politics, I participated in student politics. Part of the reason could be based on ethnicity. My parents were both Greek immigrants. They were not political activists, but they took voting seriously. Growing up, everything had to stop at six o'clock to listen to the CBS World News Roundup with Edward Murrow on the radio. Greeks tend to be quite political and we always had lively conversions about current affairs with our family and friends. Finally, after my time at Swarthmore and my service in Korea, I felt a strong desire to become active in politics.

MB: After serving just one term as Governor in the later 1970's, you were defeated in your own Democratic primary. Later, you would go on to cite this loss as one of the "low moments" in your life. Yet just four years later, you managed to win back the office and govern for two more terms. What were the personal changes that you made in between those terms that allowed you to become more successful and more popular leader?

MD: Well when I first got elected governor, I have to admit I was not a good listener. You have to be a very good listener to be effective in public life. Even though I had spent time in the State legislature, I really did not understand that getting things done in the public sector is all about building coalitions. If you're not skillful at building the necessary coalitions, you are in the wrong business. I learned that lesson in part from my defeat and in part from my time spent at the [Harvard] Kennedy School. I reflected on the public's perception of me and the advise of my astute colleagues at the school. Returning as Governor, I truly understood the importance of reaching out and making important connections to get things done.

MB: Throughout your political career, your opponents have often smeared you as a "liberal." Although in 1988 you opted to focus more on competence than ideology, the Bush campaign kept a specific focus on that word. Later in the election, you stated in an interview "I am not a liberal." What does the word "liberal" mean to you and would you consider yourself one today?

MD: That is not completely what I stated, I said that I was liberal on some issues and conservative on others. If you ask my family if I am fiscally conservative, they will tell you that I am the cheapest guy in America (I think that is a little extreme). The point is I am pretty frugal guy, who despises waste and inefficiency. Throughout my political tenure in Massachusetts, I worked hard to make our state have a reputation of doing very good work and doing it efficiently. Like most Americans, I am conservative or liberal depending on what the issue is. I was not the first Democratic nominee to be accused of being a liberal. If you examine the 1960 presidential campaign, Nixon was pounding Kennedy all over the place about being a liberal. It may be one reason why old style liberals now refer to themselves as progressives. We finally got sick and tired of the liberal epithet.

MB: During the 1988 Presidential election, Lee Atwater ran what many believed to be a dirty campaign. He used the "Willie Horton ad" and "the tank ad" to play on peoples fears instead of focusing on the issues. Can you ever truly forgive the Bush campaign for the extent to which they went to smear your reputation?

MD: Look I made a serious mistake in that campaign that no Democratic candidate will ever make again. Although my friend [Senator] Kerry almost suffered from the same mistake. I made a deliberate decision that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign. That choice was just a huge mistake. It is not a question of forgiving the other side; you have to assume that they are going to do anything and everything to win. The question is are you ready? Do you have a strategy of dealing with the attack campaign? Preferable, a strategy that turns the negativity into a character issue of the candidate that is condoning it. I did not have that essential strategy. I am really not in a position to blame anyone, but myself. For example on the prison release system, the Reagan-Bush furlough program was the most liberal furlough program in America. I do not even think [George H.W.] Bush knew they had a furlough program. However, if you do not defend yourself, you will suffer.

MB: Democrats have often viewed "The Republican Attack Machine" to have begun in the 1988 presidential election. Throughout this past presidential campaign were you able to draw any similarities in the way the Bush Campaign went after you, and the McCain campaign attacked President Obama?

MD: Well, it is important to note that they went after [President] Clinton just as hard if not harder than they went after me. However, he was ready for it. Clinton had a small unit of about ten people who would refer to themselves as the defense department. All they did was deal with these attacks, but that is what you have to do. With regards to this past election, the important moment came during Obama's speech after he won the North Carolina primary. In that speech he said, "Let me tell you what type of campaign they [Republicans] are going to run." He told the country that he expected the Republicans to play to people's fears and divide the country, but he said he would fight back. The McCain campaign resorted to the same tactics of the Atwater campaign, but Obama was ready for it. Obama and his campaign had a solid strategy for combating these attacks. They were successful at turning the negativity into a character question, and by the end of the campaign people were asking what happened to the old John McCain?

MB: Many historians view you as a key figure in returning the Democratic Party to national prominence. While loosing the election in 1988, your margin of loss 7.8 percent was a significant improvement over Walter Mondale (18.2%) and Jimmy Carter (9.7%). How would you evaluate your role in the reviving of the Democratic Party two decades ago?

MD: I hope my campaign in some way played a role in the Clinton victory. I am not sure as seeing myself as a pivotal figure. That was a winnable election and I blew it. I managed to win some key states and lose others by a slim margin. However, almost does not do it. I think in some ways that I helped to expand the Democratic Party's influence to states where we had been decimated in past elections. Certainly, my advocacy for grass root politics that I expressed and continue to preach, has served this Party well in recent years.

MB: You have always remained skeptical of the argument that civil liberties can be disregarded for the sake of national security. How does this affect your position on topics of torture such as weatherboarding and Guantanamo Bay?

MD: I think it is unacceptable. I do not see how the United States can try to convince the world that we have a set of values that are not only important to us, but should be adopted by people around the world when we are engaging in acts of torture. Furthermore, I am very skeptical about the effectiveness of torture. I know that there are very good people who are far better investigators than the former vice president of the United States that will tell you that [torture] is not the way to obtain reliable information. I think it is a disgrace and a national embarrassment. It has damaged our ability to lead the world effectively.

MB: You have indicated the significant amount of damage that Guantanamo Bay has done to the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world. However, what do you say to skeptics who claim these practices help keep America safe? Just this week, the New York Times issued a report claiming one in seven Guantanamo transferred detainees returned to terrorist activities.

MD: There may well be dangerous people that are our enemies, who must be detained and kept in custody for years to come. This is the same procedure we use in this country to punish our own violent criminals. For the life of me, I do not understand this reluctance to incarcerate these people in the United States. They are our prisoners. You mean to tell me that our correction system is not capable of housing these people? We have some extremely violent criminals in our prisons, but we cannot supply the secure incarceration of a couple hundred suspected terrorists? I simply do not buy it.

MB: As one of the leaders of what is now deemed the "Massachusetts Miracle," you presided over Massachusetts during a period of unprecedented economic growth. Based on your knowledge and past experiences, what do you feel needs to be done to reverse the current recession and improve the American economy.

MD: I believe the president has done a tremendous job under difficult circumstances. No one has the absolute answer, because we are not even sure what led to this crisis. I think in retrospect the old adage proves true: "Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it." We have gone through a period where the predominant economic thinking has been shrink the government, deregulate, and let the market work its magic. I think the market does great things in some of areas of human activity. However, if history teaches us anything, it is that you have to regulate financial institutions. We failed to do this, as deregulation was the order of the day. We are now suffering the consequences.

MB: While many see the filibuster as an important tool for the minority party, you are outspoken about the need for a change in Senate rules regarding filibusters. What is it about the current filibuster rules that disturb you and what changes would you make to Senate rules pertaining to the filibuster?

MD: It is simply undemocratic. A majority of the members of the Senate after reasonable debate cannot act. By Senate rules, we now apparently have amended the Constitution so that it takes 60 votes to get anything through. I think [the filibuster] is unacceptable and both sides have abused it throughout recent years. For example in the Massachusetts Legislature after solid debate, the majority will make a decision on the legislation. The same even holds true in the House. The Democrats ought to build a strong majority and move to get rid of it.

MB: You have been critical in the past of what you perceive as the anti-immigrant sentiment held by some in this country. While you acknowledge the significance of enforcing laws, you also stress the importance of immigration to this country. How can a balance be struck between the former and the latter in solving our illegal immigration problem?

MD: Look, I understand anti-immigrant sentiment. We have always had it. Very often, the last generation of immigrants is the one objecting to new immigration. I think if we are going to limit immigration in the United States, current laws need to be enforced. I am not mad at people that are anti-immigration, but I do keep reminding people that the vast majority of people in this country came here as immigrants. We are experiencing a new wave of immigration, mostly from south of the boarder. The reasons are obvious to anyone; economic need is economic need. People come to this country to seek the same opportunities that my Greek parents sought. The current situation is not acceptable. We are not sending 12 million people back. The question is how do we fashion an acceptable alternative. I am not proponent of amnesty, but I would support some type of earned citizenship. However, the key is enforcing the laws that are already on the book.

MB: Recently under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the Democrats in Congress have indicated their desire for healthcare reform. Since your retirement from public life, you have written many scholarly articles about reforming healthcare in the United States. What do you believe are the essential steps that have to be taken to expand healthcare coverage, but also reduce costs?

MD: I think the president is very much on the right track and so is Senator Kennedy, Senator Baucus, and others who are taking the lead on this matter. Essentially, I stand where they do on healthcare reform and policies. As Barack stated during the campaign, if you like your policy now, no one will take it. However, if you do not, there should be an alternative public plan. [The public plan] should make health insurance available to all people at a cost they can afford. There is going to be a battle over this alternative public plan. Even though for those of us 65 and older, Medicare is terrific and efficient. However it will be a battle, because the notion of an alternative public plan threatens the insurance companies. You will get flack from the employer community as well, especially if we require that health insurance be provided to all or most employees. These are not problems we have not faced before, but unfortunately in the past we have not been successful in solving them.