Governor Michael Stanley Dukakis (D-MA)
Michael Dukakis was born into a Greek-American family in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1933; he became a Massachusetts state legislator in his 20’s, the state’s Lieutenant Governor in his 30’s and Governor in his early 40’s – he went on to serve an unprecedented three four-year terms as Massachusetts Governor, gaining a reputation for strong fiscal management and progressive social programs. He sought and won the 1988 Democratic Presidential nomination against a primary field including the scandal-prone favourite Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), the Reverend Jesse Jackson (D-IL) and future Vice President’s Senator Al Gore (D-TN) and Senator Joe Biden (D-DE).
Dukakis and running-mate Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) lost the 1988 Presidential election to sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush (R-TX) and Senator Dan Quayle (R-IN) following an ugly campaign which featured the now-notorious “Willie Horton” attack-ad, a bad photo-op involving a tank helmet, and a slam-dunk VP debate moment. Since his gubernatorial term expired in 1991, Dukakis has taught politics at Northeastern University, UCLA and Harvard’s Kennedy School. In the early 1990’s he and his wife Kitty spent 5 months in Melbourne as a guest of the state government.
Here, Michael Dukakis speaks candidly about what it took to win the 1988 Democratic nomination, what it was like to run for the Presidency, and how a double-digit opinion poll lead over George H.W. Bush in August was turned into a crushing Electoral College defeat in November. Dukakis also talks about the lessons of more recent Presidential campaigns, the emergence of the internet and resurgence of grassroots organising in the Obama campaign.
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John Barron: Governor, what do you consider when you decide to run for the Presidency of the United States; it seems like quite a remarkable thing for somebody to do...
Michael Dukakis: You know everybody comes at this in different ways I suppose John. In my case I never really thought of it – I was in my second term as governor, we were doing a lot of stuff around here, we were having a great run in Massachusetts, we had taken a state that was literally an economic and fiscal basket-case and turned it around, and I was looking forward to my third term... I was running and ran for a third term in the fall of ’86 and then the Iran-Contra scandal hit us – and we had this unbelievable spectacle of the President and the Vice President deliberately deceiving Congress and breaking the law and documents being shredded in the basement of the White House and I was just appalled. And it was only then really that I began thinking about this and then spent some three or four months thinking about it, talking to people whose judgement I respected and finally decided I would give it a go.
At the time I was at zero in the polls – it wasn’t that I hadn’t been a reasonably effective governor – I was reasonably well-known for that but the general public didn’t know me. And so I went out and ran with a grassroots campaign with a heavy emphasis on Ohio (Iowa) and New Hampshire but by no means exclusively that – and was off to the races. But it’s a decision that you don’t make lightly and remember at the time we were still in the middle of the cold war although Gorbachev was clearly showing signs, I thought, of being something quite different from what we had had in the Soviet Union and you don’t make a decision to run for the Presidency in a couple of minutes; I mean this is a major thing, you consult with your family – if just one member of my family had said ‘dad I don’t want you to do it’ I would not have run. If one of my kids had still been in High School I would not have run – nothing against the folks who have young kids, I think they have done very well – but I wouldn’t have done that. So there are lots of considerations and I just happened to be at a point in my life and my political career when things seemed to combine to support the decision, and I did ... I did a great job in the primary and unfortunately screwed-up the final.
John Barron: Is it fair to say Governor that when you were looking at what was going on in the White House in ’86-’87 that you decision to run was about saying ‘I don’t want George H.W. Bush to become President’ – because that was the expectation...
Michael Dukakis: I just wanted the whole gang thrown out of there because they were the people who had given us what we were seeing [Iran-Contra] and this disregard for the law [was something] that I found abhorrent. Now I was also obviously not a fan of [President Ronald] Reagan’s economic policies and it was also very clear even though there was a bit of an up-tick in the economy in 1988 that sooner or later running the government on a credit card was going to bring us to grief – and in point of fact it did shortly after Bush defeated me and took over as President. So I was not happy about those domestic policies and I was appalled at this notion that somehow the President of the United States could somehow disregard the law, disregard the constitution and continue to involve us in an illegal war in Nicaragua and at the same time be dealing with the Iranians and the Iraqi’s in this terrible Iran-Iraq war and supporting both sides – although more the Iraq side under Saddam Hussein – I mean the whole thing just struck me as such a corruption of the values of what this country stands for that I thought ‘Well, I may not be the only guy that can do it, but I’m going to give it a shot.’
John Barron: Is there a certain amount of soul-searching that you go through when you ask ‘do I really want that level of responsibility to be having the (nuclear hotline) Red Phone in the office – or once you’ve been a Governor is it not such a great step to think ‘I could go all the way to the White House’?
Michael Dukakis: No, no, no, no... I don’t think anybody is his right mind would make this decision without thinking very, very seriously about what you’ve talked about; do you want to have that responsibility? Can you execute that responsibility? I mean this is a big job – I loved being Governor and I think I was a pretty effective governor but this (the presidency) is something far beyond that. So not only did I do a lot of soul-searching but I spent a lot of time talking to people whose judgements I respected, folks who had worked in previous national administrations and in many cases I simply said ‘do you think I can do the job?’ – and I was very serious about asking that question and I said to them ‘I don’t want you to give me an easy answer, you know me, you know the jobs – give it to me straight – do you think I can do it?’
John Barron: Can you give us a sense of the grassroots campaign you embarked on in the 1988 primary and caucus season and how you managed to win the nomination?
Michael Dukakis: I won the nomination with a very good primary campaign which strongly emphasised locally-based organisations and a lot of canvassing door-to-door and that kind of thing. That was the way I had got myself elected to minor local office, to the state legislature and to the Governorship itself. And it worked extremely well for us – unfortunately we listened too much to all those campaign consultants who said ‘in the final election it’s all money and media and that kind of stuff’ – and I made a very serious mistake in listening to that. I did not do that well in the final, had I done so, I could have won that thing.
Obama’s campaign was the first campaign in decades where the campaign organisation was serious about organising in every one of the 50 states at the precinct level. Now, what does that mean? Well it’s not too complicated, it means the precinct captain and six block captains personally connecting with every single voting household – not once; four times six times... getting to know these folks. These are people who need to be in the precinct, look like the precinct, live the precinct, walk and talk the precinct – I’m am sorry to say the Democrats have not mounted that kind of campaign in a final Presidential election at least since Jack Kennedy. And in this day and age, especially with the Press as dispersed as it is and with all that we know about the internet and so on, the only way that you can guarantee that you are making contact with voters is to walk up to their front door and knock on it and that’s what a precinct organisation has to do.
The mistake I made was not responding to the Bush attack campaign – just a terrible mistake. I am a positive guy and I thought somehow we’d brush that stuff of but you can’t – if the other guy is coming at you and questioning your patriotism and your values you’ve gotta respond.
Voice Over: ”Bush and Dukakis on crime; Bush supports the death penalty for First-Degree murderers, Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed First-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison - one was Willie Horton [mug shot of black man] who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times – despite a life sentence, Horton received ten weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend Prison Passes – Dukakis on crime.” – 1988 Republican Campaign Commercial.
John Barron: Governor you talked about the mistake of not responding to the Bush campaign attacks – it was very similar to something [1972 Democratic Presidential nominee] Senator George McGovern (D-SD) said to me – he has seen this happen time and time again – what was your thinking; was to respond to the attacks to dignify them, to engage with them?
Michael Dukakis: Well it’s an interesting question and [2004 Democratic Presidential nominee] John Kerry had the same problem. Here was a genuine war hero, who had not only put his life on the line but had saved the lives of other American troops, personnel, folks that he had served with – running against a guy [President George W. Bush] who was reading ready magazines in Alabama whose running mate [Dick Cheney] who is the biggest draft-dodger in American history.
Voice of Lt. John Kerry in 1971 appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “They had personally raped, cut of ears, cut off heads...” Voice of Vietnam Veteran Joe Ponder: “The accusations John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was [sic] just devastating... and hurt me more than any physical wounds I had.”Kerry:”Cut of limbs, blow up bodies...” Vietnam Veteran and POW Paul Galanti:”John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in North Vietnam in the prison camps took torture to avoid saying... it demoralised us...” – Swift Boat Veterans For Truth.
Michael Dukakis: I think John [Kerry) and the folks around him perfectly understandably said ‘this thing isn’t going to get traction this Swift Boat thing, so preposterous, nothing but a pack of lies’ – but the press picked it up and started running these ads as part of their news stories and the Bush campaign very cleverly denied they had anything to do with that – and if you believe that you believe in the tooth fairy – of course they had something to do with that, and the Kerry campaign did not respond quickly and forcefully and put responsibility for the Swift Boat campaign squarely in the lap of George W. Bush. And that’s what you have to do. You can’t let these folks get away with these so-called ‘Independent Committees’ and folks they have no connection with which of course is preposterous. It hurt John [Kerry], hurt him badly. And after my experience and Kerry’s experience I don’t think any Democratic nominee will ever let that happen again, and Obama certainly didn’t.
John Barron: Can you tell us about choosing a running-mate; Senator [Lloyd] Bentsen?
Michael Dukakis: Well he turned out to be a terrific running-mate and had I run a better national campaign he well could have made the difference because the contrast between him and Dan Quayle was so clear. But you have to put in place a process chaired by somebody in whom you have great confidence that reaches out to as many people as possible, invites suggestions from anywhere and everywhere and gradually narrows that list down until you get down to what was in my case was a final four. They were John Glenn - the Senator from Ohio, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore and [Representative] Dick Gephardt (D-MO) – all very good people. We then put together teams of lawyers and accountants – one team per candidate – and they went into the details of these folk’s personal lives, their finances, their families and whatever. Then [Campaign Chairman and confidant] Paul Brauntas, who was chairing this process for me, interviewed the candidates and their families extensively, I interviewed them extensively and - it’s hard to describe this John – if you do the process right it inevitably leads to the right choice. And it’s quite clear, or it was quite clear to me, that the right choice was Lloyd Bentsen, and I never regretted it for a minute, he was a terrific running mate.
The one thing I regret is that we didn’t spend a little more time together talking about the campaign instead of being out there seven days a week campaigning, because he had beaten Bush Senior and beaten him decisively in a senate race in Texas – he had done that very successfully, and I think with the benefit of hindsight it would have been much better for him and his staff people like [Campaign manager] Joe O’Neill who’d had plenty of experience – to get together maybe every Monday sit down ‘where are we, how we doing, what are the things we’re doing right, what are the things we’re doing wrong ’ and so on, because not only was he [Bentsen] a terrific running mate and a first-rate guy, but very skilful politically, particularly in the context of his previous contest with Bush. During the course of this process that I described you learn a lot about people – some of it is very good, some of it is not so good, but you have to go through that, there has to be a good fit, good chemistry between you and your running mate.
Lloyd Bentsen (1921-2006) served in the US House of Representatives (1948-55) and the US Senate (1971-93). He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1976 (won by Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia), was on Democratic Presidential nominee Walter Mondale’s Vice Presidential short list in 1984 and was Dukakis’ Vice Presidential choice in 1988. Bentsen also served as US Treasury Secretary 1993-94 under President Bill Clinton.
Vice Presidential Debate, October 5 1988, Omaha, Nebraska:
Senator Quayle: “... I have far more experience than many who have sought the office of Vice President of this country. I have as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the Presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration if that unfortunate event would ever occur.”
Senator Bentsen: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator you are no Jack Kennedy (prolonged cheers, laughter and applause).”
Senator Quayle: “Senator that was really uncalled for.”(More cheers, applause)
John Barron: There is that moment in the  Vice Presidential debate which keeps getting re-run ahead of every Presidential and Vice Presidential debate – the ‘Jack Kennedy’ moment – were you watching that?
Michael Dukakis: I certainly was (chuckles). I picked up the phone right after the debate and I said ‘you did terrific’ – and he did. (Chuckles again) But he was more than that – he was thoughtful and I don’t think there was anybody who didn’t think if anything were to happen to me as President that Lloyd Bentsen couldn’t move in and be an excellent President, which is after all the single most important criterion of anything you consider – I mean that’s so beyond anything else; geography... any of this sort of stuff. I think frankly that’s what people are looking for. But I thought his performance in that debate was terrific.
John Barron: The competence of Senator Quayle to serve should anything happen to Vice President Bush or President Bush as he became was a big issue – it came up in one of your debates with Vice President Bush – did you see that as a weakness for the Republican ticket?
Michael Dukakis: I did. I’m not sure I exploited it as fully as I should have. We had pretty good polling information suggesting that had the race been closer Lloyd could have made the difference. And I was very proud of my selection and very proud of the way we went about it.
John Barron: Can we move forward to the [Presidential] Election Day itself, when it’s just down to the decision the American people are going to make. At that stage had you seen enough polls to say ‘this is going to be remarkable if we are going to do it from here’ or were you still confident of winning – what were your thoughts?
Michael Dukakis: No, I knew I was behind John, but it was so close in so many states that we never stopped. I mean I was doing television feeds from Boston to television stations in key states all over America at five o’clock in the afternoon. And in point of fact I lost about a dozen states by a swing of three points or less so it gives you some sense of what might have been had we done a more effective job on the ground in the precincts than we did – and it’s one of the reasons I think why I am so obsessive on the subject. But I knew I was behind but we were closing and a number of those states were very close and so I didn’t quit until eight o’clock at night.
John Barron: Was there a point at which – whether it was on election day or maybe it was back after the nominating convention and the polls had you 17-points up – was there a moment when you had that stab of excitement that said ‘this is happening’ or ‘this could be happening’?
Michael Dukakis: No, because that so-called 17-point lead was not real. I mean you get a bounce out of your convention and he gets a bounce of his convention. But on the other hand, we knew it was winnable.
John Barron: On the one hand the campaign as you are describing it is a marathon – but it is also on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis so hectic and so full that there isn’t necessarily the time to step back and say ‘Are we doing the right things, or are we in control of what’s happening?’
Michael Dukakis: That’s one of the reasons why in retrospect I think we should have set aside a day at the beginning of the week where Lloyd and I would get together with our top staff people and kind of assessed... you are not going to lose votes because you are not out there every blessed day of the week. In fact you need some down-time anyway. It’s not that it’s so hectic that you don’t know what’s going on – you’ve got a schedule and you meet that schedule – one of the things that I think Clinton and Gore did very well and I’m sorry I didn’t do it – is that they would spend three days each week in a different region of the country campaigning by bus at the grassroots; they’d pick out the North West or California or the southern states, every region of the country, and every week for three days they’d be on the ground meeting with real people in small towns. They got huge coverage, enormous interest; people came out by the thousands to see them. It’s one way of anchoring the candidate, and by the way making the campaign interesting.
I mean we campaign so long – I don’t know long your campaigns are but I think they are a matter of weeks – it may sounds strange to you but you get bored out of your mind saying the same thing over and over again. And so getting on the ground in real America, in small towns and moving around from region-to-region, state-to-state on the ground, stopping; Clinton and Gore would stop anywhere were there were 100 people – and it drove the Secret Service Crazy but that’s what they did and it had a profound effect on them by the way; but that’s a way or really connecting with people, making the campaign interesting and learning things as you go along. This is an incredible country, as you know – just remarkable – what it is, what it looks like, who its people are and so on – but that’s a great way to do it. I think the real challenge with the length of these campaigns is how does the candidate stay fresh, stay interested and stay interesting – and that’s a real challenge when you have been campaigning non-stop for a year and a half.
On election day, November 8th, 1988 Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen received 45.6% of the popular vote to George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle’s 53.7% - the Electoral College went 426-111 to Bush-Quayle.
John Barron: Governor you’ve spoken a lot about campaign finance, Barack Obama of course raised a huge amount of money online, he was criticised for turning down public finance – what do you think about the role of money in Presidential campaigns?
Michael Dukakis: Whether we like it or not money is going to play a role. Now, I would not over-emphasise it, because Obama did not win that [Democratic] nomination because he had a lot of money. He won the nomination because he understood for reasons I don’t understand the Clinton campaign didn’t seem to understand; that grassroots organisation, especially in the caucus states was very important. He did it and did it very well. Now that doesn’t cost money, it really doesn’t cost money; the internet is wonderful fundraising tool and a wonderful organising tool. So a lot of what I am talking about is not expensive, and in fact he [Obama] outspent Hillary in media in a number of those primary states and he didn’t win them. So the effect of paid media, while not unimportant, is much less impressive today than it used to be.
As the media becomes dispersed people are not reading newspapers as much as they did, they are not watching the six o‘clock news all the time, they have many, many other ways to get the news and so that’s why volunteer-drive grassroots campaigning is so effective and so inexpensive. Now having said that, it doesn’t hurt that Obama could raise more than $50-million a month and raise it from a very broad base of very small contributors. The challenge is to turn them into grassroots organisers – that’s the best possible system. McCain didn’t have that, he raise a lot of money but mostly from Republican fat cats.
John Barron: To what extent was Barack Obama’s campaign an extension of his personality, his life story and his experience as a community organiser? Do you have to have that sort of inspirational quality has for many Americans it seems in order to motivate the grassroots that way?
Michael Dukakis: He’s extraordinary. I am not sure all of us quite have that (laughs) but he’s got it and it certainly made a huge difference, especially with young people – he was able to attract a remarkable number of young people because of who he is and how he says what he says which is very impressive. So yeah, it’s a great asset for him, it’s a rare quality – a lot of us like to think that we are reasonably good on our feet, but he’s almost in a class by himself, and that’s important.
John Barron: What are the implications of the Obama Presidency - is it transformative for America?
Michael Dukakis: Without a question. Remember I was born in 1933, at a time when this country was racist, it was anti-Semitic, black people went to the back of the bus in Washington DC, the schools were segregated in 22 states by race, it’s hard to describe – our armed forces were segregated racially – can you believe this? To have lived through the civil rights revolution and come out the other side and to have a President who is Africa-American in a literal sense – African father, American mother, extraordinarily bright and extraordinarily capable... its unquestionably transformative, it’s mind-boggling when you think about where we were forty or fifty years ago when I was coming of age politically.