The Political Legacy of Michael Dukakis

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The former governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, came to San Diego last weekend with his remarkable wife, Kitty. They didn’t come for the weather, which is what most San Diegans think when someone comes to visit. (Oh, it rained Saturday.)

They came because the governor was giving his annual City Club of San Diego state of the nation speech Saturday and to spend Friday at La Jolla Country Day School, where he and Kitty spent an exhilarating but exhausting up close and personal day with students and faculty (we arrived on campus at 7:45 am and didn’t leave until after three that afternoon). They did this, not because of honoria, there wasn’t any, but because the school had dared to ask and because it is a measure of the Dukakis’ extraordinary commitment to be exemplary and enabling leaders.

On Saturday morning at Country Day the governor spoke on health care and did so without notes for 35-minutes, followed by 45-minutes of Q & A – and still no notes. He did this before an SRO crowd and 50 Country Day students, who listened with rapt attention.

Every year for the past 12-years the governor and Kitty have driven drown from Los Angeles, where he teaches at UCLA during the winter quarter, to speak to The City Club.

The first time he and Kitty came The City Club event was on the font lawn of what the governor called, “Larry Lucchino’s modest cottage in La Jolla.” Lucchino, the Red Sox’s president and CEO, was then serving in a similar position with the San Diego Padres.

The governor told Lucchino something Dukakis subsequently forgot but Lucchino didn’t. What he told him was, “Anyone who tears down Fenway Park should be criminally indicted!” You know the rest of the story.

The first time I met Dukakis was in 1996 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago at the United Center (actually I had shaken his hand at a fund raising dinner in ’88, but that doesn’t count, does it?). The governor was sitting with George McGovern, whom I had known for a long while, so I stopped to say hello and was introduced to Dukakis.

That was the beginning of our friendship, and not long after I met Kitty.

Because of my association with the Red Sox as chairman of The Great Park Writers Series I’m lucky enough to be in Boston quite often and whenever that happens I try and spend time with these two remarkable individuals. I don’t think I am easily awed, but I am in awe of the governor and Kitty.

No governor of the Commonwealth, starting with John Hancock in 1780, served longer than Michael Dukakis’ 12-years and it’s hard to imagine anyone having served with greater distinction. You may have a different opinion about that, but not about this: No one ever served The People of Massachusetts with greater integrity.

And he didn’t allow the fact he was the Commonwealth’s chief executive to change who he is or the values his Greek immigrant parents taught him as child, not least the values of humility and frugality. I’ve been around a lot of major political figures and celebrities in my life, none less conscious of privilege or entitlement than Michael Stanley Dukakis.

During his 12-years in office, in the early morning hours, he walked from his home in Brookline to the Longwood “T” stop and rode the trolley to Beacon Hill and the State House and when his long days were over he rode the “T” home again and he did it without security. Other governors like to ride around in long black limos with state troopers (does Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick come to mind?), not Mike Dukakis.

Yes, he was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in ’88 and he lost to George Herbert Walker Bush. He often says had he been a better candidate and defeated Bush 41 the U.S. might have been spared Bush 43. It’s a laugh-tested line but the loss to Bush the elder is something he regrets/ But like another great family of the Commonwealth, the Kennedys, Dukakis knows you can’t do would haves, could haves, or should haves.

1988 Campaign Photo, Source: digitaljournalist.org

It is extremely annoying to me when people mention the ’88 campaign and the helmet wearing in a tank photo op. I don’t know how it happened or whose idea it was but anyone who thinks that was Mike Dukakis’ defining moment of public service is an idiot.

To know the governor is to know Kitty, his wife of nearly 50-years. The governor is Greek Orthodox. Kitty is Jewish. As the governor’s father was a doctor, Kitty’s was the first violinist of the Boston Symphony. They raised three exemplary children and are blessed with eight grandchildren, and as nearly as I am able to discern, they are a close, loving family.

Dukakis recently asked if there’s a more beautiful Social Security/ Medicare beneficiary in America than his wife? To look as stunning as she does, having come through so many challenging personal trials, not least electro shock therapy, battling what Winston Churchill called the “black dog of depression”, and to have done so in the most public of ways, is a story of great courage. And by facing her demons openly she has allowed others to seek help and we now know people’s lives have been saved because of her shining and inspiring example.

The governor and Kitty are in their eight-decade but their commitment to our country and to public service and to people everywhere remains the greatest value of their lives. Truly they are national treasures.

When I think of these two extraordinary people I think of what Pericles said of the Athenians, “We do not imitate, but are a model to others.”

Be proud Brookline. Be proud Commonwealth. Be proud USA. Mike and Kitty Dukakis continue in service to the world.