In Defense of Michael Dukakis

There were some tense minutes for me late yesterday morning. I was just a few hours into my guest editing stint and my efforts to update the site were being met by a strange and stubborn error message. I sent off a panicky email to the few remaining souls at Observer headquarters, convinced that my bumbling incompetence had somehow ruined the Politicker.

But it turned out there was a different explanation: an interview I recently did with Michael Dukakis had been linked by Matt Drudge, and the resulting flood of traffic had ground the site to a halt. I was relieved – and, obviously, pleased that the story was receiving such attention.

Last night, I looked through the comments section for the interview and, again, was flattered by the volume. Still, a couple of themes came up repeatedly, and given the interest in the story, I figured I’d address them.

One point that was made by numerous commenters involved the reference to the Willie Horton ads that were used against Dukakis, an integral part of the devastating Dukakis caricature drawn up by the G.O.P. in the ’88 campaign. This was not the central focus of the interview and I made sure to quote Dukakis indicting himself for allowing the caricature to take hold.

Quite a few commenters, though, fixated on one aspect of the Horton affair: that the issue was actually introduced in the ’88 Democratic primaries by Al Gore. They suggested that the G.O.P.’s role is overstated and that Dukakis is – 19 years later – whining and playing victim.

I want to make two points about this line of thinking.

One is that I do not believe Dukakis is whining or pointing fingers at the big, bad G.O.P.  Ask him about the ’88 campaign, and invariably the first words out of his mouth will be “It was my own damn fault” (that’s the quote I used) or “If I knew anything about getting elected President, I’d be talking to you in a different capacity.” It was only after we got all of the mea culpas out of the way that he discussed the G.O.P. caricaturing. I do not think it’s fair to say he doesn’t fault himself first and foremost for what happened in the fall of ’88.

As for the specifics of the Willie Horton thing, Dukakis mentioned it only in the context of the type of assault next year’s Democratic nominee is likely to face from the G.O.P. That Al Gore first raised the issue in ’88 is true – but it’s also immaterial.

Gore invoked the Horton case – a convicted murderer who used a weekend furlough to escape to Maryland, where he held a couple hostage and raped the woman – in the final, dying days of his own campaign, during a little-watched April ’88 debate before the New York primary. Dukakis responded during the debate and the issue went away almost immediately (and so did Gore). Gore did not, as a commenter emphatically claimed, run any television ads on the subject – at that point in his campaign, he probably couldn’t have afforded them even if he’d wanted to.

That is a far cry from how the Republicans handled the issue in the fall. Most notorious, of course, was the “independent expenditure” television ad that exploited a menacing image of Horton, a black man, for all of its scare-the-white-suburbanites potential. You may recall that Lee Atwater, the architect of George H.W. Bush’s ’88 campaign, apologized on his death bed in 1991 for playing racial politics in defeating Dukakis.  That is the type of attack politics Dukakis was warning against when I interviewed him. (A much better summary of the differences between what Gore did and what the G.O.P. did can be found here.)

The point here is not to exonerate Michael Dukakis for the Massachusetts furlough program (although I should also note that the program was launched under G.O.P. Governor Frank Sargent and that Dukakis had discontinued it by 1988). It was a legitimate issue to bring up, as Gore did, but the manner in which it was exploited in the fall is an entirely different matter.

I also feel compelled to speak up for Dukakis on a more personal level. I have to say, I was surprised at the level of vitriol in the comments. After all, he pretty much disappeared from the national scene on November 9, 1988.You may not think he should have been President, or even Governor of Massachusetts for that matter. Those are entirely reasonable positions.

But I believe Dukakis has at the least earned a measure of respect even from his opponents.  He is 73 years old now. It has been 16 years since he left the governorship. He never tried to cash in as some kind of super-lawyer or lobbyist, as others in his place have done. Instead, he jumped into academia – at Northeastern University in Boston (U.C.L.A. in the winter). And he’s not some celebrity professor. Go to his very small, third floor office in the office in the Northeastern political science department (where he arrives hours before anyone else) in the middle of the summer and you’ll probably find him talking through course selection with a grad student or two, just another professor doing his job. His phone rang when I was interviewing him. He politely excused himself and answered it himself. From what I could tell, the call was about a local transportation issue involving the Massachusetts Turnpike extension.

I don’t know him well, but the Michael Dukakis I have seen is humble, hard-working, utterly civic-minded, and generous with his time. I’m not arguing that he should or shouldn’t have been President. But I do wish that, two decades later, more people could see past the Dukakis caricature and see that there is a good man there.