Now a public policy professor at UCLA, former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis is trying to inspire young people to get involved in politics
When most people think of Michael Dukakis, they recall the famous photo from his presidential run in 1988 in which the liberal Democratic nominee was incongruously driving a tank.
While that may have been a regrettable public relations decision, Dukakis made his mark in that closely contested race against George Bush and has gone from serving as governor of Massachusetts to becoming an elder statesman of the Democratic Party at the age of 66.
While he may have faded from public view, Dukakis hasn't been resting on his laurels in recent years. Through his current teaching work at UCLA and Northeastern University in Boston, he has used his notoriety to encourage young people to get involved in public service a tough sell in this jaded age of quick riches from Internet IPOs and presidential philandering.
Dukakis has also been active in Al Gore's presidential campaign, doing all he can to help the vice president avoid repeating Dukakis' mistakes from 1988, when he lost to another challenger named Bush.
One day before wrapping up his public policy classes at UCLA and heading back to Massachusetts, Dukakis took some time to discuss the Democratic Party, Al Gore's campaign and how Los Angeles compares with Boston.Question: What have you been doing since 1988?
Answer: I finished up as governor (of Massachusetts) two not-easy years in the middle of a recession. Beginning in June of 1991, I began teaching at Northeastern. For the past five years, we've been coming out here doing the winter quarter (at UCLA). It's been terrific.Q: How did you end up at UCLA?
A: I was asked to come out here and deliver an annual lecture sponsored by the political science department. They were just in the process of creating the School of Public Policy. I thought it was interesting and talked to some folks, and they said they'd love to have me come out. So I've been teaching here for the past five years.Q: Are you still involved in politics?
A: You never get out of politics. I was in New Hampshire campaigning for the vice president in four-degree-above-zero weather before the primary. It's a very important election. He's got to win it, and we've got to get the House back.Q: What advice would you give Al Gore?
A: Look, I'm the last person in the world to be giving people advice about a run for the presidency. But I think he's doing what he has to be doing. What I think is most important is that the Democratic Party get back to the grass roots. We can't outspend the other side but we can outwork them. That means door-knocking, it means precinct captains and taking local organizations seriously. I think, frankly, Bush is a great person to run against.Q: Why's that?
A: Here's a guy who's proposed a tax cut that's not only irresponsible, but gives money to the wealthiest 10 percent of the nation. Average Americans are going to get zilch out of that tax cut. He wants school vouchers that are meaningless to most middle-class Americans because their kids go to public schools and they're committed to public schools. I haven't heard a thing from him on the subject of health coverage.Q: What did you learn from your loss in 1988?
A: If your opponent goes negative, you have to respond. You just can't let it go by. Even a day and half is too long to wait.Q: Thus far, Los Angeles has had organizational problems and fund-raising challenges regarding the hosting of the Democratic National Convention in August. How do you think the effort is going?
A: They had a few stops and starts, but remember, conventions these days aren't what they used to be. The nomination obviously is preordained. This is a great city to have a convention, and I think it's going to be a good one.Q: Why did you get into politics?
A: Joseph McCarthy horrified me and John F. Kennedy inspired me.Q: Do you miss being up there on the stage and making policy?
A: Not really. I'm thoroughly enjoying being vice chair of the Amtrak board. We're working hard. We tend to forget in this country that you can't have a transportation system that works if you don't have rail. Our job is not only to dramatically improve rail service in this country but to make the operation self-sufficient by 2003. So I'm spending a lot of my time on this.
Another one of my missions in life is to encourage young people to go into public service. I'm not sure the other messages they're getting about public service are as positive as I'd like them to be, so guys like me have to do this. These are wonderful kids, but most of them don't know beans from brown bread about politics, and I think we've got to start teaching them.Q: Which do you prefer, running for office or teaching?
A: I love politics and I love teaching. I can't think of anything better than being governor of Massachusetts, but you can't do that forever. The question is, what do you do with those experiences? Teaching is a great way to try to encourage others to do it and a great source of satisfaction to me.Q: How does L.A. compare to Boston?
A: There's a lot to be said for this place. When I first came here, I hitchhiked in the early 1950s as a student. At that time, L.A. was the butt of a lot of jokes and probably deserved to be the butt of a few of them. But these days there's a great cultural life here. You have a strong network of higher education and there's a lot to be said for the climate and a few other things. We're 20 minutes from the Santa Monica Mountains and 15 minutes from the beach. We go hiking in January. It's pretty smoggy today, but usually I can see the (downtown skyline from my office at UCLA).Q: What would make L.A. a better place?
A: L.A. needs the (Boston subway system). I think the one thing here for a Bostonian that's difficult is public transit. A decision was made to build a subway in L.A. I think in hindsight that was probably a mistake. You could probably have a dozen light-rail lines for the cost of the subway. But I use it. If I go downtown, I take the bus and the subway. I take the bus to the airport. I wouldn't go any other way. It's 60 cents and 30 cents for seniors like me You're looking at one of the few people in Los Angeles who walks to work. We have a little apartment on the other side of Westwood; it's about a mile and a half from my office. So I do what I do in Boston, I walk there and I walk back.Q: Final question, Sports Illustrated picked the Red Sox to win the World Series this year. Do you think they have a chance?
A: It's the worst thing that could have happened. Their pick never actually wins. But hope springs eternal in the hearts of Red Sox fans.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.