Through the decades, Dukakis has been a steady, spirited presence in policy circles, encouraging new generations of students to pursue public careers; advocating for causes large and small.
By Renée Loth
November 3, 2023, published in The Boston Globe
Sometimes you learn more about politicians by the way they conduct their lives after they leave office. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, once the national hope of millions as his party’s presidential nominee, has spent all of his 32 years out of office committed to a political system that sometimes treated him shabbily. He turns 90 Nov. 3, an exemplar of civic engagement.
Through the decades, Dukakis has been a steady, spirited presence in policy circles, encouraging new generations of students to pursue public careers; advocating for causes large and small; sharing his recipe for turkey carcass soup; prowling the streets with a trash bag, picking up litter. No self-aggrandizing books, no corporate lobbying, no revenge served cold, no cashing in.
“He’s always been a good citizen,” said John Sasso, his gubernatorial chief of staff and campaign manager during the ill-fated presidential campaign of 1988. “He believes it’s an obligation to leave things better than you found them.”
In an interview at his Brookline home this week, I asked Dukakis how he can continue to promote government service amid the house of horrors that is politics today. “What’s the alternative?” he said with his trademark shrug. “If you want to live a meaningful life. We do it because we love it and we think we can make a difference. There’s no magic here.”
Anecdotes abound about the way Dukakis brushed himself off after his crushing loss to George H. W. Bush, how he weathered the last dark days of his governorship and assumed a life of service. Sasso remembers calling Dukakis on a cold January night in 1989, weeks after he got 42 million votes for president, to learn Dukakis was on his way to moderate a debate for mayor of New Bedford. “Don’t you know it’s an important race?” he told Sasso.
I traveled to Toronto with Dukakis in the spring of 1989, when a few local lunkheads, bitter over the recent campaign loss, spewed profanities at him while we waited at the gate at Logan Airport. But in Toronto, he couldn’t have been happier, riding the Metro and praising Canada’s universal health care system. People mobbed him for his autograph. I couldn’t help but think that if he had run for prime minister of Canada in 1988, he’d be on the national currency today.
Dukakis lives simply in the same house, and possibly in the same sweater, he has owned since he was a Brookline state representative. In 1992, Globe reporter Jack Thomas found Dukakis as rhapsodic about his new bread-making machine as about the prospect of Bill Clinton deposing the incumbent president, George Bush. “I defy anybody to produce better toast,” said the famously frugal former governor. “It gives you fabulous bread for half a buck a loaf.”
Geri Denterlein, who worked in the governor’s press office in the 1980s (and is Thomas’s widow), finds that scene revealing. “It shows a kind of a centeredness to him,” she said of Dukakis. “It was never the seduction of politics that motivated him.”
Constancy and loyalty are Dukakis hallmarks; his devotion to his wife, Kitty, 86, is legendary. Philip Johnston, who served in his Cabinet for seven years as secretary of Health and Human Services, once had an embarrassing run-in with ABC news host Ted Koppel in 1987, who later castigated Johnston on the air. Dukakis called him at 7 the next morning, insisting he “not spend one minute worrying” about the report. “He just had my back,” Johnston said.
The governor’s loyalty extends to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — Denterlein said he once scolded her for considering a vacation in New Hampshire — and to his ideas. He buttonholes anyone who will listen about the decades-old idea of building a rail link between North and South stations (“A no-brainer!”) even forging an odd-couple promotional team with his successor, former Republican governor Bill Weld.
Dukakis is deeply proud of his Hellenic heritage, and it’s tempting to ascribe certain stereotypical Greek characteristics to him: stoicism, logic, a love of argument and of democracy. Nick Mitropoulos, a former campaign aide and stalwart friend, took him to a dinner of the Alpha Omega Council earlier this month. He didn’t want any kind of birthday celebration and thought he was just a guest. But “400 Greeks” serenaded him anyway — in two languages — Mitropoulos said.
Dukakis served in elective office from 1959 (as a Brookline Town Meeting member) until he took the ceremonial “lone walk” down the State House steps on leaving the governorship. On that January day in 1991, he chose to have three trumpets, conducted by Kitty’s father, Harry Ellis Dickson, play Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” to accompany him. A fitting tribute but also not, because in his long public life Mike Dukakis has proven to be a man of uncommon decency.