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Politics

At the End of the Line, Michael Dukakis Stills Wants to Connect

December 14, 2017

What drives former Massachusetts Governor and 1988 Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis – and drives him nuts – is a 1.5-mile stretch between Boston’s North and South railway stations that hasn’t been built for more than a century, the missing link from Maine to Washington, D.C.

It’s an obsession, a bit of an angry one really, that he had to concede not building it as part of a deal to get then-President Ronald Reagan to support the 16-year-long $24.3 billion Big Dig that tore down a central artery through Boston to ease congestion, with new tunnels and bridges being built as well.

But the North Station-South Station connection wasn’t included, the kind of issue that has defined the life and career of a technocrat policy wonk, a political geek if you will, who, at 84, still won’t stop talking about the link or campaigning for it.

“It would be transformative,” he gushed to writer Robert Huber in a Boston magazine feature on his long career from a state legislator to an admittedly failed and unfocused Presidential campaign he was leading over Republican George H.W.Bush before being portrayed – without fighting back – as soft on crime, and too small to fill the White House chair.

He almost doesn’t care anymore even though the undying image that helped do him in as the silly photo of his helmeted head sticking out of a tank as a campaign gimmick that backfired spectacularly even though he had been in the military during the Korean War era.

“It was a winnable election and I lost it.” Does he still think about it? “Not these days. Good God! At some point you move on. If you lose, you lose. Suck it up and move on,” he told the magazine.

Teaching at Boston’s Northeastern University, to which he makes the two-mile walk from his home in nearby Brookline, Dukakis is still a public transportation freak, remembered as well for his broken stretches as Governor – he lost one bid to a long-shot Republican in 1978 – for riding the MBTA, the T as it’s called, Boston’s ancient subway system to the Golden Dome Statehouse.

What he cares about – what he’s obsessive about still – is that unfinished rail link between the stations, getting people out of cars as much as possible and the lost humanity of our times, right down to his peccadillos, like carrying a bag to pick up litter when he walks.

The piece was called Michael Dukakis’ Last Stand and while these days he doesn’t have many causes left that will rally people and as more than a generation has come and gone since he hoped to be the first Greek-American to become President, he’s still standing, if a little stooped.

His political hero was John F. Kennedy, a man who said hasn’t had a charismatic successor apart from Bill Clinton, who Dukakis said had a “deep flaw,”in his personal life – without mentioning the kind of womanizing that has become the cause celebre of victimized women today, but has left Clinton still untouched. The three politicians were driven by the same kind of ideals liberal Democrats chase all their lives, for the most part.

There’s no scandal in Dukakis’ life, a man even his staff at the Statehouse said was driven by work and idealism and so unattentive to bling and glitz he could wear tie shoes with Bermuda shoes and put some to sleep with ceaseless policy talk that was a real Mego – my eyes glaze over.

But he’s still putting one tie shoe in front of the other, walking on a road he hopes will become a rail link and trying to tie together the loose ends of contemporary American politics during a fractured and divisive time in the era of President Donald Trump, a man he calls “a walking personality disorder,” and dysfunctional.

KEEP ON

“Maybe Dukakis is passe to outsiders, but he’s still charging hard here: still pushing, 60 years in, to give his city and state what he is utterly certain they need,” is how the article put his drive, with no plans to retire.

It came from his parents and upbringing. His mother, Euterpe,who campaigned for him nationally in 1988—at the age of 85 – came to the United States in 1913 at age 9 and was the first Greek-American woman to go off to college unescorted; she graduated from Bates, in Maine.

His father, Panos, came to America in 1912 at age 15 without speaking a word of English and 12 years later was graduated from Harvard Medical School and practiced seven days a week for 50 years, the kind of work ethic Dukakis has emulated.

He and his wife, Kitty, have been married more than 50 years and she became a very public figure during and after his campaign when alcoholism and depression overwhelmed her, leading her eventually to seek Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), which they believe saved her life, a treatment she still gets and espouses for others in her state, becoming a tireless spokeswoman.

The story noted that Dukakis’s liberalism was stoked by his mother as he and she were opposed to the war in Vietnam, while his dad was not.

When he went to Swarthmore, a prestigious critical thinking Quaker college outside Philadelphia, in the early 1950’s and took up cutting the hair of black students when local barbers wouldn’t. “Don’t ask me why I was instinctively outraged,” he says. “But I was.”

MR. MASS TRANSIT

As a first-term state legislator in the 1960s, he worked to kill the state’s highway plan that would have cut through Boston neighborhoods, an idea anathema to the champion of mass transit. As Governor, Dukakis used $3 billion in federal money that had been allotted for highways to fix the T instead.

Fred Salvucci, who was Dukakis’s Transportation |Secretary for all three of his terms as Governor, said Dukakis was successful because he paid attention to details.

“The fact that he took the Green Line to the State House—no police car, no bodyguard—because he believes in public transportation. He practiced what he preached, which is very unusual. And inspiring,” said Salvucci.

Dukakis isn’t letting up. He’s been trying since the Reagan compromise to convince the state’s political leaders, and now Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, to press for the North Station-South Station link that’s been missing for 103 years.

“It’s so painful,” he said. “I don’t even want to recount it. We had to back off on the rail component because it was taking one precious highway lane. Jesus!”

He had put it more succinctly: “We never got the connection. Crazy? Yeah.” But he’s still trying.

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