NEW YORK – Michael S. Dukakis, 1988 Democratic Presidential candidate and three-term governor of Massachussets, was the special guest on TNH Discussions on Facebook hosted by TNH Co-Editor and Publisher Eraklis Diamataris on September 3.
Diamataris began by asking the Governor about his parents, whom Dukakis called “extraordinary people” and the subsequent discussion ranged from his political career to the current presidential campaign and the challenges and opportunities facing the nation to the dangerous conflict between Greece and Turkey.
After his family moved from Lesbos to Asia Minor for a better life in the early 20th century, Dukakis’ father decided at age 15 to move to the United State in pursuit of even better opportunities, joining his brothers in Lowell, MA. “This kid who spoke no English – not a nickel in his pocket – 12 years later graduated from Harvard Medical School – how he did it I have no idea,” the Governor said. His mother, also a remarkable person and an immigrant, “thanks to an elementary school principal, became – we think – the first Greek girl to go away to college … unheard of … in 1921 … and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bates College.”
Dukakis said his parents were not political in the sense of being activists, “but the CBS World News Roundup was always on the radio.” The news and stories of family and friends in Greece under occupation in WWII, and awareness of anti-Semitism and that African Americans were not permitted to live in the town of Brookline were his family resided sharpened his social consciousness.
Asked what constituted the “Massachussets Miracle” he was credited with as governor, Dukakis first noted that his state was hit disproportionately hard by the national recession in the late 70s. His team targeted the declining industrial cities and worked hard to train people in the skills demanded by new industries that his administration worked hard to attract. He and then-congressman Paul Tsongas, both from Lowell, worked to make that city “a model of how you turn around an old industrial community” and as governor he applied what was learned “to dozens of other communities in the state.”
Diamataris noted that “to go from two immigrant parents … to go from one generation to competing for the White House is extraordinary … and you made it a point to say you were the son of immigrant parents. Why was that important to say?” “Because it’s the American story,” Dukakis replied. “It’s was makes this country such a special place.”
After expressing pride in the Greek-American achievement he reminded, “I had wonderful support from the Greek community” from the start, in state legislature, gubernatorial, and presidential campaigns, and he shared the touching story of how a Greek-owned pizzeria became his Iowa headquarters during the ‘88 campaign.
The governor graciously accepted the inevitable but tough questions about downturn in his campaign’s fortunes after the 17-point polling lead he had after the Democratic Convention. Noting that the Bush campaign confronted their grim poling numbers by “turning inexplicably nasty,” Diamataris asked, “do you regret at all not pushing back harder?” Dukakis’ frank response was “yes, it was a mistake. I made the decision – it was not a good decision – that I was not going to respond to the Bush attacks.” He reminded that there was conflict and division in the country during the Reagan years and he wanted to assuage that, but he now grasps that “if the other guy is going to come at you with attack stuff, you can’t just sit there and take it, and unfortunately, that’s what I did … you have to be ready for these kinds of things and have a strategy and I did not.”
And Bush never apologized for the particularly vicious and divisive tone of his campaign, Dukakis said, adding “the Willy Horton TV ad was so obviously racist. Before he died his campaign manager admitted that.”
Asked how the United States would have been had he won, Dukakis said, “I would hope that it would have been better …with universal health care” and other forward-looking initiatives.
The most poignant moment was when he was asked why he didn’t try again in 1992 and Dukakis replied “I had not done well in ‘88 and you usually don’t get more than one bite at the apple.”
Diamataris asked what advice he had for Joe Biden this year, and Dukakis noted the importance of grass roots organizing – which he said he did do enough in 1988. It is hard to do with the Coronavirus, he acknowledged, but “the Biden campaign must come up with alternative ways of doing that.” Social media could be a strong grass roots vehicle and tool, and Dukakis stressed Biden “must work hard and be very competitive and combative … take nothing for granted.”
For all the division and partisanship that prevails today, Dukakis reminded that back in the day, Republicans and Democrats would try to find common ground and work together on important matters. He believes there is broad agreement on issues like affordable healthcare, which 80% of Americans support. He remains an optimist regarding America’s ability to regain that bipartisan spirit, and asked about the possibility that both the Democratic and Republican parties might split in the future, he said he was not afraid of that.
Regarding Turkey’s current provocative actions and the apparent indifference of the United States, Dukakis emphasized the importance for humanity of the peaceful settlement of disputes.
Referring to the effect Dukakis continues to have inspiring young Greek-Americans “to break the glass ceilings and serving their country at the highest level,” Diamataris asked “do you think someone will pick up and finish the job that you started?” Dukakis said “there are young Greek-Americans coming on I hope and expect to step into new roles … I want to see women as well as men running for office … I will certainly do everything I can to encourage them.”