What do you do after almost being elected President of the United States? You could spend your time playing golf with your rich pals, raising horses on your family farm, and accepting millions of dollars in consultation fees for providing your inside political expertise and connections. Or you could continue a life dedicated to unselfish public service and education - the very life that made you a household name in the first place.
To no one's surprise, Michael Dukakis is the same down-to-earth guy everybody knew when he and his wife, Kitty originally moved into their Brookline, Mass., home long before politics thrust him into the national limelight.
These days, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee can still be seen mowing his lawn or riding the subway or chatting amiably with neighbors. But Dukakis spends most of his working time as a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston as well as at the University of California in Los Angeles during the winter months.
He attributes a part of his civic commitment to Hellenic roots.
"I've always had this sense that there's something about Greeks and being Greek," he says, referring to the impact his heritage has had on his life. Dukakis, who grew up bilingual, joyfully tells stories about his immigrant parents. He goes into great and fascinating details about their lives in the old country. He describes their early years in America as fairly typical.
"And yet both of my parents went to college, which was very unusual at the time," he remarks. His mother was probably the first Greek-American young woman to go away to college in New England; she became a school teacher. His father became the first American-trained, Greek-speaking doctor in metropolitan Boston, and had a practice not far from Michael's own present-day office on the Northeastern campus.
A modest, red brick-walled workspace is populated with books on some of the professor's favorite subject, such as politics (of course), public health and public transit. The 68-year old former governor of Massachusetts warmly welcomes visitors with his shirt sleeves rolled up and with that now-familiar Dukakis smile.
"I've been interested in politics since I was about seven," he says. "I remember, in 1940, setting up a card table in the middle of our living room, with my ten-year old brother, turning on the radio, putting together a chart with the then-48 states, in five or six columns, and taking down the vote."
The boy politician followed the activities of the Democratic and Republican national conventions that summer. At age eight, Michael ran for president of his third-grade class. From there, it was a short hop to four terms in the Massachusetts state legislature (by way of Swarthmore College, Harvard Law School and the United States Army), an unprecedented three terms as governor and a groundbreaking run for the White House.
His astonishing transformation of the Bay State's economy from one based on a stagnant manufacturing base to one based on the booming high-tech industry came to be known as "the Massachusetts miracle," and earned him numerous kudos including the title of "Most Effective Governor in the Nation" from his colleagues in 1986. But the Dukakis success story was sidetracked by the highly negative 1988 G.O.P. presidential campaign.
The strategy of then-Vice President George Bush was characterized by vicious personal attacks against his opponent. One example - reportedly engineered by his son, George W. Bush - was the notorious and racist "Willie Horton" ad. It charged that Dukakis' "liberal experiments" had permitted a black convicted murder, out on furlough, to rape a white woman. In fact, the Massachusetts furlough program had been created by a Republican governor. Moreover, the federal prison program under the Reagan-Bush administration had released at least one convict who committed murder while out on furlough. However, Dukakis refused to respond to this smear or other misleading Bush tactics and ultimately lost the election.
After leaving office, Mike and his wife traveled to Hawaii, where he briefly taught courses in political leadership and health policy. He also led a series of public forums on the reform of the nation's health care system. (Hawaii became the first state in America to provide a universal health insurance system.)
Today, the man from Brookline shares his acquired wisdom with hundreds of would-be governors, presidents and other future leaders. "Let me tell you, it's an inspiration to spend time with these kids," he says. "They're fabulous."
In addition to teaching, Dukakis remains active in local and national politics - sometimes quite openly, sometimes behind the scenes. During our one-hour visit, his phone kept ringing with calls from friends and colleagues who were seeking advice or information. Later that evening, he moderated a live, televised forum on the future of Boston.
A few days before, he had gone to Liberty, Missouri, to meet with dozens of Harry S. Truman scholarship recipients - college students judged to have outstanding leadership potential and committed to careers in public service. And on any given day, one might find him in the middle of a national debate about the future of Amtrak (on whose reform board he is Vice Chairman). For a man who, some believe, has "retired" from politics, Michael Dukakis is one busy guy!
"I think my interest in politics at least had something to do with my Greekness," he says. "From an early age, I remember hot discussions around the dinner table when the relatives got together. It was usually about Greek politics, not American politics, but it was politics."
A few years ago, he and former U.S. Senator Paul Simon co-authored a book called "How to Get into Politics - and Why" that serves as a primer for young people interested in a life of public service. It's filled with inspiring, personal anecdotes from both men, but also contains some very practical advice for running a political campaign.
Dukakis has an unmistakably passion for politics. He speaks nostalgically about going door-to-door in his early grass roots campaigns, and bemoans the fact that he couldn't do that in his 1988 presidential bid. But that experience hasn't soured him on politics or left him without a cause.
These days, cause number one is public transit, and more specifically, railroads.
"It's not because my father wouldn't buy me Lionel trains - although he wouldn't," he begins lightheartedly. "And it was probably the right decision," he adds with a wry smile, in defense of his dad.
Dukakis grew up in a city and a metropolitan area that had a good, traditional public transportation system in the 1930s and 1940s. He saw an increasing emphasis on construction of interstate highways after World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s, from his seat in the legislature, he led the fight to improve public transit within cities.
"I was watching these highways destroy my town," he says. "And it didn't make any sense to me." After Dukakis was elected governor, Massachusetts became the first state to use federal highway money for mass transit. He gives much credit to his state's congressional delegation "led by a sainted man named Thomas P. O'Neil." That enabled them to put about $3 billion into the Boston subway system, known affectionately as the "T."
"And has it worked?" he asks rhetorically. "Look at this city. It's the best thing I ever did."
But intra-city and local transit is only part of the picture. Former President Bill Clinton appointed Dukakis to help reform the nation's passenger rail service. It's a challenge he takes seriously. Although federal law requires Amtrak to be financially self-sufficient, the same is not required of other transportation systems.
"The buses don't cover their capital costs," he begins. "The truckers don't cover their capital costs. And God knows the airlines aren't covering their operating costs these days."
Threatened with a recent shut-down due to a funding shortfall, Congress finally provided emergency appropriations in July to keep the trains running - this despite resistance from the Oval Office.
"Now, where's the administration?" asks Dukakis. "I mean, if you had a president that made this a priority, it'd go through Congress like a knife through butter. If Amtrak could get Congress to commit to about two and a half percent of what they're spending on airports every year, we could do this job and do it very, very well."
Dukakis is dismayed that the United States is so far behind Europe and Japan in the state of passenger train service. Even the most popular runs (such as California's "Capitol Corridor" between San Jose and Sacramento, the fastest growing line in the country) average only 80 mph.
"Those trains could go 140 - as long as you do the track improvements, close out the grade crossings, put in new signals...and the capital investment requires about ten percent of what you'd have to spend for equivalent highway capacity. I mean, it's cheap! And it's simple, basic stuff."
He notes that the French spend thirty percent of their national transportation budget on railroads.
"We spend one-half of one percent." It's no wonder, he says, that they ride in high-speed trains from Paris to Marseille (510 miles) in three hours and ten minutes. That's roughly the distance from San Francisco to San Diego - a trip that now takes nearly eight hours in a car and even longer by train and bus, since there is no direct connection on Amtrak.
In addition to his passion for important issues, something one cannot fail to observe about Michael Dukakis is his impressive command of facts. Never lacking details to support an argument, he comfortably moves from topic to topic. Another example: he says the romanticized notion that education in America was better in the old days is "nonsense." He quickly gives some reasons.
"When Kitty and I got out of high school in the '50s, the high school dropout rate in the United States was over fifty percent," he says. "The high school completion rate for African-Americans in 1940 in the United States of America was 12 percent. So there have been huge improvements."
On the other hand, he acknowledges that the need for more improvement is even higher.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "There are still problems." But he adds, optimistically, that "nearly 70 percent of the high school graduates in the city of Boston are going to college. And for good measure, he throws in that 60 percent of high school graduates from the city's poorest neighborhood also go to college - compared to only five percent in the 1950s.
It is this vast knowledge that has led some distant observers to mistakenly label Dukakis as a cold intellectual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who eventually meet him in person often say they are also surprised by his sense of humor. The only one more surprised about that is Dukakis, himself.
"I've always been funny," he says with a straight face.
To conduct this interview, correspondent Terry Phillips traveled across the United States by train. He took Amtrak's Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago, the Lakeshore Limited Daily to New York City and the Acela Express to Boston. The cross-country trip took three days. Coincidentally, his paternal grandfather worked as a railroad engineer in Asia Minor. One final note: Terry's father did give him a Lionel train set. (Sorry, Michael.)
Causes Terry Phillips Supports
Armenia Fund, ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Fund, Amnesty International