Thursday 18th January 2018,
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An Interview with Governor Michael Dukakis

Michael Dukakis

By Sam Ruddy and Madison Russ

Michael Dukakis served four terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and as the 65th and 67th Governor of Massachusetts. He is the longest serving Governor in Massachusetts history. He was also the 1988 Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States.

First we want to say thank you for taking the time to meet with us. We know you’ve been very busy since we’ve had to reschedule this interview a few times.

MD: I apologize for that. Life doesn’t seem to get any less busy these days.

What have you been focusing on lately?

MD: I teach full time at Northeastern, three months at UCLA, and then I’m up to my eyeballs in a million things. You know we’ve had one election after the other around here, starting with the Elizabeth Warren thing. It’s been kind of non-stop on that front. I’m very much involved in transportation policy and health care. I’m chairing something on the Boston Global Forum that’s looking at some key international issues. Life is busy but it’s a lot of fun.

Would you say that you have something that you feel extremely passionate about that you’re working on besides teaching at the moment?

MD: I feel passionate about a lot of things. Foreign policy stuff, domestic. Two principle issues domestically: one is transportation and the other one is health care. But I kind of range around a bit.

I’m a big fan of high-speed rail in California, and the rest of the country. I think we’re falling badly behind the rest of the world and they’re going right by us when it comes to high-speed ground transportation.

I also happen to think working Americans and their families should have decent, affordable healthcare. Why there are people who don’t believe that or don’t think that’s a good thing is beyond me. If you went out and took a poll tomorrow and asked the American people should working Americans and their families have decent affordable healthcare, 93% of them would say yes, and 85% of the uninsured people in this country are working or members of working families. They’re not sitting around, they’re not on public assistance. If you’re on welfare, you get Medicaid. These are working folks with no health care. We have one of the most expensive health care system in the world. I’m very committed to that and I’m obviously doing whatever I can to help the President and Congress to move on this thing.

Talking about your passion for health care, what are your opinions on the kind of reactions to these kinds of seemingly broken promises on the Affordable Care Act that have been coming out lately?

MD: Back during the Bush administration, the second Bush administration, Congress passed for the first time a prescription drug benefit for seniors under Medicare. Now, they did it in a way which I thought was ill-advised; they tried to create a market. Markets don’t work on health care. I mean I could go on great length about this but in any event we got a prescription drug benefit. And because they decided they wanted to get the private health insurance companies into this, they created this so- called market place for a year. It was chaos.

This is nothing compared to what we went through when it came to that prescription drug benefit. The Republican investigating committee … point of fact, the Democrats are trying to help the Republicans make the thing work. You know, from time to time you’re going to have some glitches in this stuff. It took us two years for us here in Massachusetts to get the information system we have squared away so people could apply for coverage through what we call the “connector,” which is the model for the exchanges. Today, 98% of the people in this state have comprehensive health care. But this isn’t a question of people reneging promises. This is a question of information systems, which in part – because it’s a Supreme Court decision – allowed a bunch of states to get off the hook for reasons that frankly, as a lawyer, I do not understand. I mean, this notion that we can’t constitutionally require states to meet certain conditions in order to get their Medicaid money is preposterous. I don’t know where the court came up with this thing. Because in the states, as you know, that have accepted it and are moving ahead on it, it’s working fine. They have their own individual information systems … But I’m pretty confident that in the next month or so this thing will be straightened out and people will be able to apply for their benefits, and the more they hear about this, and the more they learn about it, I think the better they’re going to like it.

Obviously it hasn’t been all that perfect, a hundred percent smooth on this, but I haven’t any doubt it’ll be working. And remember, 85% of the people that are insured in this country are working or members of working families. These people aren’t sitting around, they’re not loafing. Of course, when they get so sick, they can’t stand up they end up in the emergency room at ten times the cost of going to the doctor in the first place. So I’m really quite optimistic about this and I think it’s going to be fine. But there are going to be some glitches. Governor Patrick the other day [said] it was a couple of years before we really had the thing working smoothly in a way that has now made it possible for virtually everyone in this state to have good and affordable health care.

Since we’re on the subject of healthcare, how do you feel about the government shut down that just concluded and the current state of our partisan politics compared to when you ran for president?

MD: For those of us who lived through the McCarthy era, and I was at Swarthmore during the McCarthy era, that was bad. When, among other things, the FBI was taping the Swarthmore switchboard, if you can believe it, and when I was drafted in the military after I graduated, the guy that was interviewing me for the personnel side of things had a complete dossier of every political organization and every political campaign I had every been involved in. And who was I? This kid from Brookline, Massachusetts who was going to Swarthmore? That doesn’t mean that I’m happy about what’s been going on in Washington. I work with a lot of very good Republicans who seem to share a lot the same common values. Maybe we differed somewhat, but you got a bunch of people there that are really very anti-government that I don’t think care whether the government works or not, and really don’t understand what an impact all of this is having on our ability to recover economically. Because we’re not recovering as quickly as we should, and a lot that has to do with this stuff that’s going on in there.

Now as a Democrat, all I’m going to tell you is that I blame my party. Why did we let these guys take over the congress in 2010? It was our fault. And we better take it back in 2014 if this president is going to even have at least a couple of years where he can work more cooperatively with the Congress. The other thing that’s happened since those times is the filibuster was really used back when I was your age, thinking about going into politics nine miles southwest of Philadelphia. Today, it is almost an automatic in the Senate and, frankly, I’m a guy that’s always believed the filibuster should be eliminated. I do not understand this. There are ways that you can ensure full and robust debate in the Senate of the United States. Democrats are just as guilty of as the Republicans because they used it all the time when they were in the minority. It’s a recipe for gridlock, and that’s what we’re getting. And I don’t think the country is being helped by that, or that the government as an institution is being helped by that, and I think it’s very unfortunate.

On that note, in what way do you think the government could work more efficiently across the aisle?

MD: Well, first, I would get rid of the filibuster. I think at some point a majority has to govern, and everyone seems to think that’s going to be terrible. It won’t be. You’ve got a President who’s got a veto power, a Supreme Court of the United States that could exercise [its] authority … I was a state legislature for eight years, which is also seen as a filibuster. In fact, after about three or four or five hours of debate on a particular issue, we always had a bunch of windbags who would go on and on and on. Most parliamentary bodies – including my legislature at that point – anybody can get up and say, “Mr. Speaker, I move the question.” Can’t be debated, can’t be amended. You got to go to a vote on whether or not it’s time to end debate and take a vote. Now we didn’t abuse it, don’t get me wrong, we didn’t cut people off the minute they spoke. But after two hours, three hours, four hours, of debate on a particular issue…what more is there to say? So I think it’s time that the majorities rule. And that’s true whether the Democrats are the minority or the Republicans are the minority.

On the House side, if we’re going to end this kind of obstructionism, then it’s up to my party to go out and elect sufficient members of Congress, or it’s up to the American people to elect sufficient number of Congress Republicans and Democrats alike who after a reasonable debate are prepared to move and not hang up the entire country on this debt limit thing. Which, by the way, the Republicans have repeatedly voted for until recently. So there’s a lot of ways to do this. Nobody is being served by this kind of obstructionism. And I would say that if the Democrats were doing it. Just so happens we’ve got these Tea Party folks who seem to want to do this and don’t understand the damage that is being done to our ability to get people back to work and to get an economy humming again.

Talking about getting the economy, what in your opinion is the way forward for the American middle class?

MD: Well, it’s two things. You know Jack Kennedy used to say the best social program is full employment, and I agree with him. You can do all kinds of things to try to be helpful to people but there’s nothing like an economy that’s operating at full employment which employs people with good jobs and decent benefits. That’s what middle class Americans want, and I think they ought to be able to get it.

I’m sure you are aware of the fact the gap between the rich and the rest of us is growing, that we have serious problems when it comes to creating the kinds of jobs that can provide a decent middle class life for people. And those are some of the issues we should be focusing on. I think we need a much higher minimum wage. If the minimum wage we had in 1969-1970 had simply kept pace with inflation, then the minimum wage we have today would be somewhere between ten to eleven dollars an hour. It’s around eight. You can’t support yourself and a family on eight dollars an hour. I think we need good comprehensive health care for Americans and their families. I think this is fundamental. That would make a huge difference. And providing comprehensive healthcare to people would make it possible for folks to get the kind of healthcare that people in other advanced industrialized nations with whom we compare ourselves accept as a matter of course and have for years. That would make a difference.

I think we’ve got to do some significant investing in affordable housing, particularly in metropolitan areas like the one I now live in. I live in a town just west of Boston where Kitty and I bought half a brick duplex in 1971 for $25,000, and it wasn’t a bargain. In fact it was a little overvalued. Our half of a brick duplex in the town of Brookline is now assessed for a million dollars. This is a house we bought for 25. And a young couple like us today could not afford to live in the town, unless, of course, we do some things to make it possible for them to do so. And that requires some public support. We don’t have to go back to the old housing projects, they didn’t work – but some public support for mixed income housing, which we pioneered in this state and did a lot of when I was governor, and a variety of other things. Those are the kinds of things that will provide for good and decent life for middle-income people.

I think we’ve got to do a better job training folks for the kinds of jobs that we’re now creating. That’s not rocket science, we know how to do it. There are a number of things that we could be doing now. Overall, if we have an economy that’s creating these kinds of jobs, you’re going to have to make it a lot easier and better for folks to get decent jobs that pay a living wage that can support a family, and I think that’s got to be front and center here. Herbert Hoover economics won’t do this. We tried that once, and it was a failure. And these folks in Congress want to go back to what I call Hoover economics. Didn’t work then, and doesn’t work now. So why would we do that again? Frankly, I don’t know why the EU thinks that austerity is going to bring the European economy back, it won’t. So we’ve got to learn from the past.

But I’m quite optimistic, folks. I think that this country has the capacity to do great things. I’m proud of the job that my former lieutenant governor, who is now the Secretary of State, is doing. Didn’t I train him well? And for a change, I think we’re looking at what appears to be the road to peace in Iraq and a variety of places, and not the road to war, and I think that too will have a profound affect on our ability to create a good life here in the West. So I’m optimistic.

You’ve mentioned your time as Governor a couple of times. What would you say you are most proud of in terms of your achievements as the Governor of Massachusetts?

MD: Well, a lot of things actually. Remember, I was elected to the legislature back in the early 1960’s in a state which was one of the three or four most corrupt states in the country. So just basic integrity was an important factor, and I, among others, was one of the people who worked very hard to get this state to the point where we set very high standards of integrity for ourselves and our public servants and enforce them, and that was important.

Secondly, we were an economic basket case when I was elected Governor back in 1974. We had the second-highest unemployment rate in the country, and they were calling us the new Appalachia here in New England. Today, Massachusetts is one of the nation’s leaders when it comes to the new economy, high-tech, biotech, and all those kinds of things, but we also have a good deal of traditional manufacturing, and I’m a great believer in working at that. I don’t buy this notion that someone else does manufacturing and all we do is consulting or something. I think there’s great potential there. And I did sign the second universal health care bill in the country in 1988, but unfortunately my successor did everything he could to screw it up. And it took us another 20 years to get something close to universal coverage.

I’m a big public transportation fanatic. I inherited a transportation system in this state that was a basket case as well, and today we have one of the best transit systems in the country, and it has everything to do with the fact that Boston is booming. And while I was governor I rode it [the T]. I was the transit-riding governor, and it wasn’t an act. I had been riding it since I was about five. But we’ve got an excellent public transportation system now. And I’m a big fan of high-speed ground transportation between cities. I’m very concerned about the fact that the rest of the world seems to be going right by us when it comes to high-speed rail transportation. There’s no excuse for this. We worked hard at that, and it had something to do with setting the stage for the Northeast Corridor project that produced the Acela and that kind of stuff. So these were some of the things that I did, and as I say to young people these days – and I speak a lot on campuses – there’s nothing like public service. To be in a position where you can make a difference in the lives of your fellow citizens is really special, and I think we were able to do that here in Massachusetts. Others were able to continue with that, and I think we can do it nationally.

On the topic of achievements and prior time in office, how do you feel that your presidential candidacy has impacted the rest of your political career?

MD: Well, obviously I didn’t make it. And as I say these days, I owe you all an apology. If I had beaten Bush 1, you would have never heard of Bush 2, and we wouldn’t be in this mess. You can blame me for what happened during the second Bush years, which I thought really were some of the worst we’ve ever experienced. But I made some mistakes on the campaign.

We had a great primary campaign, not a good final campaign, and I made two mistakes in particular. One was in making a decision. It was my decision to not respond to the Bush attack campaign. Unfortunately, as we saw, it turned out to be a pretty dumb decision. You’ve got to assume that it’s a contact sport, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been involved in these kinds of campaigns before. But I’m a positive guy, I thought people were tired of the kind of polarization we had during the Reagan administration, and so I made this decision that turned out to be probably the worst decision I ever made.

Secondly, I’m a guy that had always been elected from the first time I had run for local office up to and including three successful gubernatorial campaigns with very strong precinct-based grassroots organizations. I’m a huge believer in that. I mean, seriously, a precinct captain and 6 block captains in every single precinct making personal contact on an ongoing basis with every single voting household. And that’s how I won elections, time after time after time.

Well, coming up to the presidential election, I talked with a lot of people who I thought knew more about how to get elected President than I did, all of whom pooh-poohed this notion of grassroots campaigning for the Presidency. They’d say, “Well, maybe for city council, but not for the Presidency. That’s all about money and media and that kind of stuff.” And it has really taken us until ’08 and ’12 with Barack Obama to understand that it doesn’t make any difference at what level you’re operating; precinct-based grassroots organizing makes a huge difference. He wouldn’t have been elected President without it, Elizabeth Warren would not have been elected to the Senate, Ed Markey wouldn’t have been elected to the Senate, and I’m not sure that it’s something that either of the major political parties still understands as well as they should. But had we done that – and you’re only talking about 200,000 precincts, 200,000 precinct captains in the country of what, 300 million people, so it’s quite doable – so, lessons learned. Those are the two things that I came away with.

Now what’d it do to my political career … well I didn’t make the presidency, and you rarely have a second bite at that apple. I finished up my third and last term, and I had kind of privately made a decision that the third term would be it – not that I didn’t love being governor, I did, but three terms is about maximum. But now I’ve been teaching ever since. I love teaching and working with young people. I happen to be here at Northeastern, which is a so-called co-op school, which is also like Drexel, by the way, where kids go for 5 years not 4 and they rotate from study to work-study to work, and these are paid jobs related to their majors. And I just love teaching these young people. You guys are part of a, I don’t know how many people tell you this, an extraordinary generation of young people. I mean, you’re miles better than we were. And a lot of young people really want to do public service, and it’s inspiring to meet with you, talk with you, and teach it. So that’s an important part of my career too – one that I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed.

Do you see yourself continuing to teach going forward, or is there any elected office in your future?

MD: You’re asking if I want to run again, and I say not if I want to stay married. Not that Kitty has not been a full partner in all of this. I’ve been blessed with a great wife and three kids and eight grandkids. So we really have an extraordinary life. But for some reason, she likes these three months out in Los Angeles in the wintertime. And we have a very full life out there, we’re not just sitting around. I have a full teaching schedule at UCLA, but it’s really been a lot of fun. And our son is here in Boston with his family, but we have a daughter in Denver and a daughter in San Francisco, so it gets us out there and we spend time with them. So I’m not going to be running for elected office again, but I’m still fully and actively engaged in politics and policymaking, and I actively help in making a contribution to making this country a better place.

This interview contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.

This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of PPR.

Image (Attribution License) courtesy of Deval Patrick on Flickr.

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