Michael Dukakis is hunched over in his office in the Renaissance Park Building in Boston, rummaging through cardboard boxes on the floor. The political-science department at Northeastern University has just moved in, and Dukakis is still dealing with the upheaval. “For God’s sake, it’s sitting here!” he says, suddenly straightening up. Next to the window is the coatrack he’s been looking for. “God, I’m unconscious,” he chuckles, hanging his jacket up and taking a seat.
At 81, Dukakis looks pretty much the same as he did 27 years ago, when he lost a presidential race in such epic fashion that moments of the campaign have become political shorthand (“Dukakis in a tank,” “Willie Horton ad”). He has the same slight figure, the same owlish eyebrows, though the hair is more salt than pepper now. Because Dukakis has been depicted, uncharitably, as a naïve weenie — or, if you take the charitable view, as a man who tried to run his campaign honorably and instead got kneecapped by Lee Atwater and the Bush campaign — I expected to find him in a solemn place, reflecting on what he could have done better, as the 2016 campaign rolled out.
But that was all wrong. There is the public image of Dukakis as part bloodless technocrat, part lovable old grump, the guy recently spotted in a Boston train station gathering up litter (a couple of years back, he told a Twitter user who spotted him tidying that “I pick up everything but used condoms”). And there is the warm, excitable man sitting in front of me, who still loves politics, maybe now more than ever, and is itching to get in the fight on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
“This stuff about Hillary’s email is absurd,” he says. “There isn’t a person in Washington that doesn’t have a private email and a private cell phone and use it all the time, because that’s the way I get ahold of them!” A week earlier, Dukakis was on CNN and decided he couldn’t hold his tongue anymore. “I said, ‘This stuff about Hillary’s email is the biggest load of baloney I’ve ever seen.’ ” He isn’t sure whether the Clinton camp saw his remarks or whether they liked them. But he knows something about the dangers of not responding to your opponent, and he wants to share it. “My concern at this point is that Hillary and her folks have not mounted more of an effective offense on this thing. Why not get a bunch of us who have experienced presidential campaigns — and some former colleagues in the Senate who have a lot of respect for her — and let us go at these guys and just say, ‘This is the biggest load of crap’? It won’t die unless you kill it, you know? And it’s up to the attackee to do that. We didn’t do it. Kerry didn’t do it. Given what happened to me … as you can imagine, I’m rather sensitive to these kinds of attacks,” he says.
Dukakis is surprisingly clear-eyed about what went wrong in 1988. “I mean, look: I blew that election,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was very winnable, and I made two big mistakes. First, I spent too much time talking to folks who I thought knew more about winning the presidency than I did, all of whom pooh-poohed the idea of precinct-based, grassroots organizing. Now, I got elected around here three times because I knocked on every door, and I’m really kind of a fanatic about it. It took Barack Obama not once but twice to prove to us that [it’s] just as effective on the presidential level.”
“The second thing was that I made this decision — which in retrospect turned out to be one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made — that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign.” Dukakis says he thought people were tired of the politics of conflict, so much so that they’d be willing to ignore the salvos from the right. Atwater would later make a deathbed apology to Dukakis for what he called the “naked cruelty” of the Bush campaign’s attacks on him. “It was nice of him,” says Dukakis, “but if you know anything about Atwater …” His response is essentially “Thanks for the apology, but we didn’t do what we should have done.”
If Dukakis isn’t too worried about Hillary’s chances, it’s thanks in part to her competition. He’s enjoying the way Donald Trump is exposing the rift between GOP voters and the party’s political elite. “Since he hasn’t mortgaged his soul to one of the seven billionaires that finance these campaigns, he’s free to say things that the rest of them won’t. Like, for example, that carried interest is nothing but income and should be taxed.” He jumps into a Trump impression: “ ‘And don’t you worry, I’ll take care of these hedge-fund guys!’ And then you get Jeb Bush saying the same thing, which is remarkable.”
He had a chance to debate Jeb in 1996, during the second Bill Clinton campaign. “I grew up in Massachusetts with a lot of moderate Republicans, strongly pro–civil rights and civil liberties. I guess I just assumed that — ” He pauses. “I was just astonished when I found out how conservative the guy was.” He is bemused by Ben Carson (“He’s an African-American, for God’s sake, who says that Muslims should be disqualified from being president! Of all people!”) and Marco Rubio (“A majority of Cuban-Americans voted Democratic in the last election, which tells you something, and more power to them. The young Cuban-Americans I know all think the embargo ought to be lifted. They love going back”).
Dukakis may not be campaigning these days, but he’s heavily involved in state and international issues. His wife, Kitty, has become an important advocate for the electroconvulsive therapy that saved her from crippling depression — “Kitty would not be here today without it,” Dukakis says — and he’s taken on a supporting role in that work.
And there are other connections as well. Kitty’s ex-husband’s son, Jason Chaffetz, is running for Speaker of the House. Dukakis’s foe in the ’88 primary, a guy who flamed out in a plagiarism scandal, is weighing whether to run again. Dukakis says he’s impressed with Joe Biden: When he went to the White House with a bunch of Greek-Americans to talk about the euro crisis, Biden, he says, was “extremely knowledgeable on the issues. He really had a clear sense of what we might be able to do. People say, ‘Well, he tends to talk a lot on his own,’ but that’s him. He’s not a fake.”
Still, he’s a Hillary supporter, and not in a provisional way. Earlier this year, someone put up a website trying to draft Dukakis himself into the 2016 race. At the mention of it, Dukakis bursts out laughing. “Ridiculous! Look,” he says, “I’m 81. I feel like a million bucks — my mother lived to 100. We’ve had a fabulous life, Kitty and I, with one exception: We didn’t go to the White House. But we’ve got three fabulous kids, eight grandkids. One run is about it. We’ve had a few situations where people have had a second chance, but those have turned out pretty badly, for the most part. So I’m not running again. What could be better than this?”
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.