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THE STATE OF THE QUESTION : The Lives of the Leading Contenders

March 06, 1988|KEITH LOVE

Anyone seeking the presidency in America needs a solid base from which to launch such an audacious undertaking. But, at some point, the candidate has to go beyond preaching to the choir and reach out to those swing voters who usually decide the election.

These voters are not loyal Democrats or loyal Republicans. They are much more independent-minded, and, in wooing them, the candidate's credibility and his ability to connect on a gut level become the overriding factors.

Political biographies do not always address these factors, but, in this presidential campaign year, we are fortunate in that new books about or by four men now seeking the White House are to provide insights that should help the swing voter.

Take Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, now a major contender for the Democratic nomination.

Both Dukakis and the Reform Impulse, by Richard Gaines and Michael Segal, and Dukakis: An American Odyssey, by Charles Kenney and Robert L. Turner, dwell extensively on the governor's role in the Massachusetts economic success story.

Once called "Taxachusetts," the Bay State has had its taxes cut by Dukakis and has seen its unemployment rate drop to 3% after record-high levels in the mid-1970s. Dukakis is ruthless about cutting waste and long ago took on welfare with some success.

Much of the credit for the "Massachusetts Miracle" has to go to the high-tech entrepreneurs who were attracted to the area by the large number of research labs and such powerful universities as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Related to this has been Reagan's spending on military projects, much of it connected to high-tech firms with outlets in Massachusetts.

But the new books on Dukakis show that the governor, after a shaky first term and brief political exile, also did his part by insisting that the state bureaucracy cut the flab, eliminate corruption and attract some of the bright young people who had once shunned Massachusetts government because it was so creaky and sneaky.

Dukakis is a reformer. He hates the old politics of patronage, although he has shown some leniency in his second and third terms after learning in his first term that you can turn off even your most loyal supporters if you don't pass around a few jobs after the election is over.

So, these new books on Dukakis couldn't have arrived at a better time, documenting as they do Dukakis' credibility in economics.

Connecting on a gut level is another matter.

Both biographies describe a man who is so disciplined, so demanding of himself and those around him, that he often comes off as self-righteous, and the last guy who did that--Jimmy Carter--saw a sad ending to his phenomenal rise to the White House.

From his days in high school to Swarthmore College to his role in reforming Massachusetts politics as an activist and state legislator, Dukakis has always tried to do the right thing.

He took the subway to work every day in his first term as governor so that he would know the hassles of the average strap hanger trying to make ends meet.

Convinced that previous Massachusetts governors had kept too much from the public eye, Dukakis opened cabinet meetings to the press. This led to comical and chaotic scenes in which people trying to do the state's business were mugging for the cameras and stumbling over reporters scribbling furiously in their notebooks.

Dukakis' frugality is legendary--and a bit excessive, at least to me. When legislators came for a working lunch in his first term, he pulled out a brown bag just as they were looking toward the door for a caterer.

He has modified that, but he still does much of his family's grocery shopping when they are home in Brookline because he thinks his wife, Kitty, is not price-conscious. Is shopping a good use of this man's time?

Gaines and Segal say that Dukakis, efficient but soulless in the early years, has become more compassionate in later years, and they date the change to his defeat after his first term, in 1978.

When he ran again in 1982 after teaching at the Kennedy School of Government for four years, Dukakis admitted his mistakes from his first gubernatorial term and said, "We've all grown through these experiences."

He began to worry less about assimilation and to speak movingly about his Greek heritage and about how his father came to this country knowing no English and wound up a Harvard-trained doctor.

Today, on the campaign trail, he has an asset that Kenney and Turner think is handy for the modern presidential quest.

"Character has dominated presidential politics since Watergate," they write. ". . . From the first, Michael Dukakis said character would elect the President in 1988."

Character Dukakis has got.

What Dukakis is, Kenney and Turner conclude, is a combination of bleeding-heart Walter Mondale and high-tech Gary Hart. He is a man who gets incensed at what he sees as the insensitivity of the Reagan Administration but one with the skill to organize a government on limited resources.

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