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Michael Dukakis, Prof. Politics

He lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988, and has spent the last 17 years at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs, launching young people into public service careers.

May 30, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis gives a lecture to his graduate school class in the Public Policy Building on the UCLA campus.
Former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis… (Los Angeles Times )

The man who made his political bones handling Boston's blizzard of 1978 has spent the last 17 winters in the sunshine glow of UCLA. Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate for president, is a visiting professor at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs, launching young people into the public service careers he endorses so passionately. UCLA is where he staged his last fervent campaign rally the day before he lost toGeorge H.W. Bush; the day after the election, he was back at his governor's desk. As California votes in its primary, Dukakis puts his mind to the Golden State's political workings, and the nature of a presidential campaign.

How has presidential campaigning changed since you ran?

I don't think it's changed that much. It's obviously combative, but as any student of American history knows, we've had hand-to-hand combat in American politics since the beginning of the republic; in fact, it was a lot tougher back then, in some ways.

It must be grueling — the hours, the travel, the food.

[For politicians], campaigning day after day is not new. What is different is spending a lot of time on airplanes. But if you don't like campaigning, you shouldn't be running for office. And you cannot be in lousy shape and run for the presidency.

The Secret Service [protection] — I found that rather difficult. I held off as long as I could because I didn't want to be walled off, but their job is to make sure nobody does any harm to you. They're very professional. Yes, you could [still work] the rope line, but the easy spontaneity I could enjoy as governor just went out the window.

So you were relieved when they departed?

Well, no, I would have preferred to have been elected!

Has the electorate changed much?

I don't think so. I think a lot of Americans are better informed, yet there's more required than just having information. It's trying to make judgments about where we want this country to go. And there's no question that moderation is not exactly the name of the game. In fact, the one moderate politician these days is Obama. It seems to me that [Sen.] Richard Lugar's defeat in Indiana, [Rep.] Mike Castle's defeat in the primary in Delaware in 2010 and [Sen.] Olympia Snowe's retirement now makes it official: Moderate and thoughtful Republicanism in the U.S. is dead.

How do California politics differ from Massachusetts politics?

There's much less precinct-based grass-roots organizing here. Almost nobody rings a doorbell. It's all media-driven. We organized half the precincts in California when I ran. If we had organized them all, I would have won. That [organization] just doesn't happen here, for reasons I'm not sure I understand.

There's a guy running for mayor of Riverside, Rusty Bailey. He was my student assistant, ex-West Pointer, helicopter pilot. He beat an incumbent councilman. How? Knocking on every door in his district.

Isn't it because California is as big as a country?

So you've got 35,000 precincts. But you've got 37.5 million people. If you can't recruit 35,000 precinct captains out of 37.5 million people, there's something wrong with you. Now you've got this nonpartisan primary, which I just don't understand. What's the point of having a primary if it's not partisan?

Even having said that, the dearth of precinct-based organizing in California just doesn't make any sense to me.

More Californians are registering as "decline to state" voters, and you think the solution is more party activism?

More engagement with people face to face; you really appreciate the positive reaction you get. You contact people, they ask you a few questions, they may be interested, and by the time the conversation is over, another block captain. You don't get that unless you knock on somebody's door. The Internet won't do that for you; Twitter won't do that for you; Facebook won't do that for you.

The Internet has changed fundraising.

The Internet is a wonderful fundraising and organizing tool. Obama [had] 4 million contributors. I set a record in '88 with 400,000! [But] when somebody sends you the 50 bucks, back goes an email: "Thanks very much; will you be a precinct captain?" That's key.

What's the impact of the Citizens United decision?

Terrible. It has to be one of the five worst decisions by the Supreme Court. [They] call themselves strict constructionists, right? Tell me where it says in the Constitution that money is speech. Tell me where it says Congress cannot reasonably regulate campaign contributions. It's been doing so for 120 years. All of a sudden these guys decide, not only is money speech but corporate money is speech. Outrageous, in my opinion. It's polluting the political process.

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