Dukakis attended Brookline High School in his hometown. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1955, served in the U.S. Army 1955–1957, stationed in Korea, and then received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1960. Dukakis is also an Eagle Scout and recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America.
After winning four terms to the Massachusetts House of Representatives between 1962 and 1970, Dukakis was elected governor in 1974, defeating the incumbent Republican Francis W. Sargent during a period of fiscal crisis. Dukakis won in part by promising to be a 'reformer' and pledging not to increase the state's sales tax to balance the state budget. He broke that pledge soon after taking office. He also had pledged to dismantle the powerful Metropolitan District Commission, a bureaucratic enclave that served as home to hundreds of political patronage employees. The MDC managed (some would say mismanaged) Massachusetts' parks, reservoirs and waterways, as well as the highways and roads abutting those waterways. In addition to its own police force, the MDC had its own navy as well, and an enormous budget from the State, for which it provided the most minimal accounting. The Dukakis pledge to dismantle MDC failed in the Legislature where MDC had many powerful supporters and ultimately came back to haunt Dukakis when the MDC withheld its critical backing in the 1978 gubernatorial primary (see below).
Governor Dukakis was an amiable host to President Ford and Queen Elizabeth II during their visits to Boston in 1976 to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States. He gained some notoriety as the only person in the state government who went to work during the great Blizzard of 1978. During the storm, he went into local TV studios in a sweater to announce emergency bulletins. Dukakis is also remembered for his 1977 exoneration of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists whose trial sparked protests around the world, and who were electrocuted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fifty years earlier in 1927.
During his first term in office, Dukakis commuted the sentences of 21 first-degree murderers and those of 23 second-degree murderers. Due to controversy engendered by some of these individuals having re-offended, Dukakis curtailed the practice later, issuing no commutations in his last three years as governor.
However, this performance did not prove enough to offset a backlash against the state's high sales and property tax rates, which turned out to be the predominant issue in the 1978 gubernatorial campaign. Dukakis, despite being the incumbent Democratic governor, was refused re-nomination by his own party. The state Democratic Party machine supported Edward J. King in the primary partly because King rode the wave against high property taxes (along with the passing of a binding petition on the state ballot that limited property tax rates to 2 1/2% of the property valuation known as Proposition 2 1/2), but more significantly because State Democratic Party leaders lost confidence in Dukakis's ability to govern effectively. King also enjoyed the support of the powerbrokers at the MDC, who were unhappy with Dukakis's attempts to disempower and dismantle the powerful bureaucracy. King also had support from state police and public employee unions. Dukakis suffered a scathing defeat in the primary. It was "a public death," according to his wife Kitty.
Yet, four years later ('after wandering in the wilderness' some said), having made peace with the state Democratic Party machine powerbrokers, MDC, the state police and public employee unions, Dukakis defeated King in a 're-match' in the 1982 Democratic primary. He went on to defeat his Republican opponent John Winthrop Sears, who was MDC Commissioner under Sargent, in the November election. Future Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry was elected lieutenant governor on the same ballot with Dukakis, and served in the Dukakis administration from 1983-85.
Dukakis served as governor again from 1983-91 (winning re-election in 1986 with more than 60 percent of the vote) during which time he presided over a high-tech boom and a period of prosperity in Massachusetts and simultaneously getting the reputation for being a 'technocrat.' The National Governors Association voted Dukakis the most effective governor in 1986. Residents of the city of Boston and its surrounding areas remember him for the improvements he made to Boston's mass transit system, especially major renovations to the city's trains and buses. He was known as the only governor who rode the subway to work every day.
He made a cameo appearance in the medical drama St. Elsewhere (Season 3, Episode 15, "Bye, George," January 9, 1985). He limps to the hospital desk and says that he has suffered a jogging injury, but Dr. Fiscus (played by Howie Mandel) refuses to believe that he is the governor.
Soon after his loss in the 1988 Presidential election to George H.W. Bush, the so-called 'Massachusetts Miracle' of prosperity also went bust, and Dukakis was little more than a 'lame duck' governor for his final two years in office. At the close of his tenure, Massachusetts was mired deeply in debt facing a budget shortfall of more than $1.5 billion.
Despite the claims that Dukakis always "turned the other cheek," he did run a particularly effective commercial against rival Dick Gephardt that featured a tumbler doing somersaults while the announcer said, "Dick Gephardt has been flip-flopping over the issues." Dukakis finished third in the Iowa caucuses and then became the first candidate to ever win a contested New Hampshire primary by more than ten points with Gephardt finishing second. Dukakis finished first in Minnesota and second in South Dakota before winning five states on March 8, 1988, the "Super Tuesday" primaries. As his competition continued to fade, Dukakis wound up with a seven-week stretch of one-on-one elections between himself and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Dukakis lost the Michigan caucus to Jackson but then prevailed by margins of two to one in Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, and New Jersey, clinching the nomination on June 7, 1988.
Touching on his immigrant roots, Dukakis used Neil Diamond's ode to immigrants "America" as the theme song for his campaign. Famed composer John Williams wrote "Fanfare for Michael Dukakis" in 1988 at the request of Dukakis's father-in-law Harry Ellis Dickson. The piece was premiered under the baton of Dickson (then the Associated Conductor of the Boston Pops) at that year's Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. During the general election campaign, Vice President George H. W. Bush, the Republican nominee, criticized Dukakis for his traditionally liberal positions on many issues. These included Dukakis's statement during the primary season that he was "a card-carrying member of" the American Civil Liberties Union, his veto of legislation requiring public school teachers to lead pupils in the Pledge of Allegiance, and his opposition to the resumption of capital punishment in the United States.
Dukakis had trouble with the personality that he projected to the voting public. His reserved and stoic nature was easily interpreted to be a lack of passion (which went against the ethnic stereotype of his Greek-American heritage). Dukakis was often referred to as "Zorba the Clerk." Nevertheless, Dukakis is considered to have done well in the first presidential debate with George Bush. In the second debate, Dukakis had been suffering from the flu and spent quite a bit of the day in bed. His performance was poor and played to his reputation as being cold.
During the campaign, Dukakis's mental health became an issue when he refused to release his full medical history and there were, according to The New York Times, "persistent suggestions" that he had undergone psychiatric treatment in the past. The issue even caused then President Ronald Reagan, when asked whether the Democratic Presidential nominee should make his medical records public, to quip with a grin: "Look, I'm not going to pick on an invalid." Twenty minutes later, Reagan stated that he "attempted to make a joke in response to a question" and that "I think I was kidding, but I don't think I should have said what I said." Reagan continued, "I do believe that the medical history of a President is something that people have a right to know, and I speak from personal experience." Dr. Gerald R. Plotkin, Dukakis' physician since 1970, stated that "[Dukakis] has had no psychological symptoms, complaints or treatment.
George H. W. Bush mentioned Horton by name in a speech in June 1988 and his campaign brought up the Horton case. A conservative political action committee affiliated with the Bush campaign, the National Security Political Action Committee, aired an ad entitled "Weekend Passes" which used a mug shot image of Horton. The Bush campaign refused to repudiate it. That ad campaign was followed by a separate Bush campaign ad, "Revolving Door", criticizing Dukakis over the furlough program without mentioning Horton. The legislature cancelled the program during Dukakis' last term.
Dukakis was criticized during the campaign for a perceived softness on defense issues, particularly the controversial "Star Wars" SDI program, which he promised to weaken (although not cancel). In response to this, Dukakis orchestrated what would become the key image of his campaign, although it turned out quite differently from what he intended. In September 1988, Dukakis visited the General Dynamics plant in Michigan to take part in a photo op in an M1 Abrams tank. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, had been photographed in a similar situation in 1986, riding in a Challenger tank while wearing a scarf;. Although somewhat out of character, the image was effective and helped Thatcher's re-election prospects. Dukakis's "tank moment" was much less successful. Footage of Dukakis was used in television ads by the Bush campaign, as evidence that Dukakis would not make a good commander-in-chief, and "Dukakis in the tank" remains shorthand for backfired public relations outings. Although he served in the U.S. Army, Dukakis was widely mocked for what was perceived as martial posturing.
Despite Dukakis's loss, his performance was a marked improvement over the previous two Democratic efforts. Dukakis made some strong showings in states that had voted for Republicans Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. He also scored victories in states like Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Dukakis's home state of Massachusetts; Walter Mondale had lost all three, and since then, all three states have remained in the Democratic column for each subsequent presidential election. He swept Iowa, winning it by ten points: an impressive feat in a state that had voted Republican in the last five elections. He got 43% of the vote in Kansas, a surprising showing in the home state of 1936 Republican Presidential nominee Alf Landon and future Republican nominee Bob Dole. In another surprising showing, he received 47% of the vote in South Dakota. In Montana, Dukakis racked up a close 46% of the vote in a state that had gone over 60% Republican four years earlier. Dukakis's relative strength in farm states was no doubt due to the serious economic difficulties these states were facing in the 1980s and it was the strongest showing in the Midwest for a Democrat since 1976.
Although Dukakis cut into the Republican hold in the Midwest, he failed to dent the emerging GOP stronghold in the South that had been forming since 1964 with a temporary reprieve with Jimmy Carter. He lost most of the South in a landslide, with Bush's totals reaching around 60% in most states. He was able to hold Bush to 55% in Texas, though this may have been due to Lloyd Bentsen's presence on the ticket. He also carried most of the southern-central parishes of Louisiana, despite losing the state. He held onto the border state of West Virginia, and he captured 48% of the vote in Missouri. He also carried 41% in Oklahoma, a bigger share than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter.
In the Rust Belt, Dukakis also performed poorly, though he lost some states by close margins. He lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey. He won his home state of Massachusetts by only eight points, perhaps due to the unrelenting criticism of his record as governor. Dukakis's performance in the traditionally Democratic Northeast was also poor: he lost Maryland, Delaware, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine. The only other New England state he won was Rhode Island. Dukakis' biggest prize was winning New York, the second-largest state in the electoral college. In the Pacific Northwest, Dukakis did much better, capturing both Washington and Oregon but losing California and Alaska.
Dukakis won 41,809,476 votes in the popular vote. He also received 40% or more in the following states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont.
Overall, the 1988 election showed a marked improvement in the popular vote for the Democrats. While he lost the popular vote, Dukakis' margin of loss (7.8%) was narrower than Jimmy Carter's in 1980 (9.7%) or Walter Mondale's in 1984 (18.2%). However, Dukakis was and is still regarded as a failed candidate, as he had enjoyed large summer leads and his drop in the polls can be attributed to his failed campaigning more than anything else.
After the end of his term, he served on the board of directors for Amtrak, and became a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, visiting professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, and visiting professor in the Department of Public Policy at the School of Public Affairs at UCLA. He continued to talk in media interviews about the "negative" 1988 Bush campaign, beginning with his press conference on the day after the election, continuing throughout Bush's term, and also subsequent to Bush's defeat in the 1992 election.
Dukakis has recently developed a strong passion for grassroots campaigning and the appointment of precinct captains to coordinate local campaigning activities, two strategies he feels are essential for the Democratic Party to compete effectively in both local and national elections. In 2006 he and Kitty worked to help Democratic candidate Deval Patrick in his efforts to become governor of Massachusetts. He also has taken a strong role in advocating for effective public transportation and high speed rail as a solution to automobile congestion and the lack of space at airports. He has recently been an advocate for the extended learning time initiative in public schools.
He is a cousin of actress Olympia Dukakis.
Massachusetts gubernatorial election, 1974
Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial primary, 1978
Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial primary, 1982
Massachusetts gubernatorial election, 1982
Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial primary, 1986
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