Lifelong achiever Dukakis aims for politics' highest prize

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MICHAEL DUKAKIS figures that during college breaks he hitchhiked at least 40,000 miles around the United States. Thirty years later, he is trying to hitch a ride to the White House on his reputation as a man who can balance budgets and take care of the downtrodden. The turnaround of his state's economy from ``basket case to showcase'' is often referred to as the ``Massachusetts Miracle.''

While some observers dispute how much of the credit for the state's recovery should go to Governor Dukakis rather than to national economic forces, few question his integrity, his intelligence, or his dedication to a career as a public servant.

He has an image of a hands-on technocrat, a lover of detail, and a keen student when it comes to learning about problems and their proposed solutions. Perceived as antibusiness during his first term as governor, Mr. Dukakis has earned a reputation as pro-growth, with an open ear to the needs of Massachusetts' private sector.

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As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dukakis has raised close to $10 million, more than any other candidate. The funds will come in handy for a candidate who is not well known outside New England. Critics also claim he lacks foreign policy experience and familiarity with national issues like farm policy. Even some of his close friends worry that his matter-of-fact style lacks the charisma needed to spark a fire under the electorate.

Yet Dukakis is attracting attention. He is expected to win the New Hampshire primary, although Gary Hart's reentry into the race could eat into his lead there. And in a recent NBC poll of Iowa voters, Dukakis, with 20 percent, was only 1 point behind the front-runner, Sen. Paul Simon. A majority of professional political consultants surveyed recently predicted Dukakis will get the Democratic nomination.

Youth and college

Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, has always been an achiever, and has always gained the respect of his peers. At Brookline High School, just outside Boston, he was elected vice-president of his freshman, sophomore, and junior classes, and student council president in his senior year. He lettered in baseball, basketball, cross country, and tennis, and he played the trumpet in the school band.

He was very serious, a characteristic attributed to his disciplined upbringing. In their recent book, ``Dukakis and the Reform Impulse,'' biographers Michael Segal and Richard Gaines write, ``Rather than give up any opportunity for scholastic, athletic, or political advancement, the fun stuff just got put on hold. It was a matter of priorities.''

Dukakis denies that he is overly serious. ``I can never remember a time when I wasn't very happy, very busy, very fulfilled...,'' he says. ``I just had a great time.''

Dukakis went on to college at Swarthmore, near Philadelphia. Soon after he arrived, he demonstrated his leadership qualities once again by heading up opposition to fraternities that discriminated against blacks.

``It was their exclusivity that turned off Michael and led him to take a lead in opposing them,'' says college roommate Frank Sieverts, now press spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As a result of Dukakis's efforts, fraternity membership dropped sharply, Mr. Sieverts says.

Another instance of his maturing leadership came when he learned that black students were being turned away from a local barbershop. ``Just as the fuss began to grow, Dukakis stepped in and said, `I'll cut their hair,''' Sieverts remembers.

``They used to complain about two things,'' says Dukakis. ``First, that I had only one style, and second, that they had to listen to my brand of political talk or be threatened with annihilation,'' he says with a smile.

``We all looked like Ollie North,'' says Sieverts about the haircuts. But Sieverts adds that what impressed him the most was that ``six months later [Dukakis] befriended the barber ... and convinced [him] that he ought to cut the black students' hair.''

When he wasn't cutting hair, he was cutting down ``I like Ike'' banners around campus, including one on a water tower. It was during his sophomore year, and he was busy organizing Swarthmore students for Adlai Stevenson's unsuccessful presidential race against Dwight Eisenhower. A year earlier he had organized students to poll-watch in Philadelphia during the mayoral election of Democratic reform candidate Joe Clark.

Political ambitions

The Joe Clark and Adlai Stevenson experiences, along with a loathing for Sen. Joseph McCarthy (``I mean, the guy just outraged us''), began to galvanize Dukakis's political ambitions.

``I recall discussing our life ambitions,'' Sieverts says. ``His was to be governor of Massachusetts.''

After graduating from Swarthmore, Dukakis was sent to Korea from 1955 to 1957 for his military service. With lots of free time, he thought about the future.

``By the time I came back from Korea,'' he says, ``I think I had pretty much had a sense I wanted to get into elective politics one way or another.''

In 1963 he married Katharine (Kitty) Dickson. They raised three children, Kara (18), Andrea (21), and John (29), Mrs. Dukakis's son from her first marriage. A strong personality in her own right, Kitty Dukakis admitted this summer to a dependency on mild amphetamines (diet pills) that ended in 1982.

In 1962 Dukakis was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served until 1970. He then ran for lieutenant governor and lost. But four years later he ran successfully for governor, serving from 1975 through 1979.

In what is now viewed as a watershed event in his political career, Dukakis lost his bid for reelection in the Democratic primary. ``People were sending him a message that they didn't like some of the things he had done ... and also didn't like his style, which was viewed as somewhat unyielding,'' says Paula Gold, the secretary of consumer affairs and business regulation in the current Dukakis administration.

Dukakis alienated his liberal supporters through actions he took to balance a deficit budget he inherited, and he made few friends in the legislature with his cool personal style and technocrat image. His stubbornness was perceived as arrogance.

A defeat that hurt

Close friends say Dukakis was deeply hurt by the loss of the party's nomination. It was a sharp slap in the face to a man who had worked hard to do what he thought best for the commonwealth.

``It was very dramatic,'' says Andy Sutcliff, who worked for Dukakis during his first term and then continued to be Dukakis's political eyes and ears after the defeat. ``He underwent a great deal of self-examination. He reevaluated every facet of his political life and philosophy.''

``He suffered from it but he also learned from it,'' says Paul Brountas, a law school classmate and now the governor's campaign chairman. ``He was a mediocre, and in certain instances a poor, politician during that first administration,'' Mr. Brountas continues. After the loss, Dukakis ``changed significantly. ... He became a much better listener. ... I doubt he would be running for president today if he hadn't learned the lessons from that loss.''

The `Massachusetts Miracle'

As the presidential candidate walked into the crowded room, everyone stood up and applauded. Unable to locate the podium, Governor Dukakis asked an aide, ``Which way are we headed?'' Overheard by someone in the crowd, a voice shouted back, ``All the way to the White House, governor.''

A smiling Mike Dukakis was clearly pleased by the reception from mayors and other city officials who gathered in Las Vegas recently for a National League of Cities convention. The standing-room-only crowd that welcomed the governor at 8:20 on a Sunday morning had come to see the ``wizard'' reportedly responsible for the ``Massachusetts Miracle.''

``I inherited a state 12 years ago,'' Dukakis said in Fort Dodge, Iowa, during a recent campaign stop, ``which was an economic and financial basket case. Its cities were dying ... there is no other way of describing it.''

Dukakis is concentrating his campaign efforts on spreading his gospel of economic prosperity in Iowa and the Southern primary states. The impression he would like to leave with voters is that his demonstrated capacity to lift the Massachusetts economy out of the doldrums can be replicated on a national scale.

``The thing that has made a difference in my state,'' he tells a crowd at the University of Iowa, ``is the thing that I believe will make a difference nationally with a president who knows what economic development and job creation are all about....''

The question now asked by some of his critics is, was Dukakis the quarterback who engineered the comeback, or was he just a cheerleader shouting encouragement from the sidelines?

Prof. Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University conducted a study to understand what the driving forces were in the Massachusetts economy and how state policy related to them.

``It turned out that the economic base in Massachusetts was simply well suited to match evolving trends in the [national] economy,'' Professor Ferguson says.

``We've added 70,000 new jobs this year in what is as close to a full-employment economy as we've ever had in any state in the country,'' Dukakis says. Unemployment in Massachusetts in November was at 2.7 percent.

``The Massachusetts economy has grown at just about the national average since about 1975,'' explains Prof. David Birch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``The `miracle' was relative to the huge recession we were in during 1974-75. ... The reason we have such a low employment rate is because ... everybody has left.'' Between 1980 and 1985, 30,000 more people left the state than came in, Professor Birch says.

``If you are growing at the national average and your population is growing at a quarter of the national average, your unemployment rate is going to go down,'' says Birch, who has conducted private studies of the Massachusetts economy for the Dukakis administration.

Seizing opportunity

Even so, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Birch praise Dukakis for recognizing the dynamics of economic change in the state and moving quickly to capitalize on them.

``They got all those people out of candy factories and leather factories and textile factories ... and got them into software companies and medical supply companies...,'' Birch says.

Critics play down Dukakis's economic credentials, however. They point to state spending levels that exceed the rate of inflation, increases in the size of state government, and the recent loss of manufacturing jobs.

But Ferguson counters, ``You are always going to get some slowdown when you run up against your [labor] limit. Everywhere you look in the state there are help-wanted signs.''

On the campaign trail, after establishing his budget-balancing credentials, Dukakis moves quickly to confirm his liberal roots.

He would end aid to the Nicaraguan contras, reduce nuclear armaments while bolstering conventional forces, increase funding for education and low-income housing, raise the minimum wage, and provide training for those on welfare so they can go to work.

He summarized his political philosophy for those attending the National League of Cities convention:

``The American people do not accept the idea that the job of government is to dismantle itself. ... Government will be active where it should be and absent when it should be.''

In a new stump speech designed to counter criticism about his lack of vision about where he wants to take the country, Dukakis has modified a phrase from President Kennedy's 1960 nomination acceptance speech. Mr. Kennedy spoke of the ``new American frontier,'' and Dukakis has altered that to the ``next American frontier.'' The phrase promises to be his rhetorical cornerstone.

Dukakis says that, after eight years of a hands-off presidency, he thinks the American electorate may be ready for his hands-on, can-do attitude.

``I don't want to go to the Oval Office to put my feet up,'' he says. ``I want to roll my sleeves up and go to work.''

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