Yesterday we gave an honorary degree to Michael Dukakis, the two-time governor of Massachusetts whose campaign for the presidency I covered for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987-88. Now approaching 80, the Duke walks bent over and his hair has turned gray, but he’s as sharp a policy wonk as ever — and as uninterested in culture war politics.
In a talk on Saturday about gridlock in Washington, Dukakis pointed to areas where progress could be made (immigration, infrastructure) even as he acknowledged that the two parties differ fundamentally on taxation, economic policy, and the size of government.
– What about the cultural issues? I asked.
– What do you mean by cultural issues? he replied.
– Uh, abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty…
– Well, I had some trouble with the death penalty (chuckles from the audience). I never made a secret of my positions on those issues.
In the ’88 general election campaign, Dukakis was pilloried for his opposition to the death penalty, his membership in the ACLU, and the rest of his conventional liberalism in a culture war waged by George H. W. Bush’s campaign manager, the late Lee Atwater. Nearly a decade after the GOP had joined itself to the religious right, the attack seemed to catch him unawares. Twenty-five years later, what he had to offer was the belief that the next generation of Americans would be able to look past this arena of partisan conflict. Take same-sex marriage, he said.
Speaking to the representatives of the next generation in the audience, Dukakis pitched going into public service — a staple of his speeches when he was running for president. Back then, he liked to hark back to John F. Kennedy’s injunction to ask what you can do for your country. Now, he offered two caveats.
The first was that they shouldn’t expect to make a lot of money. The second: “You should have a conventional sex life.” That got the best laugh of the day.