This article originally appeared in the March 24, 1987 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Stepping to the microphone Monday afternoon, Governor Michael Dukakis ended months of speculation and began a year of uncertainty. “I have the energy to run this marathon,” the governor declared. “The strength to run this country; the experience to manage our government; and the values to lead our people. With your help and with your prayers, a son of Greek immigrants named Mike Dukakis can be the next president of the United States.”
In the space of a few short sentences Dukakis offered the proposition he will try to sell to the country as he competes, over the long months ahead, with half a dozen Democratic candidates test-marketing presidential propositions of their own.
For the governor, the decision to run for president is more than a calculated gamble: it is an existential leap. The differences between the carefully orchestrated one-acts he has produced on the state stage he’s dominated for the better part of a decade and the rollicking, improvisational theater-in-the-round of a national campaign are vast. In Massachusetts today Michael Dukakis can boast, with more accuracy than Louis XIV did in 17th-century France, “L’état c’est moi.” But nationally, like all the other candidates save frontrunners Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, he is virtually unknown. “Another Democrat says he’ll run” is how the New York Times summed it up Tuesday beneath a front-page photo of the governor and his wife Kitty.
Dukakis himself acknowledged that the odds against his success are “very, very long.” If the governor could turn to Chief Secretary Sasso, the way Captain Kirk does to First Officer Spock, for a more precise estimate of his chances, the 19-month mission might appear hopelessly daunting.
If Dukakis is to beat those odds, if he is to make the transition from just another Democrat to the Democratic nominee, or even to serious contender, he will have to clear the combined hurdles of message, schedule and field.
To win, Dukakis must make of his Massachusetts experience and his personal character a past history and future vision that catches the interest of the Democratic electorate. Much of his history is a plus. If Ronald Reagan is a father-knows-best figure straight out of the ‘50s, Dukakis is the archetypal ‘80s family man. His commitment to his wife and kids and his determination not to let his public career eclipse his private responsibilities as husband and father are legendary. Though professional misogynists and chauvinists may snicker that the governor is henpecked, those of modern sensibility will appreciate the mutual respect and support he and Kitty show each other.
If the governor’s character isn’t exactly riveting, it is admirable. Look in the political thesaurus under Dukakis and the first synonym listed is honesty; throughout the governor’s 25 years of public life, his integrity has never been seriously questioned. The second is managerial competence. Dukakis is no detached, delegating chief executive. Even if he hasn’t always understood people – and his 1978 loss was as much about that as anything – he does understand the nuts and bolts of government. By any credible account, Massachusetts is well run.