Don't Weep for Dukakis He Doesn't

ELLEN GOODMAN

July 10, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- The office of Prof. Michael Dukakis at Northeastern University is neat as a pin. With its exposed brick wall, clean

desk top, utilitarian book shelves and computer, the decor is more Spartan than Oval.

Four mornings a week, the former governor, former presidential nominee walks the two miles from his home to this streetcar university in Boston. He comes to teach classes named ''Public Policy,'' ''State and Local Government,'' and, of course, ''The American Presidency.''

Anyone desperately seeking pathos in a political portfolio could pick it out of that course description. Those who can't do, as they say, teach. In this case, they teach, ''The American Presidency.'' Those who don't win the prize at the top of the pTC political pyramid, slide down its razor edge.

Exactly four years ago, a nearly unknown governor -- ''Michael Who?'' -- won the Democratic nomination. Exactly four years ago, he was surrounded by advisers and Secret Service and national media.

But presidential politics is a winner-take-all game. After a meteoric rise and disappearance, he is ''Michael Who?'' once again. In the inner circle of national politics his name often produces an embarrassed silence.

Wednesday, he will drive the 250 miles to New York with Kitty to attend the Clinton crowning as a non-voting member of the Massachusetts delegation. He will rate a cameo appearance on the dias with other once-and-formers. There will be no speech.

But poignancy doesn't fit in this professor's office hours. The media may come around to do the requisite re-visit, to see ''where is he now?'' and ''how the mighty have fallen.'' But they will leave with a lesson about national health plans and tips about bread-making (don't get him started on that).

Aside from the pro forma digs at himself -- ''Don't ask Michael Dukakis for advice'' on how to beat George Bush -- and aside from the pro forma regrets, this is a man at ease with himself. All the characteristics that may have lost him the election, the traits that ultimately drove his staff and supporters crazy, have served him well in its aftermath.

The policy wonk finds pleasure in studying the details of national health care. The domestic soul finds sustenance in the daily habits of shopping and walking and working. The man who would not ''do anything'' to get elected still wouldn't, couldn't.

At his best, Mr. Dukakis always seemed a centered man. Sometime in the campaign, that centeredness turned to stubbornness and then to stone. Now it's reappeared as the core of his character.

Remembering the endless interviews of 1988 Mr. Dukakis says, ''I would tell reporters, 'What you see is what you get. I'm a fairly simple guy. I grew up in a community that I've always loved. I had two very supportive parents. . . . Ever since I can remember I wanted to do public service. . . . And they would write, 'Who is the real Mike Dukakis?' ''

Raising the heavy eyebrows that became a signature of every political cartoon, the real Mike Dukakis says, ''Here it is.''

In the same way, this man always seemed well-rooted. But during the campaign, his roots grew into chains, or blinders narrowing his political vision. Now they too have reappeared as supports.

He tells a story about a famous boxing champ who was asked why he kept on doing ordinary things while he held the title. The champ's answer was, ''In order to make re-entry easier.'' Dailiness has made re-entry easier for Mr. Dukakis.

He still rises at 5:30 a.m. in his Perry Street house. He still plants tomatoes in the backyard and shops for groceries, checking the specials. He still power-walks and streetcars. For one brief season it all seemed like the stuff of an up-close-and-personal profile. Now, ''It's what I like to do.''

In the past four years, the Dukakis children have gone to work out of state, two to California, one to D.C. His wife, Kitty, whose troubles were a sad aftermath to the campaign, is working for a certificate in substance-abuse counseling. Another man, a Republican, Bill Weld, is in the governor's seat.

If there is a sense that the parade has passed him by, you don't catch a whiff of it around Professor Dukakis. ''I think a lot of that has to do with what's inside you. If you're a guy that has to be in the parade, that's one thing. If your life is full and you've got lots of anchors that don't require you to be in the parade, that's another.''

In 1988, Gary Hart stood in a doorway alone at the convention that nominated Governor Dukakis, looking desolate as people walked around him, some averting their eyes. The person that Mr. Dukakis thinks about, however, is Jimmy Carter. ''What's so impressive about the Carters is that after they lost, they picked themselves up and said, 'We've got several years on this planet, let's do what we can with them.' ''

Mike Dukakis' doggedness attracted and infuriated voters. He put one foot in front of another, and was called pedestrian. He resolutely kept an even keel and was labeled unemotional.

But in the long postscript called life, these abilities are not weakness but personal strengths. Michael Dukakis, visiting distinguished professor of political science, is no loser.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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