Regrets, yes, but Dukakis has made peace

July 13, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

BROOKLINE, MASS. — BROOKLINE, Mass.-- This time, he and his wife will drive the 250 miles from their home here to the Democratic National Convention in New York -- just a stopover before a long weekend in the Berkshires.

If things had worked out differently four years ago, they'd be sweeping into the convention city with an entourage, a well-honed speech and the giddy, star-spangled hopes of their political party.

Of course, if things had worked out differently, notes 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis, "I'd be talking to you in the Rose Garden."

Instead, election year 1992 finds the former Massachusetts governor and his wife, Kitty, sitting by the rose bushes and impatiens and bird feeders in the backyard of their home on shady Perry Street.

It's too warm to sit inside the house -- no air conditioning. Some things about this master of frugality haven't changed.

But, slouched in a patio chair, gnawing on an apple and the presidency of George Bush, he looks and sounds like the Michael Dukakis one often heard about but never saw through the steely debates, the eye-glazing stump speeches and the tank follies of the 1988 campaign. Dressed in the classic New England summer uniform -- polo shirt, khaki shorts, Docksiders -- he seems relaxed, resigned, as free of cares as the wind chimes on his porch.

Those who know him say he is at peace with himself. But not surprisingly for a man so imbued with politics that a chronic case of tennis elbow comes from hand-shaking, there are regrets.

"Would I rather be going to the convention as a candidate for re-election for the presidency? Sure I would," he says. "Once you're in this business, you never get out of it. You're always a part of it.

"But life is busy."

Not too long ago, however, life was fraught with anxiety.

"He had 1 1/2 to two years of hell," says Paul Costello, Mrs. Dukakis' campaign press secretary.

The presidential defeat itself was devastating. The former nominee became the very embodiment of Democratic shortcomings, and he indulges in a fair amount of self-criticism.

"It's bad enough losing, but you hate to lose because you ran a lousy campaign," Mr. Dukakis says. "And you always have the feeling that you've let down thousands and thousands of people. That's one of the things you carry around with you."

Compounding his postelection letdown was a free fall by the state economy that turned the so-called "Massachusetts miracle" into a Massachusetts mess. All the while, Mrs. Dukakis was tumbling into her own private free fall of alcoholism. Finally, she sought treatment.

But after leaving the Statehouse in 1990, the couple started a new chapter -- this one, nearly as far from the political loop as one can get. Mr. Dukakis has spent the past two years studying and speaking about health care reform and teaching politics -- in Australia; at the University of Hawaii; at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton; and now at Northeastern University, where he walks the two miles to and from class to lecture on, of all things, "The American Presidency."

For her part, Mrs. Dukakis has been working toward a certificate in alcohol counseling and, above all else, her own recovery.

Having admitted in her 1990 book "Now You Know," that her husband's election to the White House would have been "dangerous" for her because of her instability, she says she is perfectly happy outside the spotlight.

"I'm just grateful to be in the space I'm in," she says. Still, sobriety is no easier now than it was just after the postelection crisis period, she admits. "It is a day-to-day struggle for the rest of one's life."

While their lives are full -- both the Dukakises will be doing more speaking in the fall -- political insiders note that Mr. Dukakis has PTC become "virtually invisible." While he says the initial group of Democratic contenders "all checked in" with him, the party, at least publicly, has been keeping its distance.

"He understands it," says Paul Brountas, a former campaign adviser. "He understands the risks of identifying with Dukakis."

And, indeed, the 1988 Democratic headliner says he's resigned to his role, resigned that this week he'll not do much more than wave from the convention podium as he's recognized as one of yesterday's Democrats. "Jimmy Carter was given a wide berth after his loss," he says. "It's only been over time that he's been able to demonstrate the kind of guy that he was and is."

For now, the politician-turned-professor believes he can be most useful to the party by singing the praises of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, a fellow governor for most of the '80s, whom he calls "the class of the field." Mr. Dukakis believes Mr. Clinton will win if he responds to negative attacks quickly and aggressively -- in other words, if he does what Mr. Dukakis failed to do.

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