When it comes to Michael Dukakis, organizers of this month’s Democratic National Convention find themselves in a bit of a bind.
To snub the state’s last presidential nominee in his own back yard would seem unforgivable. But to embrace him would surely dredge up unflattering memories of the oft-caricatured politician’s amazing plummet in the 1988 campaign — and invite trouble for this year’s nominee from Massachusetts: U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who served as the Dukakis lieutenant governor for two years.
Fairly or unfairly, Dukakis represents every political label that Democrats want their current candidate to avoid: liberal, soft-on-crime, tax-and-spend, and presidential loser to a man named Bush.
“The first rule for the Democrats is to avoid a picture of John Kerry and Mike Dukakis together at all costs,” said Rob Gray, a former spokesman for Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. “Dukakis’s race was an embarrassment for the party. He blew a 17-point lead. And the party feels in retrospect that they nominated the wrong guy.”
Every four years, both parties have to contend with the question of what to do with their own particular cast of presidential losers. Former President Jimmy Carter was shunned for two decades after his crushing 1980 defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan, before being honored with a video tribute in 2000. The 1972 loser, George McGovern, has been a guest at previous conventions, but not given any kind of a prominent role.
Big roles for Republican losers
Two of the three Republicans who lost over the past 30 years are former presidents — George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford — and have been accordingly allotted prominent, if not starring roles at subsequent conventions. In 2000, Republican Bob Dole — who was on losing tickets in 1996 for president and 1976 for vice president — gave a speech.
The quandary is a bit more complex for Democrats this year, however, because of the convention’s location in the state where Dukakis presided as governor for 12 years.
Massachusetts Democrats say that ignoring Dukakis would be an injustice to a man who has served the party loyally for decades. Never again a political candidate, Dukakis has since been a regular on the airwaves, defending the party and its candidates.
“He may have run a bad campaign, but he is not a bad person,” said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant who worked on Kerry’s Senate campaigns. “He has never embarrassed himself, his state or his party. It would be a disservice to him to ignore him completely.”
Convention officials have not yet released their full slate of speakers. But Dukakis did not appear to be high on the list.
“Didn’t I hear ... that he was going to be out of town?” Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said recently.
For the leader of a party intent on wresting the White House away from the Republicans, that may be wishful thinking.
“I’m going to be in and around the place,” said Dukakis, who now keeps a low profile as a Northeastern University political science professor.
Dukakis said he has been told to keep a night open midweek for what he assumes would be a brief appearance with others to wave at the crowd.
Dukakis 'fine' with a chance to wave
“Which is fine,” Dukakis said, “but I didn’t encourage it. My own strong view on this is that those of us who have run before unsuccessfully ought to be around, ought to wave, ought to be introduced. But this ought to be John Kerry’s convention.”
Kerry’s convention liaison, Jack Corrigan, who served as Dukakis’ field coordinator during the 1988 campaign, said that the former nominee will be recognized during the convention, but he would not reveal details.
The state Democratic Party, Corrigan and other 1988 alums are also helping to organize a reception for Dukakis on July 28 at a Greek restaurant in Charlestown.
“It hasn’t been a hard ticket to sell,” Corrigan said.
The state party and Northeastern University will be hosting a “Phil Donahue-like” forum earlier in the day, with Dukakis as a moderator, to discuss the value of public service with students.
Fiercely loyal state Democrats argue that the national party should not be deterred from recognizing Dukakis’ contributions.
'Shameful' to ignore him
“To ignore someone because he lost an election is shameful,” said state Democratic Chairman Phil Johnston, who — like many state Democrats — once worked in the Dukakis administration. “We’re going to do everything we can to honor Michael Dukakis during that week. Just because he lost an election doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.”
The 1988 campaign was tainted by a controversy involving Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who committed rape while out on a furlough approved by Dukakis. The former governor was portrayed as soft on crime and the environment, a perception that helped fuel his swift descent from a 17-point lead in August to a decisive defeat in which he won only 10 states on Election Day.
Since then, Dukakis has receded into a kind of everyman role, teaching at the university, speaking out passionately on behalf of mass transit, and picking up trash along the route from his Brookline home to his university office.
He says he understands that his days in the political spotlight are over.
“It is very important that this be Kerry’s convention, as the one in Atlanta was mine,” Dukakis said. “I screwed it up afterwards, but the convention was great.”