Michael Dukakis

Why politics aren’t for the faint of heart

Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis spoke on the impact a politicians’ health can have on their political careers
April 7th, 2014

Running for public office is not for the faint of heart, according to Dis­tin­guished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis, who discussed pres­i­den­tial suc­ces­sion last Thursday at a con­fer­ence in the Cabral Center.

Dukakis advised the potential future politicians in the room that their health—as well as the health of their family and potential running mates—would be part of the campaign process.

“Make sure you are healthy to run for pres­i­dent,” said Dukakis, who served as Mass­a­chu­setts’ governor for 12 years and won the Demo­c­ratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 1988. “Pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns are not for the faint of heart or mind. They are long and require a high degree of physical and mental stamina.”

The day­long con­fer­ence, “Pres­i­den­tial Disability and Suc­ces­sion: Problems and Oppor­tu­ni­ties,” focused on health’s impact on political leaders’ abil­i­ties to do their jobs. The event was presented by Northeastern’s Department of Political Science and the Edward W. Brooke professorship.

Questions about Dukakis’ mental health were raised during his pres­i­den­tial campaign, as some suggested he had undergone psy­chi­atric treatment. When Pres­i­dent Ronald Reagan was asked about Dukakis during a press conference in 1988, he responded, “Listen, I’m not going to pick on an invalid.” Reagan later apol­o­gized for his remarks, which Dukakis described on Thursday as a “non-​​story.”

“For one week after this press con­fer­ence, vir­tu­ally everything in my campaign stopped as we tried to deal with this non-​​story,” Dukakis explained. “I dropped eight points in the national poll in a week and our momentum was slowed.”

Reagan was the focus of a pre­sen­ta­tion by Robert Gilbert, Northeastern’s Edward W. Brooke Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Science. In Gilbert’s remarks, he addressed how the health of the 40th pres­i­dent may have affected the Iran-​​Contra affair.

During his second term, Gilbert noted, Reagan underwent surgery to remove cancerous polyps from his colon. Following surgery, Reagan met with national security officials about the pos­si­bility of selling weapons to Iran in exchange for freeing American hostages in Lebanon.

While still in the hospital Reagan pur­port­edly supported the plan, which flew in the face of an arms embargo imposed by the U.S. against Iran. In a sub­se­quent inves­ti­ga­tion, Reagan pleaded ignorance to the affair.

But Gilbert noted that Reagan twice acknowledged the meeting at the hospital in sep­a­rate diary entries. He argues that the stress of surgery and a cancer diagnosis caused the failure of the president’s memory and comprehension.

“It is my own con­clu­sion based on my research that the pres­i­dent really did not lie when he said he couldn’t remember anything about the affair,” Gilbert said. “The major surgery and cancer diagnosis led to Ronald Reagan’s peculiar behavior during this time.”

The conference’s other speakers included vice-​​presidential expert and St. Louis Uni­ver­sity law professor Joel Goldstein; former White House physician Dr. Lawrence Mohr; George Washington Uni­ver­sity psy­chi­atry professor Dr. Jerrold Post; Bipartisan Policy Center associate John Fortier; and Fordham law professor John Feerick.

- By Joe O’Connell


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