‘If I Can Do It, You Can Do It’: Michael Dukakis on Becoming the Longest-Serving Governor in the State

By Lauren Landry | BostInno | October 19, 2012

A political career can start as early as the third grade—just ask former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. He ran for president in Mrs. Ripley’s Brookline class, and let’s just say, that win set the stage for his entire career. How else can you explain becoming the longest-serving governor in the state’s history?

The now Northeastern political science professor claims his Brookline High School basketball coach was the first adult who said, “You ought to run for public office.” Yet while he started to immerse himself in politics at Swarthmore, he knew he actively wanted to be involved in politics when he returned home for Harvard Law School after serving for two years in the U.S. Army.

Dukakis began his political career in 1960 as an elected Town Meeting Member in Brookline, claiming he knocked on every door in the precinct to conjure up support. Two years later, he won a seat in the Massachusetts legislature, but admits to never having a grand plan. “Had you asked me 10 years earlier what my career path was, I couldn’t have told you,” Dukakis says.

He didn’t imagine he’d become the governor in 1974, and he certainly didn’t think he’d be defeated in the Democratic primary by Edward King in 1978. “The defeat was a painful one,” Dukakis says, “but it brought me back a lot wiser.” Dukakis rallied to defeat King in 1982, but bigger things were still ahead.

“I’d never really thought seriously about running for the presidency ever,” Dukakis admits. But he was “appalled” by what was going on in the White House—“the defiance of the law, defiance of Congress and defiance of the kinds of rules that presidents ought to live by”—and wanted to see a change. In 1988, he won the Democratic nomination for the presidency, only to be beat by George Bush.

“You can’t dwell on it forever,” he says. “I kind of kid around these days, saying if I had beaten Bush one, we never would have had Bush two.”

Following the defeat, he went on to teach at the Harvard Kennedy School before becoming a professor at both Northeastern and the University of California, Los Angeles. “These kids are an inspiration,” Dukakis says. “They’re young, they’re enthusiastic and they want to do great things.”

Dukakis has now found himself in a position where he can open doors to up-and-coming leaders by not only giving them his contacts, but by telling them, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

“There’s no mystery in this thing,” Dukakis admits. “Part of [my job] is just helping them understand this is something they can do without a doubt. And the second thing is, to try and help them develop the skills they need to be effective.”

To Dukakis, those skills include having a passion for the job, being a coalition builder, taking media relations seriously and setting high integrity standards for yourself and others.

Although about to turn 79, he says, “I feel about 29, to tell you the truth. I want to continue to do this and continue to be engaged. I want to continue to be a mentor to a lot of young people. If you really love what you’re doing, the next best thing is to share it with people.”

Considering he has one grandson in Newton running for eighth grade student council and another in Colorado who just won the presidency at his middle school, it sounds like he’s sharing the gift. Who says a career can’t start in the third grade?

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