By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — While former Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis teaches at two universities, he continues to be involved in politics and passionate about the future of the United States and the world.
The longest serving governor of Massachusetts (1975-1979, 1983-1991), and the second Greek-American governor in US history, Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.
American foreign policy, Dukakis feels, is stuck in what he calls “the Cold War time warp.” Why, he wonders, does Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter say that Russia is the greatest threat to American security? During a visit to Greece this summer, Dukakis said he was struck with the maturity of Greek foreign policy, while in comparison, the US, he said, “is kind of hysterical.”
Dukakis finds that the US relationship with Russia and China are two of the most important relationships this country has. Among other things, he noted, we need them to deal with the “crazy guy” who rules North Korea, as well as to come to a peace settlement in Syria.
Dukakis remains a strong believer in a strong and effective United Nations (UN). He said, “The first thing I think about when there is conflict somewhere is what role the UN can play. That is the framework in which I would like to see my country operate whenever possible.” He declared, “I am not a romantic, but history teaches us that this is the way we are going to achieve this goal.”
In addition to the UN, Dukakis finds that regional organizations can be useful in setting standards peacefully instead of using military alliances to try to surround countries like China with weaponry including anti-ballistic missile systems. He gave the example of the Organization of American States as a success story. He said, “The Western Hemisphere today literally has no conflict. This is the first time in who knows how long.”
Dukakis is also critical of American foreign policy, in the Middle East, especially in Syria. Concerning the efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said that from the start, “the ingredients of disaster were obvious.” The American neo-cons played an important role in this, he noted. “I think the neo cons, though badly delusionary in my opinion, think that we can transform the world into a democratic paradise within a relatively short period of time. Either they never read history or don’t understand what is going on the Middle East,” Dukakis said.
Dukakis is not, however, an opponent of all intervention or activism. He said, “This doesn’t mean that from time to time we should not stand up as in the case of the Armenian Genocide and say what happened was a violation of international norms. Just as Germany did, Turkey should apologize…the same is true of course for American mistakes.”
He stressed that “when you have situations of serious injustice, you bring the UN in. In South Africa, for example, this is what happened.”
He believes that historic foes Greece and Turkey should work together to try to resolve their outstanding issues. When he was running for president in 1988, a group of Turkish journalists were covering that campaign, and appeared to be quite concerned about the possibility of a Greek-American president of the United States. He told them, only half-joking, “What could be better than a Greek-American president whose father grew up in Edremit (in Turkey)? We will take care of this in a couple of weeks. Don’t worry about it.”
When asked how he became involved in politics, Dukakis immediately pointed to his elementary school and home. Although he said his parents were not political activists, they watched the CBS world news roundup at 6 p.m. every night, and he and his father read Time magazine regularly. World affairs were a regular part of the conversation at home. This, he said, “unquestionably had something to do with it.”
When he was in third grade in Brookline, during the middle of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Greece, Mary Ripley was his teacher. He had heard all about these dramatic events at home, and so, he said, when “she decided to have an election for class officers, don’t ask me why, I ran and became president of the third grade… I think many of us who go into school politics see things we want to change and try.”
Dukakis attended Swarthmore College, and graduated in 1955. It was then that he realized that the ideals of the US and the reality were not the same. “I [was] being taught wonderful things about the American constitution, yet people of color [could not] live in my town of Brookline, or live on this side of the railroad tracks, and yet we say we are the capital of the free world.”
At Swarthmore, African Americans could not get their hair cut in barber shops. Seeing this, he said, “we boycotted the barbershops and I became the campus barber.” When asked why he did this, he responded, “A sense of injustice had something to do with it.” He spent a fall semester in Washington, D.C., and saw that it was as segregated as Johannesburg, South Africa.
During the same period, McCarthy was terrorizing the country. Soon Dukakis was sworn into the military. Three days after he went there, he was astounded to be interviewed about all his activities in college. They had a file about him at a time when some people were non-honorably discharged because of their activities. It turned out, he said, that the FBI kept a tap on the Swarthmore central telephone switchboard and recorded every single conversation.
After his military service, Dukakis went to Harvard Law School and became involved in local politics in Brookline. He ran for the Town Meeting and got elected as a member. He became the chairman of the Democratic Town Committee of Brookline during his last year of law school. In 1962, two years after he graduated and began practicing law, he decided to run for the Massachusetts state legislature and won, serving four terms in all.
He continued to practice law while in the legislature, but in the long term, he said, “I knew I did not really want to go back to the law.” Instead, he tried his hand at teaching, initially at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard, where Dean Graham Allison invited him. He did this for three years until he ran again for office, but after finishing his third term as governor, he knew that he wanted to return to teaching. He is now a professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University (Boston) and a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he teaches public policy. He said, “I really love teaching and working with kids. I have hundreds of former students.”
Dukakis remains a proud Greek-American. He said, “I am the son of Greek immigrants, speaking it, eating it, and religiously I am Orthodox.” He refused to go to Greek School as a child, unlike Sunday school, because that was when he played ball, and was a catcher. Instead, his father hired a Greek tutor to give him and his brother a rudimentary ability to read and write Greek.
Dukakis married a Jewish woman with an Irish grandfather, and the couple tried to give their three children, he said, “the best of both [backgrounds]. We celebrated all the holidays on both sides, and tried to give a strong sense of ethics.”
Though none of the children married Greeks, Dukakis said, “All of my kids have had honeymoons in Greece. They all have this sense of identification with the Greek community, and our daughters continue to use the name.”
He said, “I think the fact that ancient Greek history is still so much of what we study and read in the US, that anybody who identifies at all with Greece and Greek history has a natural affinity for this. And there is a lot of pride in the Greek community.” Furthermore, even his grandchildren look for Greek names among sports stars and celebrities.
However, unlike the Armenian community, Dukakis said there was not a large stream of immigration any longer to the US as in the period after World War II. Though the churches are pretty strong, he said, “without that renewal, it is pretty tough. It will be interesting to see in another generation or two what survives.” On the other hand, intermarriage is one of the great strengths of the US, Dukakis concluded.
The former governor said that while growing up, his parents had very close Armenian friends, and he does as well. He said, “There are such close ties between the Greek and Armenian communities in general. The similarities between the two communities are very interesting.” He teaches in the winters at UCLA, where he said he has many Armenian students, including some recent immigrants.
Recently, he and his wife Kitty both spoke at the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide at Tufts University. For more on his ties with Armenians, see “Governor Dukakis Speaks at CYSCA Event on Armenia Trip” (Mirror-Spectator, June 25, 2016).
Today, Dukakis is closely following the presidential campaign and has periodically commented on it in interviews in the press. Not surprisingly, he is vehemently opposed to Donald Trump. He declared, “Donald Trump seems to be the last guy in the world that ought to be seriously considered for the presidency of the United States. I find very little in what this guy says or does in which I am in agreement or think is in the best interest of the US or the international community.”
Dukakis has some issues with Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy too, and said that if she were to be elected, “I hope she and all of us will do some serious rethinking about our foreign policy.” However, he has known her for a long time and strongly supports her, saying, “She is a bright person who was one of the most progressive people in the US Senate, and very effective, by the way.”
Her husband, President Bill Clinton, appointed Dukakis to the Amtrak board for five years. When asked whether he would like to serve again in government, Dukakis replied, “My wife likes Los Angeles in the wintertime too much…but otherwise, if I can be helpful on infrastructure and health care, which are my two great concerns, why not…if I can volunteer.” He also said that he and many others would like to spend time with the new administration on foreign policy issues.
Looking back at such things, Dukakis exclaimed, “Notwithstanding our current problems, this is a much better country than when I was born in it.”