Fresh from the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, and seemingly energized, Michael Dukakis called me on Monday morning to discuss politics. Although he is famous for his 1988 campaign for the presidency, in which he lost badly to George H. W. Bush, Dukakis remains a close political observer. He currently teaches political science at Northeastern.
The last time we spoke, he let loose on the various candidates then running for the Republican nomination, and expressed some controversial thoughts on how the United States should do more to de-escalate tensions with Russia, and be wary of expanding NATO to its borders. With the campaign now in high gear, and Donald Trump’s accommodationist views of Putin’s Russia in the news, it seemed like a good time to chat again.
During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed his distaste for Roger Ailes, the history of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and why Donald Trump may be less unique than he appears.
Isaac Chotiner: So how was Philadelphia?
Michael Dukakis: Good. It was a good convention. I think it did exactly what one hopes a good convention will do. And now, the work begins. We had some great folks speaking there and they are going to fan out across the country. The turnout operation has got to get up to speed in a hurry. And I don’t just mean in battleground states. There are a lot of battleground states these days that weren’t battleground states and it’s important we work in those precincts very hard.
What states are you talking about?
I’m talking about states like Utah, Georgia, Missouri, and lots of states. I’m not a big fan of the red-blue stuff. One of the big mistakes we made was buying into that. You know, I carried West Virginia by 12 points. How come it’s a red state?
Demographics change, politics change.
Well I understand that but they are still working people. The Republican Party has nothing to offer these folks. I’ll tell you a quick story, Isaac. I got a call back in 2008 from a very dear friend of mine in Mississippi. This was in May. He called me and said, “You know your guy,” meaning Obama, “is five points behind McCain in Mississippi. You guys can win this state, but we aren’t seeing anything down here.” And this was a guy that has been very successful in Mississippi politics. So I called the Obama folks. They thought I had lost my mind. “Mississippi?!”
I think you may have lost your mind.
I said, look, this guy was the four-term mayor of one of Mississippi’s largest communities and he wants [Obama] to win. But I couldn’t get them to do it. So Obama lost by nine points. Well, OK. But Utah is in play. Georgia’s possible. Arizona certainly. I am sort of obsessive on this precinct-based grassroots organizing because I failed to do it in 1988 much to my discredit, to tell you the truth, because I spent too much time talking to people who pooh-poohed this, and said it would work for the city council but not the presidency. But Obama demonstrated they were wrong, right? We’ve got to be everywhere. I’m a big fan of Howard Dean’s because he was the national chairman who said we were going to run a 50-state campaign in 2005-2006. We did, and we took the Congress.
Right, but you also want to make sure you hit 270 electoral votes when you are running against a demagogue.
Well, that is true. I am not suggesting that we neglect the states that are winnable, but what Dean was able to do was pretty impressive.
Did this convention bring back memories of your own convention?
My first convention was in Los Angeles in 1960 with Jack Kennedy. [Laughs.] So I go back a long way. We had a very good convention in 1988 and this was a very good convention. But my demise demonstrates pretty clearly that you can have a great convention and get beat. So this is going to be very intense, and it will have to be well-organized and reach out to all of the states, and I hope and expect that will happen.
And in the meantime we have an opponent who pulls another one every day. And I think this latest thing, with the couple originally from Pakistan and their son … I don’t think he can keep doing this much longer without getting a serious backlash from a lot of people. Just disgraceful.
What did you make of the Democrats selling themselves as the patriotic, optimistic party?
I don’t know why we ought to concede patriotism. I don’t think Republicans are terribly patriotic. [Laughs.] It seems to me that Democrats can be very proud of their country and we are, and very proud of it at its best, and clearly Trump is not a reflection of this country at its best.
I thought you were going to say Hillary should get in a tank to display her patriotism.
Well, I never threw up over the Japanese Prime Minister. You know that, right?
I do know that.
I’m a great believer in optimism. I think we have a lot to be optimistic about these days, Isaac. Maybe the benefits of age or something.
People tell me, “isn’t it bad?” and I say, “let me tell you about a guy named Joe McCarthy. If you think this guy’s bad, let me tell you about McCarthy and what was going on in the 1950s.”
Trump might be worse than McCarthy.
No no no no. You cannot—let me tell you something. You are talking to a guy who was drafted six weeks after he graduated from Swarthmore College, and on his third day at Fort Dix had a personnel interview with another draftee who was a personnel specialist who had a file on every single political activity I had ever engaged in at Swarthmore. What do you think about that? I’m this Greek kid from Boston. He starts asking me, “You were head of Students for Democratic Action?” This, that, and the other thing.
What’s the McCarthy connection?
They had dossiers and files on millions of people, including yours truly. Where do you think they got that? The FBI had a tap on the Swarthmore switchboard. It was recording every single phone call that went through there. They were compiling dossiers on guys like me. Can you believe this? That was bad.
Yes, I just meant Trump could end up doing similar things.
Yep, yep, yep.
You have said in previous interviews that Bush really defined you after the conventions. How does Clinton avoid being defined by Trump?
I mean, Trump defines everybody, right? She’s crooked, Mike [Bloomberg] is little. On and on and on. It’s one of his worst traits. It’s insulting. It’s inappropriate. Remember, Isaac, there has been an industry based in Orlando for the last three years financed with right-wing money whose sole purpose is to tear her down. And they have been working at it.
OK well are there any strategies you didn’t use that you think she should use?
Oh yeah, I mean my decision not to respond to the Bush attack campaign was as it turned out the dumbest thing I ever did. No question about it. I should have been ready and had a carefully thought-out strategy for dealing with it, which quite frankly would not have been difficult. But we didn’t do it. By the time the damage was done, it was a little late in the day. And it was my fault. Nobody else’s. I made that decision.
The Clintons have many flaws but leaving attacks unanswered is not one of them.
Hey, you can’t do it anymore. If we learned anything from my demise it was that you just can’t do that. Look, the most liberal furlough program in America in 1988 was the furlough program in the Reagan-Bush administration. They were furloughing people for 45 days. One of them went out and murdered a young pregnant mother. Another guy stole a helicopter and crashed it. Reagan himself had a furlough program as governor of California, and two of his furloughees went out and murdered people. I mean, I never [laughs], I never said this. In retrospect it sounds absolutely crazy and it was. But you know, I am a positive guy.
One of the people who worked against you in 1988 was Roger Ailes. Do you have any thoughts on his demise?
Well, he’s not my favorite person, I can tell you that.
Did you ever meet him?
Only time I remember meeting him was when he was backstage with Bush during our second debate. But, you know, I think he is one of the worst things that has ever happened to American politics.
What do you make of the fact that your former campaign manager, Susan Estrich, is defending him?
Well, she’s a lawyer, you know? Hasn’t she been a Fox commentator?
She has. So are you saying she has already disgraced herself?
No, I didn’t say that. Lawyers represent people. But I think Ailes’ brand of politics has not been good for the United States of America. In many cases it is wildly distorted. It’s inexcusable. It is hardly fair and it is hardly balanced. [Laughs.] But he’s got more problems than you and I have these days.
And more money than you and I have.
Probably, but he will just have to struggle with 40 million bucks, that’s all.
You have criticized NATO’s expansion and what you see as America’s aggressive anti-Russia posture. What have you made of Trump’s comments on Putin and NATO?
Look, after his interview with George Stephanopoulos it is obvious that the guy is totally confused and doesn’t know much. He doesn’t understand much. I have expressed my feelings about NATO expansion, but this guy has no understanding of what’s going on, didn’t know Russian troops went into Eastern Ukraine. He doesn’t really know much.
How unique do you think Trump is in terms of American political history? And as the son of immigrants, have you felt particularly outraged by his rhetoric?
The Know-Nothings took over the entire government of Massachusetts in the 1850s, Isaac: governor, constitutional officers, legislature. They were a working-man’s party, but they were anti-immigrant and especially anti–Catholic immigrant. We’ve seen this before. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Interning Japanese Americans. This is unfortunately one of the less admirable parts of American history and it occurs periodically. Obviously given who I am I abhor this stuff, especially coming from the grandson of German immigrants. But there we are.
In modern American history at least, he seems unique though, no?
What about Pete Wilson running for re-election in California?
Governor, you can’t compare Pete Wilson and Trump.
With ads showing Mexican immigrants running across the border. I mean, it was unbelievable. Those ads—check them out, they are terrible.
So you don’t think he is unique in some way?
No, I think he is just another demagogue using this issue as it has been used in the past. Look at the Pete Wilson thing. I liked a lot of the stuff that Wilson did when he was mayor of San Diego, but that campaign was inexcusable.
Pete Wilson did not strike me as a deranged quasi-fascist.
[Laughs.] No, that he was not. But he used the issue. And that’s important. Anyway, I gotta run. Keep in touch.