Sunday, July 8, 2012

DISCUSSION: Chapters Ten to Sixteen

From Steve Kornacki, co-host of The Cycle and writer for Salon

The first time I interviewed Michael Dukakis was on the afternoon before Election Day 2000. I was a senior in college and, almost on a lark, had dialed his office number at Northeastern University in Boston, figuring I’d put in a request with his secretary and never hear back. Needless to say, I was startled by the voice that answered my call. “Dukakis here.”

Governor Michael Dukakis, 1986
The interview I proposed would be broadcast to a journalism class of about 20 students and no one else, but he readily agreed. My team and I showed up outside Meserve Hall a few minutes before the appointed hour – just in time to run into the Duke, who was finishing up the two-mile walk from Perry Street to campus. We introduced ourselves and told him what we hoped to achieve with our project (something about inspiring young people to public service, I think) and he replied with an expression straight out of What It Takes: “Terrific.”

My hope had been to get him to engage in some spontaneous personal reflecting on the experience of running for president. If you’ve read Cramer’s book, you probably know how this worked out. Dukakis had long before done his thinking about the 1988 race and had a familiar, thoroughly non-introspective answer ready for everything I asked. He’d give his stock reply, then segue to the present tense, which meant the Bush-Gore race. Occasionally, a student would pop in to ask about course selection or internships, and he’d efficiently oblige. The phone rang every few minutes, and his conversations were brisk and business-like – except one, where his mood suddenly turned affectionate and playful. Kitty, obviously.

Listening as he talked to his wife that day was (and, 12 years and six subsequent interviews with him later, still is) my one glimpse of the other Mike Dukakis – the one who we meet in Chapter 11 chasing his cousin Tiki around with a severed fish’s head. When he hung up with Kitty, he didn’t miss a beat and went right back to talking Bush, Gore and national healthcare. Like Cramer writes, with Dukakis, “there are only two types of people. There is family, and there is everyone else.”


I am always intrigued by how Cramer introduces us to candidates. Bush at the Astrodome, Dole schlepping around. Here we meet Michael Dukakis, at ease, being playful and boyish, as Steve writes above. Though we do get a good picture of his stiffness, his dislike for "Sasso-grease" on the wheels of state government, and even his top aide's effort to rebrand him as "Mike" (see the campaign commercial at left) when he preferred "Michael."

Robin Bush
We also meet Gary Hart, brilliant and burning, who doesn't talk much unless he's talking about ideas -- a trick he learned with girls in high school. The reader is shown that he is "Right From The Start" yet also 'Doomed From The Start,' with the photographs of him exiting his townhouse behind an attractive young woman. Even with all his heady interactions with Mikhail "The Soviet Gary Hart" Gorbachev and Henry Kissinger, his womanizing would become the beef of his candidacy.

But the personal does matter. How the candidates coped with adversity in their lives -- and this is one of the more controversial aspects of this book -- provides insight to how they will operate their campaigns. Experiences with three family members are explored in this selection. Hart's son, angry and demurring. Dukakis' brother, the original Duke, bitter and depressed. And Bush's daughter, taken at such an early age.

Word of the Week

diddybop ('didi-bop') - noun
an overly eager member of the news media exiting a campaign plane

Share more quotes and scenes in the comments.


  1. I believe the first use of "the bubble" takes place on page 172, in reference to Hart. As you may have heard, WHAT IT TAKES introduced the phrase "in the bubble."

  2. The introduction of Michael Dukakis reminded me of my one personal encounter with him. I graduated the same year - 1987 - from Princeton as his daughter Andrea. The University hosts a reception on the grounds of Prospect House for the parents of graduating seniors and I was there with my parents a few days before graduation in June 1987. My mom noticed Michael Dukakis standing alone and asked me if we should go up and say hello. We watched for several minutes as a soon-to-be presidential candidate just stood by himself not being approached by anyone and not approaching anyone either. We thought it was odd that he didn't take advantage of the situation to at least meet a few Princeton parents - you would have to think that George H.W. Bush would have gotten several dozen additions to his Christmas card list from an event like that but Michael Dukakis seem satisfied to stand by himself at the event. Or maybe he just thought it would not be "appropriate" to draw attention to himself at that venue. I always thought that was strange behavior for someone in the process of running for president.

    1. Well, I guess in that instance, "There is family, and there is everyone else.” Telling anecdote.

  3. Presented without comment, page 196:

    "Panos was never much for politics. He registered Republican, against FDR's New Deal. (Like most Greeks, Panos didn't believe in the dole--something for nothing--let the people work!)"

  4. I also enjoyed the thought expressed on page 186, after Dukakis makes his gubernatorial comeback: "What human being in our own lives remarks his personality after age forty-five? We wouldn't believe it of our own brother or sister, but for some reason, it sells with pols."

  5. I don't have too much to add to the discussion at the moment because I have to run to get to work, but I'd just like to thank you Jack for arranging this group reading!