Dukakis Course Not Just Academic


Out on Hilgard, the garbage trucks were grinding away at their curbside fodder, filling the waiting silence inside Classroom 2343, where 60-some backpacks with matching students occupied every desk and much of the floor space.

They were polite--high school student body officers, no doubt, and their baseball caps were brims-forward--but they wouldn’t have been worth their UCLA tuition if at least one wasn’t wondering how to ask the instructor, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you president?”

Folks, when you’ve gone a few rounds with the Dan Rathers of the world, there’s probably not much that an undergrad can throw that you don’t see coming. And once Michael Dukakis had taken care of the academic bookkeeping and the Leno warmup stuff--”three unexcused absences and you’re outta here . . . anybody from Massachusetts?”--he answered the unasked: “If I knew anything about the presidency, I wouldn’t be here.”


They say those who can’t, teach. Michael Dukakis, three times the governor of Massachusetts, the Democrat not elected president in 1988, is spending 10 winter weeks teaching UCLA undergraduates about the presidency.

Only 42 men have reached the Oval Office. It follows that another 40-some have jumped every hurdle but the last, victory. Dukakis was one. That alone gives him plenty to say, and this class gives him three hours a week to say it.

“Incidentally, and I mean this, don’t let me intimidate you. If there’s anything we’re learning, it’s that there’s no pros in this business. I’m not; Newt Gingrich isn’t either.”

These students were 12 years old, tops, in 1988, when the Wall was still up, Reagan was still in, and Dukakis rose from 5% in the polls to the Democratic nomination.

He was a policy wonk before we’d even heard the phrase, who famously took a book on Swedish urban planning to the beach, a politician who tried to edify rather than electrify, selling competence rather than ideology to a nation hooked on Reagan’s snap, crackle and pop. His formality made Al Gore look like the poster boy for Ritalin.

The last time I remember Dukakis at UCLA was the 1988 presidential debate. I recall only the question--would he favor the death penalty if his cherished wife, Kitty, were to be raped and murdered?--and his answer, measured, dispassionate: “No, I don’t . . . “ As he walked offstage, he told an aide, “I blew it.” The rest of us had said so 90 minutes earlier.


Eight years later, in Top-Siders, khakis and plaid shirt with rolled sleeves, Dukakis’ didactic enthusiasms were classroom-perfect. “Any of you read ‘The Age of Federalism’? It’s long, difficult--a great book.” He coaxed students into the flow: “Shays’ Rebellion was . . . ?” He was droll: a textbook was last updated in 1986, “so there’s nothing here on Bush or Clinton. That’s fine with me. I won’t have to live through the agony of ’88.”

The class waited half a breath to laugh, to make sure first that he did too.


Dukakis’ office is bare of anything but a Selectric typewriter, tape and Post-it notes. Two Korean students drop by, worried that they don’t know about Shays’ Rebellion. He pulls some Korean phrases from memory, and they giggle.

The phone rings often: a White House staffer he once mentored; someone from HBO, hoping he’ll persuade cousin Olympia Dukakis of the worth of some project; Kitty, who has finished her master’s in social work and spends two days a week at Childrens Hospital.

It is one civilized hallmark of America that ex-political standard-bearers do not get put against a wall and shot. They choose their own sunsets--golf, good works, teaching. Dukakis wants most of all to restore the luster to public service, whether it’s picking up other people’s litter or running for office.

“If guys like me aren’t out here encouraging kids. . . . Young people have got to be engaged in the public life of their communities and their country.”

The day the UCLA quarter began, a survey by the school’s Higher Education Research Institute found that the nation’s freshmen haven’t been this indifferent toward civic life in 30 years--almost exactly as long as Dukakis has spent in public service.



Where are the snow blowers of yesteryear?

Dukakis’ celebrated power snow blower provided the most felicitous photo op of his campaign. The worst, in helmet in a tank, evoked Calvin Coolidge looking grumpy in Indian headdress, an object lesson that ridicule can ruin a politician faster than scandal.

The buzzwords of ’88 have endured: “liberal” as a slam, card-carrying ACLU member, Willie Horton. When Pete Wilson ran for president, a comic called him Dukakis without the passion.

Policy Studies M198 will examine the chief executive, personality politics, a case study of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, and the press--”the electronic medier,” in Haavard Yaad accents, the crisis-driven nightly news and the amazing shrinking sound bite.

Bob Dole is back where he was in 1988, campaigning in New Hampshire. George Bush is off fishing. And Dukakis spent Sunday at the beach with his granddaughter, not reading to her from Swedish planning manuals.