GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- Michael Dukakis was taking questions at St. Anselm's College last Wednesday morning when a man wearing a scarf and a mustache lofted a beach-ball-sized marshmallow in his direction: "What is your position on Central America?"
Dukakis could have pushed the button in his brain labeled "Central America" and delivered the programmed response. But he was feeling loose, feeling game -- and he had reason to feel lucky.
His third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses had been deemed "respectable" and now, when he might be undergoing the searing scrutiny accorded the favorite in New Hampshire -- and the candidate with the most to lose by not meeting high expectations in today's primary -- the news media were consumed by the bitter Republican contest, and his Democratic rivals were consuming one another.
So Dukakis decided to show off a little. He greeted his questioner in Spanish, wondering if by any chance he was from Peru. He was. What a coincidence. It so happens, Dukakis told the man, that he himself had been a student in Lima,Peru, in 1954 -- and a rewarding experience it had been, too. Then, in case any of the 200 or so other people in the room happened to be listening, he repeated it all in English.
This made him think of something else: How many here, he asked, have studied Spanish? He raised his right arm, inviting imitation, and looked expectantly around the room. When only a few hands went up, he looked genuinely disappointed.
Many candidates find classrooms convenient platforms on the campaign trail, full of warm and impressionable bodies. But for Dukakis, the classroom is an especially congenial place. Standing before his pupils -- it doesn't matter much whether they are schoolchildren, college students or grown-ups in professional seminars -- he is in his element.
"Do I sound like a teacher?" he had asked a bunch of parochial school students in Des Moines a few days earlier. "I once was one." He seems quite proud of this. During his years in the wilderness, between what he likes to call his "involuntary retirement" from office in 1979 and his return to the Massachusetts Statehouse in 1983, Dukakis taught public policy at Harvard.
And he does sound like a teacher. Fittingly for a man of Greek origins, he is fond of the Socratic method. If he is asked what he thinks about, say, abortion -- as he was before the Catholic students in Des Moines -- he turns the question around: "What do you think?"
The questioner is usually left speechless, or perhaps stammers out a rough notion or two, but it doesn't matter. By then Dukakis has had time to register the questioner's feelings and to walk mentally through his answer -- which he proceeds to deliver with a directness that seems especially impressive in this parochial school setting. On another level, the device conveys the teacher's reciprocal respect for the taught, giving an egalitarian blush to a relationship that is fundamentally otherwise.
The subliminal business of any presidential campaign is to suggest to voters what manner of authority the candidate would wield as president -- not just which policies, not just which processes, but which pose of leadership, which relationship of governor to governed. After New Hampshire, when more and more voters start paying attention to fewer and fewer candidates, this subtle message will become increasingly important.
Dukakis plays the familiar authority figure of everyone's formative years, and he plays it easily and effectively. Yet even the best teachers can be easier to respect than to like. They believe in knowledge for its own sake; they are impatient with shoddy thinking and intolerant of idleness. No one questions their dedication to the improvement of others. But no one is quite comfortable in the presence of professional didacts or moral exemplars, least of all the troublemakers and cutups in the back of the classroom.
Dukakis travels everywhere these days with his very own pack of them. Across the hall from his first session at St. Anselm's, he stood at another microphone for that morning's installment of a campaign set piece called the "press availability." The proliferating Dukakis press flock has been trying for weeks, without effect, to goad the candidate into saying something -- anything -- nasty about his principal Democratic rivals so far, Dick Gephardt and Paul Simon, or to predict his margin of victory in the New Hampshire primary.
Dukakis won't play. Even better than most politicians, he resists the devilish impulse to blurt out what first leaps to mind. He answers provocative questions in the level voice of a man who has been asked the same things a zillion times and will reward his questioners in kind, numbing them with consistency and unflappability.
Once in a great while, though, he smolders a little. Asked yet again about whether his campaign will meet expectations in New Hampshire, Dukakis snapped: "I don't create those expectations. You do."
Once in a great while, he lapses into sarcasm. Asked once more to spell out his differences with Simon and Gephardt, Dukakis shrugged. "Maybe you ought to give the three of us a quiz."
Once in a great while, he reveals what gets under his skin. Asked why he had succumbed the day before to calling Simon's policies a "trip down memory lane," Dukakis looked as though the provocation were obvious. "When he comes to town and calls me a technocrat," Dukakis said, "I've got to respond."
One can think of worse things than being called a technocrat, but it's no mystery why Dukakis is touchy about the T-word. It is code for the qualities, real and perceived, that give people their deepest misgivings about him: the rap of bloodlessness, of a managerial mentality, of dread Jimmy Carterism. And it is code, too, for the fact that voters still don't know quite what to make of him.
All but the most serious voters are looking for handles on the candidates, little McBios they can carry around without much thought. Simon is the Harry Truman Democrat, the optimistic one with the bow tie. Gephardt is either the champion of the little people or the classic Washington tactician, depending on the day of the week.
But Dukakis, being the kind of fellow he is, resists this kind of simplistic shorthand, which leaves him open to the labels of others. Exasperated by all the psychologizing, one of his campaign aides says, "He's just a guy, you know. He's just a guy!"
Try three guys -- or one guy with three different names.
Dukakis the politician goes by the name Mike. His campaign posters say Mike Dukakis. One button says "I Like Mike." He introduces himself as Mike Dukakis, signs his letters Mike Dukakis, and refers to himself rhetorically as Mike Dukakis. Mike is the name of the regular guy, the guy he knows he has to be to get along with just plain folks. Mike embodies the ordinariness we require of those we then call Mr. President until the day they die.
But virtually no one who knows Dukakis calls him Mike to his face. Not his wife, not his friends, not his close colleagues. They call him Michael, like his mother does. Michael is the good boy, the good student, the dutiful second son thrust (like John F. Kennedy) into the first-son role by an ambitious immigrant family; the idealistic reformer, the careful problem-solver, the Mr. Goodwrench of government.
And then there is the curious, if inevitable, moniker that has grown on Dukakis in public life: the Duke. It is a term mostly of affection and respect, used in the third person by many who work for him and cover him and vote for him. The Duke is an invented figure, because there is nothing ducal or baronial or regal about the man. The Duke embodies those things Dukakis has had to become to govern Massachusetts and run for the presidency: the chief, the patriarch, the boss of the Democratic machine.
In homage to the Duke, the Massachusetts Democratic Party turned its annual fund-raising dinner last Tuesday night in Boston into a virtual campaign rally.
This was a hero's homecoming from the Iowa wars, and the harvest of six years of patronage. Here were several ballroom acres of bodies politic and loyal, running motor vehicle registries and social service departments and teachers' union locals for the people of Massachusetts, and helping to turn out the vote for the Duke when they are asked.
This picture would have seemed improbable a decade ago. The young reformist legislator had won the governorship in 1974 on the allegedly self-evident grounds that, as his bumper stickers proclaimed, "Mike Dukakis Should Be Governor." His immediate inheritance was a huge Republican deficit; his pragmatist's response was to jettison the very programs that had endeared him to his liberal constituency, and then to raise taxes, which alienated the Massachusetts business community, not to mention the electorate. He was crushed when the voters tossed him out of office in 1978.
Ten years later, having learned his lesson and applied it with a vengeance, Dukakis is not just governor again, he owns the party. People like Edward Kennedy and Tip O'Neill, often critics and never soul mates, are stumping for him. Just as Massachusetts serves as the candidate's impressive show-and-tell on the campaign trail, its Democratic Party serves as his personal army. California or Texas would be better bases in 1988, but Massachusetts is what he's got. And it's better than Delaware, after all.
Not since President John F. Kennedy's appearance at this occasion in 1962, declared Rep. Chet Atkins, the state party chair, had so many tickets been sold: 1,400-plus. The reason was not obscure. Spread across the curtain behind the broad two-tiered head table was a primitive and enormous painting of the White House, which isn't in Massachusetts. Lest the message be lost on anyone there, emcee Robert Crane, the longtime state treasurer, announced to Dukakis, "Your campaign is our campaign."
In one of several introductory speeches, Paul Kirk, the Massachusetts native who heads the national Democratic Party, struggled mightily to sound neutral in the presidential contest, but somehow mentioned only one candidate by name.
Sen. Kennedy offered self-conscious praise from the podium. "Eight years ago in Iowa, I came in second and my campaign was finished," Kennedy thundered. "Yesterday in Iowa, Mike Dukakis came in third and he's on his way to the White House."
Finally Dukakis stood to thank the faithful. Earlier in the day, at a tumultuous welcoming rally in Manchester, he had invoked the native nectar, the mmm-mmmm-good clam chowder he had scarfed when he got off the plane from Iowa; now he was recycling the line. The night before, at a caucus night celebration in Des Moines, he had said, "I'm a guy who went out to Iowa 10 months ago and nobody knew what a Dukakis was," and now he said it again. His name, all his names, are useful tools.
Then, in short staccato bursts, he delivered a medley of favored stump lines. And as the major declarations had their intended effect on the audience, Dukakis repeated the just-spoken words into the applause, an oratorical trick he's picked up and perfected.
"Not one more dollar for contra aid," he growled, and as the applause rose, he leaned into the microphone. "Not one dollar ... Not one! ..."
Nobody has called Dukakis a spellbinding speaker, but -- perhaps as a consequence -- he has become at least a skillful deployer of phrases, punching each one up, newscaster-style, for maximum effect. Before this vast gathering of the once-lapsed and born-again, he was the very Duke of their imaginations, relishing his delivery and savoring their response.
Dukakis-watchers are fond of saying that, with this politician, what you see is what you get. Dukakis himself says simply, "We are who we are." But the presidential campaign is teaching him a lesson he has always resisted -- that people want to know their candidates, want to see the human being, whoever he may be, lurking behind the pronouncements.
Wednesday he was trying to oblige them.
On a walking tour through the Manchester neighborhood where his father Panos Dukakis lived when he first arrived in this country, the governor sat down for a few minutes with some old men at the Barba Costas Coffee House. He reminisced about the restaurant his father and uncle used to operate under the names they felt compelled to adopt as new immigrants, Arthur and Peter Duke, and how his father used to run the four blocks to the YMCA after work for his English class.
"I wish my dad could be here," he said. "He would be so proud of you and of me. To think he came to this city and to this neighborhood and went on to become a doctor, gave me what I have, the opportunity I have ..."
The words and even the sentiment were unremarkable, and this was hardly the first time Dukakis had trundled out the immigrant scenery for campaign consumption. But in this coffeehouse in his father's old neighborhood, the ghosts seemed to catch Dukakis in the throat.
At his next stop, a "house party" in Merrimack, Dukakis told the guests packed into Peter and Jackie Flood's living room a few choice tales from the hustings. At the end of the serious stuff, he added that "the campaign's been a lot of laughs, too. Somebody said I had a terrific pair of eyebrows." Dukakis lifted them, wordlessly soliciting a second opinion. They liked the eyebrows.
One of the guests asked Dukakis about his reputation for being unemotional. "Do I sound unemotional and technocratic tonight?" he replied. "How can a Greek be unemotional? I like to think I combine the emotionality of my forebears and the frugality of the Yankees."
Later that evening at the Salem Racket Club, he tried out another line, another playful variation on his name. His cousin, the actress Olympia Dukakis, is being mentioned as a possible Academy Award winner for her role as Cher's mother in "Moonstruck," and the Oscars come just before the New York primary. "Maybe 1988 is the year of the Dukaki," he said, pronouncing it Docockeye.
After today, as Dukakis heads south into alien territory and goes up against Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Gephardt on or near their native turf, campaigning will no longer be such a chummy affair. Down there, they really don't know what a Dukakis is, and the chances are better than even that they won't cotton to it when they find out. The challenge under those circumstances, will be to stay loose.
Friday morning, as a heavy snowstorm battered New Hampshire and forced the candidates to abandon their schedules, Dukakis was unfazed. In the waning days of his New England honeymoon, he was looser than loose; if you didn't know he was a bloodless technocrat, you might even have called him mischievous.
He had spent the night in Keene to get an early start in western New Hampshire, but with a half-day of appearances down the tubes, he decided to head back to Manchester. The trip, normally an hour's drive, took nearly three.
When his van finally pulled up at campaign headquarters in Manchester, out jumped Dukakis, who rushed past startled volunteers and milling reporters and made a beeline in the general direction of the bathroom. After an appropriate pause, he reappeared and made his way out the door, one stir-crazy guy.
Outside, in boots and a ski jacket, Dukakis plunged through the calf-deep snow at an aerobic pace. Struggling to stay a few steps ahead of him, the clutch of news sherpas struggled with their wires and minicams and sound booms, stumbling backward into parked cars and over snowbanks. Dukakis seemed barely to notice them.
Two breathless blocks away, after shaking every apparent on-duty hand in the Manchester police and fire departments, Dukakis came to rest in front of a red-and-silver pumper for his morning press availability.
A local reporter asked if the blizzard would prevent him from heading back to Boston to attend to his gubernatorial duties. (For lack of other suitable controversies about the campaigning governor, this is a consuming issue for the Massachusetts press.) No, Dukakis said, he was going; he had work to do.
Well then, asked a reporter from Los Angeles, did this mean he was ignoring the people of New Hampshire?
A wave of irritation passed under the Dukakis brows. Then it dawned on him that this was a small joke, a parody of the usual question. Catching on, he feigned a tone of weary gravity, and said, "Those are the burdens of responsibility."
Outside on the street again, he stopped for yet another television interview, yet another question about Gephardt and Simon. What did he think of what they were saying about him?
Somehow, on this day, his usual answers weren't enough.
"I don't know," he said, as Socratic inspiration struck. "What do you think?" The reporter looked stunned, a weak smile frozen on her face. "Want me to interview you? I've got an AFTRA card. What did you think? What did you think? Did it make any sense to you?"
Down the street, Dukakis turned a corner and abruptly broke away from the news blob. Now nothing stood in his way except a knot of people on the sidewalk -- another television reporter and her crew, interviewing a Paul Simon press spokesman in front of Simon headquarters, oblivious to the rival candidate heading their way.
Dukakis began to lead his flying wedge behind the group, but in that instant the Devil hijacked the candidate and drove him the other way, behind the Simon spokesman, and into camera range. Dukakis slowed, swiveled his head toward the camera and, peering over the spokesman's shoulder, gave the folks at home a goofy smile.