NOW YOU KNOW
By Kitty Dukakis with Jane Scovell
Simon and Schuster. 315 pp. $19.95
During the 1988 presidential election season a new cast of political wives emerged, each offering her own "spin" on how that role should, or could, be played. There was the traditional wife: Barbara Bush. The victimized wife: Lee Hart. Cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole was the super-wife. And there was Kitty Dukakis, a woman who was used by her husband's handlers to lend an aura of passion to an otherwise lackluster candidate. A woman who has now reemerged as the recovering wife.
I interviewed Mrs. Dukakis once at her Brookline, Mass., home shortly before the Democratic National Convention. It was a heady time, full of excitement and activity. As we talked, I asked her what needs of hers were being met by her husband's pursuit of the presidency. She replied simply that her needs were not at issue.
Now we know.
With the publication of her autobiography, Kitty Dukakis offers a sobering account of the hazards of public life and shows what can happen when personal needs go unmet. Her story should stand as a warning to any would-be First Lady about the costs of candidacy and the pitfalls of political wifery.
In a campaign year dubbed that "of the handlers," "Now You Know" also stands as evidence of handlers run amok. It wasn't just the presidential contenders who were thoroughly media-manipulated last go-around, but their spouses and families as well. As Kitty Dukakis tells us, "My staff was larger than the staff of any candidate's wife had ever been."
When the election was lost, some of those same staffers urged Kitty Dukakis, who with her husband's defeat was out of a job, to fill the void by writing a book. Initially she resisted, wondering if she had a story to tell. Her concern was justified. As it turns out, Kitty Dukakis couldn't or wouldn't write a campaign kiss-and-tell, and she didn't have a compelling story of her own. Not, that is, until she experienced harrowing bouts with depression and alcoholism in the year after her husband's defeat.
Readers looking for the inside scoop on the Dukakis campaign won't find it here. Written (with Jane Scovell) in standard celebrity-bio prose, Dukakis skims over the substance of the '88 race. She comments selectively: On her "mixed" feelings about Jesse Jackson. On her "heartsick" reaction to her husband's clumsy response to Bernard Shaw's rape question in the second presidential debate.
She plays down any substantive role of her own in the campaign. At times she sounds positively disingenuous. For example, she expounds at length on her husband's Fourth of July dinner invitation to the Jacksons', characterizing it as a "spontaneous" gesture. One wishes she had shared more of her feelings on such matters as the campaign's trouble after manager John Sasso left; the public disclosure of her addiction to diet pills; or, indeed, why, given her problems with "seasonal" depressions -- black moods that lasted as long as eight months -- her husband and his staff put her through the rigors of a presidential race.
Instead, a good portion of the book chronicles her tumultuous relationship with her late mother. Readers are treated to embarrassing details of Kitty Dukakis's early life -- which, with all due respect, just isn't that extraordinary. She seems to have an enormous memory for minutiae. She shares her early dating habits and tells us when she got her period. Unabashedly, she tells us about her awkward wedding night with her first husband.
To juice up the otherwise uneventful story of her youth, we learn that her mother was illegitimate (a fact many reporters knew on the campaign trail but didn't think important). Bound by conventions of the past, Kitty's mother emerges as an exacting woman, slow to hand out compliments and quick to argue with her tempestuous daughter. Dukakis pinpoints this relationship as the root of her deep-seated insecurities. Although she worries aloud about betraying her mother's memory, one has to wonder how all this really plays back in Brookline with Dukakis's buoyant father, Harry Ellis Dickson, who once commented to a reporter that Kitty "seems to have a wonderful talent for making a career out of a catastrophe."
Indeed, no word but catastrophic accurately describes Dukakis's post-election experience. "I began drinking when I was faced with a gaping emptiness I could not endure," she writes. Following her much-publicized entry into the Edgehill Newport treatment center in early 1989 and the relapse during which she drank rubbing alcohol last November, Dukakis relapsed several more times and entered three more rehab programs within a short time. At one point, despite her doctors' hesitation, she insisted on returning home for a Christmas weekend only to desperately down after-shave lotion, nail polish remover, even hair spray. This makes for compelling, if woefully sad, reading. Ultimately, Dukakis tells us, her illness was diagnosed as manic-depression, which is now being controlled by lithium. She continues under doctors' care.
What is the moral to the story? Is it that, as Dukakis writes, "there are many successful, very successful, people in this world who are alcoholics. They can be steps away from losing control, yet their precarious positions remain undetected"? Yes. Is it that "there are many, many people out there who could benefit from hearing about my experiences"? One hopes so. More to the point, however, the moral is that even with extreme care, politics can become a health hazard for elected officials' wives.
From her story, it becomes clear that the campaign loss and the demands of her husband's political career did not cause, but certainly exacerbated, Kitty Dukakis's proclivities toward depression and substance abuse. Ironically, though she spends much time dissecting the ins and outs of her relationship with her mother, which no doubt shaped her psychologically, Dukakis seems to disassociate her emotional problems from the realities of political wifehood.
She calls herself a feminist, but admits she "grew into independence at a late stage." Actually, she tied her star to her husband's and liked it. "I enjoyed being the governor's wife," she writes. "There were so many things I could do for people just because I was married to the man in the statehouse. When I said, 'This is Kitty Dukakis,' I knew it carried weight." Her career was his career, yet Kitty says that as a political wife she never felt like a "decoration." Once her husband was the Democratic nominee, she viewed her role this way: "As the wife of a presidential candidate ... I had to be as nearly perfect as possible." She never balks at the thought that this might be unreasonable.
When Michael Dukakis lost, Kitty was left with nothing to do and no one to be. The harsh truth was she had no public identity apart from her husband's. She says as much: "I wanted to be active. I couldn't bear the empty days. My public platform had collapsed under me and I desperately needed a new rostrum."
Equally troubling is how her political lifestyle hampered her ability to know herself. Given the devastation of the campaign loss, it seems surprising, as she says, that she cried very little after the election. Or that she didn't begin to come to grips with her husband's defeat until she entered Edgehill in February, months later. While there, she reports, "the counselor wisely assessed how much politics had influenced my interaction with others. I had learned to tell people what I wanted them to hear and I didn't go any further. ... I was like a piece of camouflage without any understanding of who was behind the mask." Politics, it seemed, enabled her to spend most of her life running and to develop a pattern of going "from one kind of excitement to another."
It will be interesting to see what Kitty Dukakis accomplishes with this book. For public figures, managing the elusive boundary between private and public life can be tough. When addicted, defeated or indicted, politicians and movie stars tend to return to the public forum for forgiveness. It may be that as a public personality Kitty Dukakis needs a public confession and absolution to come to terms with her shortcomings and defeat. Whatever purpose this book may serve her emotionally -- and her husband politically -- hers is a cautionary tale.
The reviewer is the author of "Running Mates: The Making of a First Lady."