At a fancy fundraiser on Beacon Hill earlier this month, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) stood before a crowd of this city's political elite, who helped generate a combined $1 million for his presidential campaign this year. As he scanned the room to single out some for special praise, a friendly face caught his eye.
"I also notice my old friend, standing in the back. He's been here. He knows what it means to be the nominee," Kerry said. "Michael, thank you."
The former governor of Massachusetts and 1988 Democratic Party standard-bearer, smiled and waved.
These are busy days for Michael S. Dukakis, whose defeat at the hands of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush after leading in August by a double-digit margin was a devastating blow that left him a reliable Republican punch line for more than a decade. He presents a challenge for the Kerry campaign: how to involve a man that the candidate and many of his senior aides admire and once worked under, without opening Kerry up to unflattering comparisons.
At the Democratic National Convention, which begins here in his home town on Monday, Dukakis will be recognized in the convention hall along with the other former Democratic nominees. He has been asked to speak at several receptions for state delegations Sunday night, including ones for North Carolina and New Jersey. On opening night, he will host Greek American delegates at his home in Brookline. On Tuesday, he moderates a panel discussion on public policy issues. And on Wednesday, Democrats will fete the former governor at a Greek restaurant in Charlestown, a neighborhood north of downtown Boston.
But the former governor, who looks younger than his 71 years, will not be onstage during the event's official program. While the list of prime-time speakers unveiled last month included fellow failed party nominees former vice president Al Gore and former president Jimmy Carter (who lost his bid for reelection), Dukakis will not address the gathering, he said. For 16 years, he has been something of an untouchable in national Democratic circles.
"The first rule for the Democrats is to avoid a picture of John Kerry and Mike Dukakis together at all costs," Rob Gray, who was a spokesman for Dukakis's gubernatorial successor, former governor William F. Weld (R), told the Associated Press. "Dukakis's race was an embarrassment for the party.
Since leaving the governor's office in 1991, Dukakis has kept a low public profile, spending the past 13 years teaching political science full time at Boston's Northeastern University, and serving on the board of Amtrak. For his many supporters, a return to the spotlight during the convention would be long overdue.
"It has angered me and many other delegates over the years, but in some conventions, party heroes like him have been ignored," said Philip Johnston, the Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman. "I don't expect that'll happen this time."
Unsuccessful nominees are often given short shrift by their successors, and like Bill Clinton and Gore before him, Kerry has paid little overt attention to Dukakis during his bid for the White House.
"To be fair to Bill [Clinton], I didn't run a very good campaign in 1988, so I am not sure it would have made sense for him to reach out to me," Dukakis said in a recent interview. "We were trying to beat the guy who beat me, and he ran a damn good campaign. Although, I think it's true that I got a higher percentage of the popular vote than he did."
(Dukakis earned 45.6 percent of the vote in 1988, whereas Clinton won 43 percent in 1992, a race in which third-party candidate Ross Perot ran.)
For Kerry, an association with Dukakis could be damaging politically. He is already battling the "Massachusetts liberal" tag Republicans hung on the former governor in 1988. A Bush spokesman wrote in an e-mail message to reporters in mid-July that Kerry was "mimicking the Dukakis playbook" by going on a beach vacation before the Democratic convention, just as Dukakis did 16 years ago.
Dukakis's legacy has always been viewed more positively here in the Bay State, where he presided over an era of prosperity that became known as the "Massachusetts miracle."
A reception for him last year that doubled as a state Democratic fundraiser drew 1,700 guests, and Johnston said many others were turned away at the door.
"He really inspired a whole generation of Massachusetts Democrats who now have gone to prominent roles," Johnston said.
Unlike previous Democratic nominees, Kerry, who served as Dukakis's lieutenant governor from 1982 to 1984, has close personal ties to the former governor, as do several members of his campaign team.
"One of the things that has always impressed me about John is that he was one of the few people who did not trash Dukakis after the defeat in 1988," Johnston said.
Jack Corrigan, a Boston lawyer who is Kerry's liaison to the Democratic convention, was Dukakis's field director and deputy campaign manager. Kerry's point man at the Democratic National Committee, John Sasso, was Dukakis's 1988 campaign manager, before being dismissed for leaking dirt about Dukakis rival Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). (Sasso later rejoined the campaign.) Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, worked for Dukakis after the 1988 election.
"He has a lot of friends here," Corrigan said. "As for the campaign, I think he has input. I know I talk to him and there are others who he's in touch with."
Dukakis said his advice to the campaign has been to organize a grass-roots effort in all states, "both because it wins elections and because there is a great opportunity to build the party for the future. So far they aren't doing it, but there are signs that they may start."
This summer, Dukakis has spent much of his time in Room 327 of the Northeastern political science department -- which contains no memorabilia from his various campaigns -- and in a nearby lecture hall teaching a course on presidential campaigns. "I'm busier today than I was when I was governor," he said.
Oscar Camargo, 22, a Northeastern student serves as Dukakis's assistant and works in an office decorated with a campaign poster of the former governor throwing a baseball above the slogan "A new season. A new leader." Camargo said Dukakis gets two or three media calls every day. "Bill O'Reilly from Fox is trying to book him," he said, running to answer the phone.
On a recent Thursday, Dukakis, dressed casually in a blue button-down shirt, khakis and a pair of New Balance sneakers, held forth for more than an hour on the Democratic primaries, touching frequently on the ups and downs of his firsthand experience.
He seemed to empathize with former Vermont governor Howard Dean's now-famous screaming speech in Iowa in January. "That certainly didn't do him any favors," said the man who in 1988 took a much-ridiculed ride on a tank in Michigan. "Images like that can be killer."
In addition to requiring them to volunteer at the convention, he assigned students a term paper and encouraged them to contact national politicians and bureaucrats for interviews. "If you're having trouble getting a hold of them, I'll call for you," Dukakis said. "Although some of these people are so young they don't know who I am anymore."