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Dukakis graduated from Swarthmore College in 1955, served in the U.S. Army, and then received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1960. Dukakis was first elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1974, defeating the incumbent Republican, Francis W. Sargent, during a period of fiscal crisis. Dukakis won in part by pledging not to increase the state's sales tax to balance the state budget, but did so soon after taking office. He gained some notoriety as the only person in the state Government who went to work during the great Blizzard of 1978. During the storm, he went into local TV studios in a sweater to announce emergency bulletins.
However this performance did not prove enough to offset a backlash against the state's high sales and property tax rates, which turned out to be the predominant issue in the 1978 gubernatorial campaign. Dukakis lost his re-election bid to Edward J. King in the Democratic primary, as King rode the wave against high property taxes along with the passing of a binding petition on the state ballot that limited property tax rates to 2 1/2% of the property valuation. Dukakis defeated King 4 years later in a re-match in the Democratic primary, and easily defeated his Republican opponent in the November election.
Dukakis served as Governor again from 1983 until 1990, during which time he presided over a high-tech boom and a period of prosperity in Massachusetts. Residents of the city of Boston and its surrounding areas remember him for the improvements he made to Boston's mass transit system, especially major renovations to the city's underground trains. He was known as the only governor who rode the subway to the state capitol every day.
Using the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle" as his platform, Dukakis sought the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States in the 1988 elections, prevailing over a primary field which included Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart and Albert Gore, among others, thanks mainly to the brilliance of John Sasso, his campaign manager.
During the general election campaign, Vice President George H. W. Bush, the Republican nominee, launched several attacks on Dukakis for what Bush presented as extremely liberal positions on most issues. These included Dukakis's statement during the primary season that he was "a card-carrying member of" the American Civil Liberties Union, his veto of legislation requiring public school teachers to lead pupils in the Pledge of Allegiance, and his opposition to the resumption of capital punishment in the United States.
Views on capital punishment
The issue of capital punishment came up at the October 13, 1988 debate between the two presidential nominees. Bernard Shaw, the moderator of the debate, asked Dukakis, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis replied coolly, "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life." The reply was sincere and well-put, but Dukakis' answer lacked the emotion needed for a question in which he was forced to consider his wife's death. Many believe that this gaffe in part cost Dukakis the election. Other commentators felt the question itself was unfair in that it injected an irrelevant emotional element into the discussion of a policy issue.
Prison furlough program issue
The most controversial of Bush's attacks involved Dukakis's support for a prison furlough program that resulted in the release of convicted murderer Willie Horton, who committed a rape in Maryland after his escape. Al Gore was the first candidate to publicly raise the furlough issue, in a debate held in New York prior to the Democratic primary in that state, although Gore never mentioned Horton by name.
Bush did mention Horton by name in a speech in June, 1988 and his campaign brought up the Horton case repeatedly. An independent group, the National Security Political Action Committee, aired an ad entitled "Weekend Passes" which used a mug shot image of Horton, who is African American. That ad campaign was followed by a separate Bush campaign ad, "Revolving Door," criticizing Dukakis over the furlough program without mentioning Horton. Dukakis was unable to refute criticism of his veto of a bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature to limit the furlough program, and his refusal to apologize to Horton's victims.
Almost forgotten in the furor, however, was that Dukakis himself ran a furlough advertisement in the Southwest that featured a Hispanic killer, Angel Medrano. Dukakis was trying to accuse Bush of hypocrisy since Medrano escaped from the federal furlough program under President Ronald Reagan. But the commercial backfired when it caused the public simply to see Dukakis as just as negative a campaigner as Bush was.
Public relations failure
Dukakis has been blamed for allowing "liberal" to come to be considered a derogatory term. He was criticized during the campaign for a perceived softness on defense issues, particularly the controversial "Star Wars" SDI program, which Dukakis promised to scale down (although not cancel). In response to this, Dukakis orchestrated what would become the key image of his campaign, albeit not for the reasons he intended; in September 1988 Dukakis visited the General Dynamics plant in Michigan to take part in a photo op in an M1 Abrams tank. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom had been photographed in a similar situation in 1986, riding in a Challenger while wearing a scarf; although somewhat out of character, the image was effective and helped Thatcher's re-election prospects. Dukakis' "tank moment" was much less successful. Filmed wearing a safety helmet that seemed too large for his head, Dukakis looked awkward and out of place. Footage of Dukakis was used by the Bush campaign as evidence he would not make a good commander-in-chief, and "Dukakis in the tank" remains shorthand for backfired public relations outings.
Dukakis' vice-presidential candidate was Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. The Dukakis/Bentsen ticket lost the election in an electoral college landslide, carrying only 10 states and the District of Columbia. Dukakis himself blames his defeat on the time he spent doing gubernatorial work in Massachusetts in the final weeks of the campaign, when many believed he should have been campaigning across the country. Still, he won a higher percentage of the popular vote than either Walter Mondale in 1984 or Bill Clinton (in a three way race) in 1992.
His final two years as governor were marked by increased criticism of his policies and by significant tax increases, as Massachusetts was not spared the economic effects of the U.S. economy's "soft landing" at the end of the 1980s and the recession of 1990.
After the end of his term, he served on the board of directors for Amtrak, and became a distinguished professor of political science at Northeastern University in Massachusetts and guest professor of Policy Studies at UCLA. He continued to complain in media interviews about the "negative" 1988 Bush campaign, beginning with his press conference on the day after the election, continuing throughout Bush's term, and even subsequent to Bush's defeat in the 1992 election.
Duke: The Inside Story of a Political Phenomenon by David Nyhan, August 1988, ISBN 0446354546
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