By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Setting a high bar

For people outside Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis may be a largely forgotten name, or even an object of deprecating references to the People's Republic of Massachusetts or to the guy with the funny-looking helmet on the tank from the 1988 presidential campaign.

Dukakis recently turned 75, and there was an event in his and his wife Kitty's honor in Boston last weekend. The event was to raise money in connection with renaming one of the centers at Northeastern University in Boston, where Dukakis has taught for 20-odd years, in honor of the two.

I mention this not to praise Dukakis' political views (as readers know, I try to keep this blog away from partisan politics), but to note a revealing fact about the dinner. Something like a thousand people paid a minimum of $250 a person (in tough economic times) to attend. Now, obviously there are lots of political events that people pay money to attend. What is noteworthy here is that Dukakis has not held public office since 1988. Nobody attended this event in the hope of getting a favor or currying favor with a powerful figure. They came because they admire Michael (and Kitty) Dukakis as people and as public-spirited members of society.

To some, Dukakis is a quirky guy. He is seen now and again walking down the streets of Brookline with degreaser to try to remove graffiti from mailboxes. He proudly displayed his subway pass at Saturday's dinner. I remember to this day seeing him for the first time after he returned from a post-1988 election exile in Hawaii, when I was walking down the street with (at the time) a Walkman in my ears. "What are you wasting time with that junk for?" he asked, becoming mollified only when I took the earphones off and put them in his ears so he could hear I was listening to Japanese language tapes.

But he's a guy whom locals know is genuine, and genuinely committed to public service, to making society a better place. And that commitment generated the kind of real affection that produced the big outpouring Saturday night. That's a nice performance metric for people in public life: How many people can we get to pay money to honor us when we no longer are in office or other positions of authority? Dukakis sets a high bar.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 21, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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