Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts, is most famous for his losing run against George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. The campaign is remembered for its harsh negativity: Dukakis was on the wrong end of the infamous Willie Horton ad, which helped paint him as too liberal to be elected. Bush went on to carry 40 states.
Dukakis currently teaches public policy at UCLA. With another Bush vying for the Republican nomination, and a New England liberal in the hunt for the Democratic nod, I decided to call Dukakis and get his sense of the race. We discussed Donald Trump, Antonin Scalia (a Harvard Law School classmate), and Hillary Clinton, whose foreign policy views differ from his own passionately held beliefs. Dukakis also offered a typically candid assessment of the Bush family. He appears to have conducted his half of the conversation with his office door open. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Governor, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Happy to do it. Happy to do it. I am sitting here looking at the skyline of downtown Los Angeles 16 miles away. Ten years ago you couldn’t see it. Today it looks fabulous. So tell people that are skeptical of government regulation to come out here.
I live in Oakland so I am not going to complain about California, except that we have no water.
You’ve got water but it’s going to irrigate rice and cotton in the desert. That doesn’t make one hell of a lot of sense. Right?
So how are you?
Good, good. So I wanted to ask you about the Supreme Court. If you were Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio—
What would I be doing? I’d be pointing out that if you are a constitutionalist, or an originalist, whatever those terms mean—because they really mean nothing. You know, Nino [Scalia] was a classmate of mine at law school. He was no more an originalist than the man on the moon.
What was originalist about Bush v. Gore? What was originalist about the Second Amendment decision? What was originalist about Citizens United for God’s sake, Isaac? We have been regulating campaign contributions since the late 19th century. Where in the Constitution does it say that money is speech? Originalism? Are you kidding me? But in any event, if you believe that, then the president has a solemn responsibility to make a nomination and the Senate has a solemn responsibility to consider it seriously, right?
So if you were Chuck Schumer and it was 2008 and it was the Bush administration’s final year, you wouldn’t have tried to block someone?
No, I wouldn’t have done that.
Yeah. This is pure politics. It is nothing else. It is the height of hypocrisy. It’s ridiculous! These guys. If I were Hillary or Bernie, I’d be kicking the crap out of these guys.
How well did you know Scalia at law school?
Not well. It was an interesting class. Scalia, myself, Paul Sarbanes, Bill Ruckelshaus. But in those days, Isaac, we had a class of 475 that was divided in thirds. So you got to know your section very well. But I didn’t know who Scalia was until the last semester of my last year, when I took a class called Federal Courts and the Federal System, with a great man named Henry Hart. It is 1960. We are in the middle of the civil rights revolution. And there’s this guy in class who begins engaging Professor Hart every day in these long dialogues over whether it was appropriate for federal judges to reach in and take cases away from Southern criminal courts, in cases where, as everyone knew, if you were a black defendant, forget it. And this went on for about three weeks. [Laughs.] I finally turned to the guy next to me and said, “Who the hell is that guy?” He said, “That’s Scalia, he’s on the law review.” And I said, “Does he know what it’s like to be black in the South?” A bright guy—yeah. But he was to the right of Marie Antoinette for Christ’s sake. There was no consistency in his so-called philosophy. Money is corporate speech. This is all preposterous.
You were famously attacked for having liberal views. Now progressivism seems to be taking off within the Democratic Party. Do you ever feel like you ran in the wrong era?
Look, it’s a different time. There are different conditions. We went through a terrible recession, largely, in my view, because of policies from a Republican president and Republican Congress. The guy in the White House did a lot to get us out of this thing, but when a country goes through something like this—well, the fact that the numbers are looking better doesn’t change the fact that people have gone through hell in the process. And they are still hurting!
There has been a lot of talk about why voters are so angry, but you seem to be saying that the recession was more catastrophic than people even realize.
Memories are short in some ways. We almost went into a great depression. If it hadn’t been for Obama and Bernanke and the Congress at the time, I think we would have. But the other thing is this. The international situation continues to roil the waters. At a time when the country ought to be feeling better about itself, we have this situation in the Middle East, and we all know where that came from, right?
It started with the invasion of Iraq, but to be perfectly bipartisan, can you tell me what the hell we are doing in Syria?
We being the United States?
Yeah, what the hell are we doing in Syria?
In Syria? I don’t think we’re doing all that much.
Now, four years ago, in case you’ve forgotten, the secretary general asked Kofi Annan to come out of retirement and become a special mediator to try to deal with the situation. The man worked his head off for 11 months, and finally put together an international conference with 16 countries, including Assad, the Russians, ourselves, and Iran, without whom you cannot solve the problem in Syria. Can we agree on that?
They are sort of running the war, so yes we can’t stop the war without them.
Right. The man works hard to put this together, and we say, “if Iran is there we are not going.” And it broke up the conference. And there was general agreement at the time, Isaac, that this conference was meant to put Syria on a path to democracy, and Assad had agreed to that.
Count me as skeptical that Assad would have followed through on that.
Unless you try it you’ll never know.
Sometimes you know.
So what happens? We broke up the conference and have hundreds of thousands of dead people and 12 million displaced people. A humanitarian catastrophe that is now threatening the EU. Why do we do these things? I don’t understand it. The president—who I like—said Assad has got to go. I said, “Oh my God.” I mean, if there is one place where we should not be intervening, it’s Syria, right?
And what about Libya? I mean, another fiasco!
Are you supporting Hillary?
Yeah, I support Hillary.
Because it seems that she has rather different foreign policy views than you do.
Well, they are not that different. And look, views change. American interventionism ain’t working unless it is in the context of strong international agreement. I don’t think we would have gotten the Iranian nuclear agreement, which I happen to think was a great agreement, if the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council had not been deeply involved in that. And the Russians in particular. There is a lesson to be learned there, Isaac, about sticking our nose into other places.
I want to turn to the Republican race briefly—
A young woman who was a student of mine, and is going to go to Congress, just walked into my office. What do you think of her?
What do I think of her?
I haven’t met her.
Well, she’s dynamite. Anyway, go ahead, keep talking.
I have noticed a certain fondness for the Bush family from liberals, myself included, which is perhaps understandable in the current Republican environment because at least they don’t seem like deranged racists. Given your own experience with the Bush family, do you feel any of that nostalgia?
I don’t feel any nostalgia. George W. Bush was the worst president of my lifetime. The worst president of my lifetime. Why would you feel nostalgic?
In the current Republican environment—
Compared to the other guys?
Yeah. George W. got up and was clearly making the case for tolerance and a sane approach on immigration on Monday.
Yeah, yeah. Well, don’t get carried away. He was a terrible president. He was as responsible as anybody for this mess in the Middle East. Are you kidding me? All of those characters who were advising him are now advising Jeb. Every single one of them.
I guess you are not rooting for Jeb.
I am not rooting for Jeb.
What do you make of George H.W. Bush’s presidency?
Look, he was a very good foreign policy president and a lousy domestic president, which is why he lost. But on foreign policy, he and Gorbachev negotiated effectively and well, and ended the Cold War. He didn’t move in the Gulf War without broad international support. And the only thing Gorbachev asked him during those negotiations was that we not expand NATO. And Bush said, “don’t worry, that’s a commitment.” So how are we doing on that one? We are doing everything we can to shove NATO right up to those borders.
If Russia would stop invading countries in that region they’d have a stronger case to make about NATO encroachment.
Who’s been invaded?
Yeah, after we participated in a coup, right? That’s what it was you know.
That’s not precisely my sense—
Oh yeah, oh yeah. The guy was supposed to serve out his term. He was a lousy guy. Nothing new.
I am not sure that means annexing Crimea was okay.
I am not excusing it, but Crimea is Russian. Always has been.
Khrushchev just sort of stuck it onto Ukraine.
You are well aware that states and their borders exist for all sorts of ridiculous reasons, but that doesn’t mean—
I am not defending the action, but I am saying it is more complicated than that. I don’t understand why we are expanding NATO, do you? What the hell is this? NATO was designed to stop Russia or the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. That is not going to happen for the next 300 years.
I hope not.
It won’t, believe me. I am a fan of this administration. I think they have done one hell of a job under very difficult circumstances, but, in case you missed it, incidentally, we are now putting a major U.S. base in Southern Spain. Are you aware of that?
I was not.
3,000 Marines are going to be there. You know why?
No, so we can intervene in Africa.
I was kidding.
I mean, where is this going, Isaac? It is going to be a never-ending thing here.
So how do you stop things from spinning further out control?
Look, the Nigerians are going to take care of Boko Haram.
They are doing it right now!
Hold on, hold on, a great man just walked in. How are you?
[Unidentified Speaker: How are you, great man?]
This is the late, great chancellor of the university. I haven’t seen him in a very long time. Great.
Last question, and then I will let you go.
Do you think Trump will last?
I have no idea. I thought the debate on Saturday night reached a new low. But I just don’t think anybody can tell you what is going to happen. Wait, what do you think? What do you think? You are an observer of the scene.
I thought Trump was going to lose the nomination from the beginning, and I still sort of think that, but I have been proven stupider and stupider every day.
[Laughs] We will see. Rubio self-destructed. He’s an empty suit anyway. Cruz is in a class by himself. [Laughs] We’ll see what happens.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I appreciate it.
And we’ll see what’s going to happen on the Scalia thing. Is that going to have an effect on some of these senate races? Who knows? But that’s what makes this such fun, right?
Absolutely. I appreciate it.
Any time, any time. Give me a buzz. I just want to make sure this country is doing what it ought to be doing internationally. We have a huge role to play here, to build an international community that works together to rule out war, not in my lifetime but maybe in yours, as a means of settling disputes between countries. And I think we are on the threshold of doing that. And I want the U.S. of A to be leading that effort. Not mucking around all over the world and causing more problems than we are solving. That’s what I think is happening. Keep in touch.