Editor’s note: In Win At Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Greatest Gains, Sam Weinman profiles people who have endured profound losses, and the ways they’re able to bounce back from the disappointment. In this excerpt, Weinman profiles Michael Dukakis, who nearly three decades before Hillary Clinton, lost a bitter presidential campaign, but remains an engaged advocate for public service today.
Shortly after losing the 1988 presidential election to George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis had a conversation with Walter Mondale, who four years earlier had lost to Ronald Reagan by an even more decisive margin. The subject was moving on, and Mondale relayed the question he had posed to another losing Democratic nominee, George McGovern.
“When did you get over this?” Mondale had asked McGovern.
At that point it was sixteen years since McGovern lost to Richard Nixon. McGovern responded, “When I do, I’ll let you know.”
There are two types of getting over a loss, really. I think of it as a sting followed by an ache. The morning after the election, Dukakis woke up, dismissed his Secret Service detail, and rode the T to work. He was still the governor of Massachusetts, and the state required his attention. A day later he headed out to buy groceries on foot alone.
“Dad, where are you going?” his daughter Andrea recalls asking him.
He answered as if he wasn’t just recently shadowed by men with guns. “I’m going to the supermarket.”
Dukakis’s way of dealing with the sting was a return to normalcy. But the ache lasted with him, too. To Dukakis, the presidency wasn’t about riding in Air Force One or putting up guests in the Lincoln Bedroom. Rather, the job was his best chance to make the most difference, and he lived with the regret not only over the four years of his opponent’s term but also over the subsequent presidency of Bush’s son. “If I had beaten the old man,” he likes to say, “you never would have heard of the kid.” He’s kidding only to an extent.
“You don’t understand, guys like me, we love pressure. We want to be making decisions,” he says. “We don’t like sitting on the sidelines watching other people make decisions that we think are not in the public interest. That’s why you go into politics. So no, I’ve never thought that it was a good thing for me to lose.”
What didn’t help was that the 1988 presidential campaigns was one of the most vicious in history, opening the door for the steady flow of personal attacks that have become the norm in American politics today. Along the way, Dukakis, fielded a debate question about his wife’s hypothetical rape and murder; fended off insinuations that he was a manic depressive, and endured a series of negative TV ads that mocked, among other things, the way the diminutive governor looked riding on a tank.
Even then, in the words of his son John, Dukakis “never thought of politics as a dirty word.” And it’s why on the night of his defeat, as someone who had just endured the worst side of politics, Dukakis chose to emphasize everything the field still had to offer.
“There is nothing you can do in this world more fulfilling and more satisfying than giving of yourself to others and making a contribution to your community and your state and your nation and your fellow citizens,” Dukakis told his supporters. “I don’t want you to be discouraged. . . . I hope many of you will go into politics and public service. It is a noble profession.”
The governor went on to talk about his immigrant father and the responsibility that comes with living in a country that can offer so much to people who often arrive with so little. I ask Dukakis what we can glean from his speech that night, why he remained so committed to a profession that at that point had let him down. His response speaks to the importance of seeing the bigger picture. Sometimes the easiest way to process a loss is to be grateful for all the other times you’ve won.
“Look, I’ve had an incredible life,” he tells me. “Here I am, this Greek kid from Brookline, Mass. I’m a governor of my state three times and my party’s nominee for the presidency. You can’t have this kind of life and blame the system.”
After leaving the governor’s office, Dukakis dove into life as a college professor, with stints at the University of Hawaii, UCLA, Florida Atlantic University, and Northeastern University. It’s a life he wouldn’t have known had he made it to the White House, but he attacks it with equal vigor, even at eighty-one blocking out hours of his schedule to meet individually with students. Outside of teaching, he has become devoted to the cause of creating a rail link between Boston’s North and South stations.
“He’s so passionate about empowering other people to make sure their voices are heard,” says Christina Warriner, Dukakis’s former student assistant at Northeastern. “I know he wanted to make a change nationally, but he sees the difference he can make in the life he leads now.”
Given the breadth of Dukakis’s accomplishments, you wonder if it burns him that his legacy is so tied to the failures of 1988. The rape question, the negative ads, that stupid tank—all risk undermining decades of good work, but when I ask Dukakis if he resents his portrayal as a caricature, he said that’s the cost of doing business.
“Look, if you go into politics, don’t be surprised if there are at least some people who go at you critically,” he tells me. “That’s part of life, and you’ve got to be able to handle it.”
A pragmatist above all, Dukakis recognizes that being known for something is still better than nothing. Had he only been a three-term governor of Massachusetts, his platform would have been smaller, and he wouldn’t have the same opportunity to advance the causes that matter to him. If he had to endure a few jokes on late-night TV at his expense, so be it.
“I think he has a gift, which I wish I had, in that he really doesn’t care,” John says. “I don’t think those things bedevil him in the least. My dad’s legacy in the kind of ways that he cares about is intact. He’s willing to accept what’s out there because in the end he did some good things and he’s a good man, and that’s a pretty important thing to say.”
Adapted from Win at Losing by Sam Weinman with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Sam Weinman.