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- July 25, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 4
Up from Olympus
A Hero in the Land of His Ancestors, Candidate Michael Dukakis Pursues An American Dream That Is Understood the World Over
This is Pelopi, formerly an obscure dwelling place of sheep, goat and cattle herdsmen, now a shrine to the possibilities of the American political system. The historical marker on the new house that stands where his grandfather once lived is the least of the town's tributes: The central square has been re-named M. Dukakis Square. The main street is now Michael Dukakis Street. The 650 inhabitants of Pelopi, not one of whom is named Dukakis, have made certain that none who comes to the island of Lesbos to see the ancestral home of America's Democratic presidential candidate shall suffer the fate of Greek travelers in lore, the ones who were always getting sidetracked. "Welcome to the Home Town of Michael Dukakis" reads a sign at the village entrance, high on the slopes of the island's own Mount Olympus. The village priest begins every Mass at the Church of St. Michael—not named for the candidate—with a prayer for Dukakis. "We love him very much," says the priest's wife. "If we knew the address, we would write him a letter."
In Pelopi, Dukakis is a man few people have ever met, and none really knows. This cannot be blamed on the remoteness of the village, because in America things aren't much different. To look upon Dukakis is to learn little, for his face is remarkably inexpressive. His visible range of emotions is unimpressive, a wan smile representing delight and a slightly raised voice indicating anger.
If his emotional latitude is not apparent, Dukakis, 54, is nonetheless quite human, a man with enormous affection for his family, his garden and any cost-saving measures that come to mind. Kitty, 51, his wife of 25 years, is his temperamental opposite—"not what I'd call laid-back," deadpans Robert Farmer, the Dukakis campaign treasurer. At times Kitty can be so impatient and demanding that when she became addicted to amphetamines prescribed for dieting, her husband claims he never noticed until she went for treatment in 1982. "Kitty had always been very high-strung, very volatile, and when you don't know that there may be some reason for it, you kind of assume that's her personality," he explains. "I just kind of figured, 'Well, that's Kitty.' "
Though Kitty and Mike are a study in contrasts—she buying designer clothes, he turning off the window air-conditioning unit at night—their children seem unscathed by life with a sedate, parsimonious Greek Orthodox father and a lively, extravagant Jewish mother. Not one of them is likely to write a book about the dark side of childhood. John, 30, a former actor who until recently worked as an aide to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is the son of Kitty and her first husband, John Chaffetz, now a Colorado businessman. Dukakis treated the boy so warmly that Kitty's mother started calling her son-in-law "the saint," causing him a pang or two of embarrassment.
Michael and Kitty have two children of their own, Andrea, 22, an intern at Woman's Day magazine in New York, and Kara, 19, who has taken a leave of absence from Brown University to work in the campaign. A third daughter, born in 1964, was anencephalic and lived just 20 minutes. Michael, says Kitty, "was shaken and disturbed and upset" by the birth and death of their deformed child.
Kitty has called her husband "the least complicated man in America," but there are others less devoted to him who say his orderliness and bluntness(he was once nicknamed "Zorba the Clerk") should not be confused with simplicity. Beryl Cohen, a former friend who had an irrevocable falling out over a Dukakis political promise apparently not kept, says the man is unfathomable—that even those who grew up with him don't know him. "Michael disappeared after 5 o'clock at Brookline High School," says Cohen. "He wasn't around when the sun went down. His parents didn't want him to be diverted socially."
If it is ambition that molded Michael Dukakis, then the process started in the last century, when his grandfather Stylianos Dukakis set out across the Aegean Sea from Pelopi to seek his fortune on the nearby Turkish mainland. He and his wife, Olympia, opened a shop in the Greek community, and it is there that they raised their five children. They retained close ties to Pelopi, registering all the births in the village logs, but none of the children returned there to live. Panayotis, third born and the father of Michael, left for America in 1912 at the age of 15, arriving with $25 and a few words of broken English; in 1924 he became the first Greek immigrant to graduate from Harvard Medical School.
Panayotis, called Panos, married Euterpe Boukis, who had emigrated from Greece in 1913, and they settled in Brookline, Mass., where Michael has lived all his life. A town of 60,000 wedged into the west end of Boston, Brookline is famous as the birthplace of John and Robert Kennedy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the credo Dukakis learned from his parents—"Much has been given to you; much is expected of you"—has a distinct Kennedy ring. Dukakis says his Greek heritage never caused him to feel isolated, because "in Massachusetts, when I was growing up, almost everybody was ethnic. If you weren't first generation, you were second generation."
When Panos died in 1979, he left behind two trust funds, now worth $1 million each; his son should someday receive at least $1 million from these trusts. Dukakis himself has accumulated about $90,000 in personal savings and retirement funds, which together with his Brookline home bring his net worth barely up to $500,000. Considering how hard he has worked to spend as little as possible, it seems surprising that he has saved so small an amount. There was once a minor crisis in the Dukakis marriage when Kitty insisted on remodeling their kitchen and Michael opposed it, even if he was as serious about cooking as she. After years of bickering, he agreed that the work could proceed, providing the existing cabinets were simply refinished, not replaced.
Even if one of Michael's presents to Kitty during their courtship was a waffle iron, he learned more than practicality from his father. Panos also taught his son respect, honor, integrity, "going to school, working hard, getting an education," says Dukakis. Adds Euterpe, now 84, "We lived by tradition and intelligence."
The rise of the Dukakis family was a single-generation success story, and if it sounds too stiffly perfect, like the making of a Stepford family, it may be because Panos applied old world values to new world experiences. He was a strict and publicly undemonstrative man who wore a three-piece suit to evening meals and sat at the head of the table. Dukakis' roommate at Swarthmore College, Frank Sieverts, recalls Panos as "quite a formal man with a gruff voice—he was the man of the house and he liked to be served."
Michael's first cousin, Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, remembers visiting his home on holidays. She recalls the cousins racing down to the basement to play Ping-Pong. "We'd get kind of nutty down there," she laughs. Nutty? The young Michael Dukakis has seldom been described as nutty. In grammar school he used to engage in political debates on the playground.
At home, Michael and his older brother, Stelian, cleared the table after meals and washed dishes. To this day, Dukakis offers to wash dishes after dining in the homes of family and friends. The boys received no allowance for doing their chores, so Michael took on a paper route to earn money. He made his bed every morning ("His room was neat as a pin, always," says Euterpe), picked up around the house and was allowed to bring friends home for hot chocolate. In high school he played trumpet in the band, ran cross-country, captained the tennis team, played varsity basketball at 5'8", dated a nice girl who taught him the foxtrot and, almost inevitably with that record, was elected president of the student council in his senior year.
His high school sweetheart was Sandy Cohen. He called her "Peaches," yet she remained a lifelong friend. (In 1961, long after they had stopped dating, she fulfilled his request to find "someone nice" and introduced him to Kitty.) Michael and Sandy couldn't go to the senior prom because she had already promised to go with another boy, but their romance survived that setback, and they briefly continued seeing each other after graduation. Both went off to jobs at summer camps, his apparently the higher paying of the two, since one day he gleefully wrote to her, "I guess we know whose [sic] boss." Obviously humility was not one of the old world values that Panos taught his son.
Dukakis' life to that point seemed close to ideal, the sort of existence that appeals to such Utopian philosophers as Ronald Reagan. The first hints that all would not always be so seamless came in the spring of his senior year in high school. Warmhearted Stelian, Michael's older brother by three years, returned home from college depressed. His condition baffled doctors—Dukakis believes it was an ailment that today could be controlled with medication—and later he was institutionalized briefly. For the rest of his life, Stelian's behavior was erratic. Michael's relationship with his brother, once close, was never the same. And during one of Dukakis' campaigns for the Massachusetts legislature, Stelian distributed leaflets opposing him.
Dukakis seems vague on some details of his brother's illness, although his memory ordinarily is rather exceptional. "We were as close as two brothers could be," he says, stony-faced. "I used to follow him around. We couldn't be closer." One explanation for the Dukakis stoicism is offered by Sieverts. "With Greek families, questions like that are dealt with privately," he says. "The sense of sin and failure at that time was much stronger than it is today. I'm sure the family felt that Stelian was letting them down."
In March 1973, Stelian, then 42, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle and died without regaining consciousness. "His loss was a terrible thing," Dukakis says. "For four months we'd go into that hospital every single day, waiting for some sign that he was recovering. We sat there and watched him die."
Michael's college career provided a revealing hint of his crisis-management style. When a barber in the town of Swarthmore, Pa., refused to cut the hair of Nigerian students, Dukakis opened a haircutting service in his dorm room. He charged 75 cents and accepted all customers, black or white—a case of righting a wrong and making a profit while doing it. A dilemma arose when he needed a trim. The story has it that he went to the offending barber and demanded an explanation before allowing his hair to be cut. The barber told him he didn't know how to cut blacks' hair. Dukakis showed him how, and the man agreed to allow blacks in his shop from then on.
In the summer of 1953, after his sophomore year at Swarthmore, Dukakis and a classmate, Richard Burtis, now a doctor, hitchhiked across the country and into Mexico, a vacation that Dukakis recalls fondly because it showed him so much and cost him so little. ("I don't think I ever paid a penny to get to Swarthmore or back," he said of his extensive hitching career.) He and Burtis slept in used-car lots, bus terminals and all-night movie theaters. "Once in a while," says Burtis, "when we were really scrungy, we'd stay in hotels in the seedy part of town. We could get a room for three bucks." Dukakis vividly recalls the street children in Mexico, some of them amputees, all of them begging for money or a chance to shine shoes. "Michael was really saddened," says Burtis. "It was a combination of sadness and anger. This guy really has a feeling for the human race."
At Swarthmore, living away from home for the first time, Dukakis may not have sown his wild oats, but he at least seemed to recognize that he had some. His high school sweetheart says their relationship was totally innocent. "No one at Brookline High back then ever had an intimate sexual experience," she jokes. Apparently, college life also lacked euphoria, because Dukakis hitchhiked to Fort Lauderdale for the rites of spring break. Burtis went with him, and he says their single purpose was to find "some action. We were horny. We drank beer, slept on the beach by day and wandered the city at night."
Although the Boston Herald has described the youthful Dukakis as "the gorgeous Greek with the soulful eyes and magnetic smile," the perception may not have been universally shared. Dukakis was determined to go out with only the best-looking girls, says Burtis, and he suffered the fate one would expect to befall an overly serious college student not inclined to buy many drinks. "He had the openers," says Burtis, "but after five minutes he'd be talking public policy. That would be death. We witnessed one of America's great social phenomena, but we didn't, ah, fully participate."
Dukakis did graduate with highest honors from Swarthmore, which might have made up for some of his social disappointments. After that, his absorption in the Massachusetts political system was almost total. In 1958, while a student at Harvard Law School, he ran for a seat on the Brookline Redevelopment Authority and lost by 127 votes. In 1963, the year he married Kitty, he took a seat in the state legislature. In 1970 he ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor.
His decision to go after that nomination, says Beryl Cohen, came after Dukakis and he had made a verbal agreement: That year Cohen would run for Lieutenant Governor and Dukakis would run for attorney general. Cohen recalls that one evening Dukakis came over to his house and told him that he had changed his mind and had decided to run for Lieutenant Governor. "He was very matter-of-fact and cool. He was firm. He was here for about 15 minutes, and he was direct," says Cohen. "I wouldn't have done it. I would have found another way to accommodate my ambition."
Dukakis was elected Governor in 1974, but in 1978, in a shocking upset, he lost the Democratic primary to Edward King, a former pro football lineman who favored nuclear power, offshore drilling and highway projects. Kitty has described this defeat as "a public death" and the months afterward as a "period of mourning." After he won back the statehouse in 1982, his style of governing so changed that his two administrations are commonly referred to as Duke I (1975-78) and Duke II (1983-?). In the first term he was the soul of a neoliberal machine. After losing to King, Dukakis was a fundamentally different Governor. "Defeat wonderfully concentrates the mind," he explained. The man whose first words as a baby were monos mou (by myself) was no longer quite so sure of himself. He not only listened to the will of the people, he even started listening to the will of Massachusetts state legislators, an exercise in humility for any man and an astonishing display for Dukakis.
His decision to run for President must have been a difficult one. Kitty had taken the loss to King in 1978 at least as hard as her husband, but she urged him to run. "I was surprised," says her father, Harry Ellis Dickson, longtime associate conductor of the Boston Pops. "I saw how terribly that one defeat affected her."
While the November election may be a close one, it is considered a formality in at least one remote part of the world. In Pelopi, Dukakis is in. "In our minds, he has already been elected," says the village president, Constantinos Stefanou. The villagers have already decided that they want little for themselves from the Dukakis Presidency, though they are certain that the Greek government will want to repair the bumpy, unpaved road leading up their hillside. This should help lure tourists to the town's seven cafés and perhaps transform jars of Pelopi olives from modest foodstuffs into valued souvenirs. More than that, it will bring to their lives an unaccustomed sense of historical significance.
To the people of Pelopi, Michael Dukakis is not just a man who stopped in for four hours in 1976 and impressed them more with his courtesy than his skill with their language. He has become their own Greek myth, a symbol of what ambition and tradition can achieve. In their longing to find something meaningful in the rise of Michael Dukakis from the son of an immigrant to an American hero, they may have come upon something more important than a tourist attraction. They may have found a man worthy of their faith.
—By Alan Richman, with Cable Neuhaus in Boston
November 23, 2015
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