Wednesday marked Constitution Day, during which all publicly funded schools must hold activities dealing with the history of the United States Constitution. Roughly a year ago, Swarthmore College Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge 61 was in the midst of communicating with former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis 55 when he realized that next years constitution day would be a great way to get Dukakis to speak again on campus. Dukakis is an alumnus who exerted his radical views to push change in the college. As a Swarthmore student, he opened an impromptu barber shop for Nigerians when no one else would cut their hair and petitioned against fraternities on campus. But this was all decades before the Constitution Day spot was booked and the seats began to fill in LPAC cinema in preparation for the Dukakiss speech entitled Presidential Election 2008: Whats at stake?
Its too often the case that quite terrific things happen here and they get small audiences because things compete with each other, said Eldridge. When we can pull things off that pull a big audience and creates a shared experience for the community, Im happy.
Eldridge introduced Dukakis to a crowd that certainly gave him reason to be happy. The speech encouraged students to involve themselves in the public service field whether that be an elected office or simply by campaigning for those one believes in. He also commented on the ability of Barack Obama to win the presidential race and the vicious rifts that exist today between the Democratic and Republican parties. Prior to the talk, Assistant Opinions Editor Jeff Davidson interviewed the former governor. The following is excerpted from what the governor had to say about the politics of his time, the politics of the current era and the entire Swarthmore experience.
Jeff Davidson: Talking in terms of the general Democratic Partys ideas and ideals, in what ways do you believe the party differs now from what it used to be? Are they headed in a positive direction?
Michael Dukakis: Just to go back, in the 50s when I was around here, theres no question that the new deal, fair deal, Roosevelt, Truman had begun to define the Democratic party. But you got to understand that in the congress for example, you had liberal Democrats, and conservative Democrats. You had these southern racist white Democrats, so called, who controlled the congress because of seniority. But they were anti civil rights, they were very conservative in economic terms, many of them opposed a lot of the stuff Harry Truman wanted to do.
At the same time you had liberal Republicans along with conservative Republicans. One of the things thats happened is that the parties are much more ideologically cohesive today then they were back then. Now some people say thats terrible because it leads to a lot of partisanship, but at least you know what the Democrats and the Republicans for the most part stand for, which in those days was all kind of a blur.
What I said to these folks is Whats the difference between Democrats and Republicans? and I think Republicans would agree with this definition. Generally speaking, Democrats are more willing to use government to achieve important social and economic goals than Republicans are. And I think its probably a pretty good definition.
But like all definitions, I think these days when it comes to national security Republicans tend to be much more of interventionists.
I mean, I think the invasion of Iraq will go down as one of the dumbest decisions in American foreign policy. There is nothing conservative about invading Iraq. It was a radical step, and a dumb step in my opinion and I think the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Americans today. Idont think theres any question when it comes to international: if you look at McCain and you look at Obama today, Obama says look youve got to talk to these people and McCain says you dont talk to them. Bush says you dont talk to them, axis of evil and that kind of stuff. In the international front, Democrats are much more willing to reach out and talk to people, even people they dont like.
This is a very clear difference between the parties. In this campaign, as in every campaign including my own, republicans are doing their best to try to get people to forget what the issues are by waging the culture wars again. I dont think theyre going to succeed, I think Obamas very clearly undesrstands this. The economy now has become such a dominant issue, that its going to be very difficult to persuade the majority of the American people that some of these so-called cultural issues are more important then fundamental strength of the American economy and whats happened internationally. But theyre trying, theyre trying. Palin said Were serious about national security, they want to read them their rights? Whats that mean? She doesnt believe in the constitution or what? I think thats typical of this type of thing and they did it to me and I did a terrible job of dealing with it. And they did it to Kerry, this genuine war hero who suddenly ends up being soft on national security running against a guy who was reading magazines in Alabama with a running mate who is the most notorious draft pusher in the United States and they managed to pull it off. So thats the way they run their campaigns and we have to be forewarned.
The Obama campaign isnt under any illusions they know they have to hit back and they have to hit back hard. McCain, particularlry in the last ten days, has really been making some serious mistakes and been telling America false things.
JD: Is Barack Obamas current campaign effective enough to make him the new president? And what does he need to step up on?
MD:I would say two things, and remember to consider the source if I was so smart I would have got myself elected. I think he has to continue pounding away with the economy and continue connecting with people in their every day lives. And give them a very clear sense of what he will do to straighten out this mess just like Clinton did in 1992. You could take a page right of the Clinton playbook in 1992. And I think hes got to be very tough when they keep coming at him. Now hes doing that he and his campaign are doing that. But I think the economic issues are now so dominant that hes got an opportunity to bring this right down to the level of average Americans who, as Clinton used to say, are getting the shaft and have been for the past eight years. Its tax cuts for the rich and crumbs for the rest of us, thats what the Republican philosophy is all about. And hes saying that; hes got to keep saying it.
JD: During your time at Swarthmore you were very actively against the fraternities. Although today the number has gone down from five houses to two, they still do exist. The college justifies this by making them non-residential and less discriminatory. If you were a Swarthmore student today, would you still sign that petition and work to put an end to the fraternities?
MD: Oh yeah, I kind of led the fight to get them out. By the way, the guy who led the pro-fraternity campaign and won (we lost it), was a big supporter of mine in California. Hes a very successful high-tech entrepreneur. He always said Im with Dukakis, but Im one guy who beat him in an election campaign. And it was the campaign to get rid of fraternities. The case for getting rid of them was it wasnt because the Swarthmore fraternities supported these discriminatory clauses, they wanted to get rid of them as well my argument was that, well, if you cant get rid of them, then you need to get out o national fraternities. In a campus this size I see no need to have them. There were sororities here too, but they got rid of them. Maybe in a very large university theres a case to be made for this kind of thing, but I dont see it in a place like this.
JD: In terms of public transportation, you got the mass transit system back on track in Boston and even rode the subway to work every day, which means the system must have been working pretty well. A step towards cutting back global warming is keeping up and building upon our public transportation. What does the country need to do to get back on track with creating an infrastructure that is safe, reliable, and inexpensive that can match Europes?
MD: Im a big, big supporter of rail passenger system I was on the Amtrak board. By the way, John McCain was chairman of the Commerce and Transportation committee. McCain is just a guy who just doesnt get it, he has no conception of why its important to this country. I dont see how you can look at the world ahead, at the energy situation, at global warming, and not conclude that this country has got to invest in a first class national rail passenger system, and excellent metropolitan transit systems in every major metropolitan area in the country. When it comes to this, theres just a huge difference between the candidates in this presidential campaign. One of the things, apart from the fundament mistake of invading Iraq, is that that thing will cost us well over a trillion dollars. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and were spending billions on this foolish thing. It isnt that we dont have the resources for this, but our public infrastructure is falling apart while were all over there fighting this dumb war.
JD: Should Obama be returning the attacking ads that he is getting right now?
MD: Oh theyre doing it. I dont know what you see, but theres not a single McCain ad these days thats being shown that isnt immediately replied to.