Making a Difference
Michael Dukakis '55
I was certainly interested in politics and public affairs when I arrived at Swarthmore in the fall of 1951, but I don't think I had ever seriously considered running for public office. Swarthmore and Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin did that for me.
Swarthmore and Joe McCarthy? That's not a pair we often associate with each other. In fact, Swarthmore was such a hotbed of anti-McCarthy sentiment during the 1950s that a ticket agent at the suburban train station in downtown Philadelphia used to refer regularly to Media as "the stop after Moscow." But those were the days when McCarthy was running around the country accusing countless Americans of being "pinkos," "crypto-Communists," or, at the very least, "Communist dupes." And I, a young kid from Boston who had been out of New England only once, found myself in a community of scholars, students, and activists that took McCarthy on and, with the help of a lot of other people, beat him.
That wasn't the only thing that was happening in and around the Swarthmore campus in 1951. The barber shops in the borough of Swarthmore wouldn't cut the hair of a handful of black students who began attending the College in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Long before the civil rights revolution, Swarthmore students decided to boycott the barber shops. I became the campus barber and learned an important lesson: One could combine a commitment to social justice with economic opportunity and win on both counts.
Moreover, Swarthmore opened up opportunities for people like Carl Levin and me not only to attempt to provide leadership in such political organizations and causes as the Students for Democratic Action and the American Civil Liberties Union, but also to get actively involved in local campaigns. I was working in the river wards of Philadelphia for Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth in the fall of 1951, as they sought successfully to oust a Republican city machine that had controlled Philadelphia for decades. We got actively involved in county campaigns as well; although Democrats weren't going anywhere in Delaware County in those days-in fact, another Republican machine controlled the county-it was great experience and whetted our appetite for more.
Throw in a summer in Peru, courtesy of the Peaslee Fellowships that were endowed by a Swarthmore alumnus, and a fall semester during my senior year at American University in Washington, and the somewhat naive lad from Boston was, by the time he graduated in June of 1955, a very different person from the one who had arrived on campus four years earlier.
Of course, campus life itself, both inside and outside the classroom, had a huge impact on me. I had only a vague idea of what a Quaker was when I first arrived, and I knew virtually nothing about the kind of work for peace in which Quakers and the colleges they had founded were so deeply engaged.
I started out as a tentative premed; got what can only be described as a charitable D in physics; and decided that political science, history, and economics were the things I really wanted to study. And I had the good fortune to do honors and to stretch my brain and think about the great issues of the day with teachers who loved to teach and knew their students well.
I've been involved in public life one way or another ever since, and I haven't regretted a day of it-except, perhaps, for Election Day in 1988. These days, I do a lot of teaching, seeking to inspire young people to become deeply and actively involved in the politics and public life of their communities, states, and country.
In a sense, I guess, I am trying to do for them what Swarthmore did for me-help them to understand that making a difference in the lives of one's fellow citizens is the most satisfying and the most fulfilling thing one can do during his life on this planet.
Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts and Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1988, now teaches at Northeastern University and UCLA's School of Public Policy.