For an hour Monday afternoon, Michael Dukakis listened.
The former governor arrived at the Transportation Building a little after 12:30 p.m., and there were still a few items on the MassDOT board agenda before it was his turn to speak.
OK, more than a few.
Dukakis, who had come to give a presentation about a long-debated rail link between North and South stations, listened to a report about a bridge that won an award. He listened to a pro forma board vote on contract amendments. He listened to a long presentation about the Transportation Asset Management Plan, whatever that is.
“One of the things we’ve been working on is aligning asset management activities with our tracker report,” said state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, as nearly everyone in the room stared at their phones.
By this point, Dukakis had been joined by another former governor, Bill Weld. But Tom Brady and Donald Trump could have walked in arm in arm and the report about culverts would not have paused.
So Dukakis, a public servant’s heart still beating in his 85-year-old chest, sat there and listened.
These days, the Duke comes up a lot around Thanksgiving because of his odd, endearing habit of collecting the leftover turkey carcasses of friends and family to make soup. He’s a professor at Northeastern and in Los Angeles, but he’s also routinely spotted picking up trash on the street.
That he’s not a national treasure is the fault only of the rest of the nation. But he’s a regional treasure, and that will have to do.
It is at once impossible to forget and hard to fathom: Michael Dukakis was almost the president of the United States of America.
Sure, his loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988 was famously lopsided. But he also got more than 40 million votes, or more than 45 percent of the popular vote. In 1988, he was a lot closer to becoming president than anyone not named George Bush.
So, almost president.
And here he was, sitting through a solid hour of the kind of MassDOT minutiae that sends even the most devoted transit enthusiasts to the absent-minded scrolling of their Facebook page. At one point there were pictures of not one but two RMV ribbon cuttings on the PowerPoint.
Try to imagine another major party presidential candidate enduring this so that they could talk about trains.
John McCain went back to the Senate. Mitt Romney was elected to the Senate. John Kerry became secretary of state. Hillary Clinton — well, I don’t know exactly, but she wasn’t at the MassDOT meeting.
Go back further. Bob Dole somehow became a legitimate celebrity and did commercials for Viagra and Pepsi. Al Gore won the Nobel Prize.
Now, maybe all these folks are turning up at their local town hall and waiting patiently to talk about projects that are unlikely to even begin within their lifetimes. But I doubt it. That Dukakis would and fairly regularly does is to his everlasting credit. It’s the Dukakis Difference.
Dukakis spoke for only a few minutes, passionately, about the latest study of a project to link North and South stations through two large train tunnels. Like other transportation advocates and experts, he thinks the most recent report wildly overestimates the costs and decreases the chances of the project getting started.
“It’s inconceivable to me that we are going to deal with this congestion problem of ours without getting cracking in a hurry on a first-rate regional rail system,” Dukakis said.
Why is this — not the North-South Rail Link specifically, but transportation and public transit in general — the cause to which he’s chosen to dedicate so much of his post-political life?
“I grew up in Brookline and I was riding those orange wooden trolley cars when I was 5,” Dukakis said in an interview after the board meeting, a small fly alighting briefly on his face. “And I could never figure out why the guy in front, spinning these — you guys are too young to remember this — there was no steering equipment. There was no accelerator. He stood there with two levers. Spin this one, spin this one. And I’d sit there as a kid. What’s he doing? He starts it, he stops it. Anyway.”
He talked about the battle over the Master Highway Plan and a trip out to Los Angeles that was “like living in a toxic stew,” former governor Frank Sargent, Tip O’Neill . . . there was more.
“So. I don’t know,” Dukakis finally said. “I think maybe it was because my father wouldn’t buy me Lionel trains.”
Whatever the reason he keeps showing up to speak, and whatever you think of his politics, we’re lucky he does.