He's Been Working on the Railroad

BOSTON -- Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for the presidency, had no luck convincing voters that he could run the country. Now he's trying to persuade people that he can run a railroad. He's acting chairman of Amtrak, the stepchild of American mass transportation, the Washington Post reports.

Dukakis was here at South Station on the cold sunny Saturday before Christmas to greet the millionth passenger on Acela Express, Amtrak's answer to European and Japanese high-speed trains.Dukakis gave a New York family balloons, an Amtrak jacket and an upgrade to first class. He gave the little group of travelers and press an earnest talk about the absurd level of government help for Amtrak -- $33l million, as opposed to $5 billion in new aid for airlines and $33 billion for highway construction.

Dukakis loves working on the railroad; he inherited the top job from Tommy Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin, who is now secretary of health and human services. "You'd think they had made him secretary of state," says Dukakis's old friend Nick Mitropoulos.

Democratic politics in Dukakis's home state of Massachusetts is in a particularly agitatedstate right now. There are six possible Democratic candidates for governor, none compelling or capable of uniting feuding factions against Republican incumbent Jane Swift. Dukakis's admirers have suggested that it might be time for him to step forward and reclaim his old job as governor.

"I'd end up in the Norfolk County divorce court," he says crisply. Kitty, his formidable wife, has vetoed any return to politics. After his chores at South Station, Dukakis went off to lunch with old friends. I was able to look him in the eye because although I had come to Boston on USAir, I was booked on the Acela for my return.

At the table were a couple of former Teddy Kennedy staffers, Nicholas Littlefield and David Burke, pushing the gubernatorial candidacy of Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton. Reich is by far the most intellectual and sophisticated in the field, but he wrote a semi-humorous memoir entitled "Locked in the Cabinet," in which he recounted several incidents that did not happen. His backers don't think the book would be an issue, but they remember the savagely negative campaign the Republicans unleashed against Dukakis, a good governor and a decent man.

Dukakis put an end to the melancholy reminiscences of his own presidential candidacy. "I lost because I ran a lousy campaign," he said matter-of-factly. He gratefully returned to his new cheerleading role. "What would help Amtrak most would be a president who is for trains." George Bush has expressed zero interest. Ronald Reagan zeroed out on funding for Amtrak.

"We have 38 governors, a majority in the Senate and 200 House members," said Dukakis. "John McCain is a problem. He sees trains [as practical] for the Northeast corridor and California, but not practical for the rest of the country. But he's reasonable." Dukakis comes to Washington frequently -- by train, of course.

Days before Christmas, another airborne horror unfolded. An American Airlines plane took off from Paris, bound for Miami, when suddenly a passenger in tourist class bent over and tried to ignite his shoes, which had been wired for the destruction of the plane. With the help of passengers, two alert flight attendants stopped him and the plane was diverted to -- where else? -- Boston's Logan Airport.

At Logan on Wednesday, the day I took the Acela, some passengers were asked to take their shoes off. But at the Route 128 station, just outside Boston, neither we nor our baggage were inspected. A photo ID was all that was asked. To be fair, I took the USAir shuttle on Dec. 21 and had a hassle-free departure. We left at the scheduled time and arrived three minutes ahead of schedule. Flying time was approximately 90 minutes.

It took us six hours by train from Boston to Washington, but the time flew by. In the cafe car, my fellow passengers and I discussed the explosive shoes, the Twin Towers, the Far Rockaway crash of Nov. 12. No one wanted to consider the possibility that terrorists might notice train travel and take lethal steps. "Don't think about it," said a woman, shivering slightly. We talked instead about David McCullough's biography of John Adams, which a man across the aisle from her was avidly reading.

The other advantages of riding the rails were obvious. You can get up and stroll around, if you don't mind swinging and swaying; you can use the restroom whenever you want. You can look out and see an ever-changing scene. We glided past swamps and slums, trailer parks and suburbs, past the lovely seascapes in Connecticut.

"So peaceful," said a man who works at the Library of Congress, giving Michael Dukakis another selling point.