05/26/2010 03:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Kagan Nomination Provides Solace To Dukakis And His Legacy

Gov. Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign was known for a lot of things -- an effective research department to push back against attacks was not one of them.

Through the course of that general election, the Massachusetts Democrat was defined as weak on national security, soft on crime and too lofty an intellect to understand everyday Americana. His candidacy was one that other Democrats pledged not to emulate.

And yet, time has a funny way of providing vindication. Dukakis fell short in his White House bid. But the people who staffed his campaign -- including those who did political interference on his behalf -- have had uncommonly illustrious careers and long-lasting legacies. This year may bring the weightiest achievement of all.

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is best known for her stint as dean of Harvard Law School, her time as Solicitor General under the Obama administration and her clerkship with revered Justice Thurgood Marshall. In the summer of 1988, however, she made her first entree into the world of partisan politics when she took a position with Team Dukakis.

"I can't say I remember Elena from the campaign, although I know she was involved," Dukakis recalled in an email to the Huffington Post. "I certainly have had a chance to watch in action as a member of the faculty and dean at [Harvard Law School], and she is first-rate... Of course, I would have loved to be president, but the next best thing is to watch the young people that you have taught or who have worked for you do great things, and I have been blessed with a lot of them."

Exactly what post Kagan held has always been a bit ambiguous, with little to nothing written about her time with the candidate. But in the questionnaire she released for her court nomination, she described it a bit more fully:

"I worked as a researcher for the Dukakis for President campaign," she said. "I was a junior staffer and do not believe I had an official title. I mostly worked on "defense research" - i.e., preparing responses to attacks on Governor Dukakis's record."

Considering the bludgeoning that Dukakis took in '88, it's not far-fetched to reason that those tasked with his defense carry permanent scars if not scarlet letters. But if anything, the opposite has proven true. Consider, simply, the research team on which Kagan worked. Joining her in a solitary room in the Dukakis campaign headquarters on Chauncey Street in Boston was John Podesta (the head of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton; Todd Stern (the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change) and Tamera Luzzatto (Hillary Clinton's former chief of staff).

"The four of them shared a room," recalled Leslie Dach, the communications director for Dukakis and no post-campaign slouch himself (a public relations juggernaut, he currently serves as a special counselor to the CEO of Walmart). "It was an amazing piece of real estate. At that time they did a lot of issues and policy research for the campaign and, interestingly enough, all of their stuff then went through George Stephanopoulos who was, in a sense, the chief policy writer."

Stephanopoulos, of course, has achieved plenty. In 1988 he was a wet-behind-the-ears idealist who saw in Dukakis the type of Greek-American liberal pol with whom he'd long identified. The demoralization of that campaign stayed with him. But his association with the Massachusetts governor did little to sidetrack his career. A stint on the Clinton campaign was followed by a job in the Clinton White House; after which came ABC News, "This Week" and now "Good Morning America".

"I guess losing a winnable campaign can be powerful motivation," Stephanopoulos said, reflecting on his path as well as those of Kagan and other Dukakis vets.

Exactly what that motivation looks like depends on the person. Another Dukakis veteran, Joe Lockhart (who served, among other posts, as press secretary to Bill Clinton) remarked that the political lessons learned from the campaign helped reshape Democratic politics

"There was a mid-level of that campaign made up of people like George and Gene Sperling (economic adviser to Clinton and Obama) who came out of that campaign and said, 'in the modern world, you just can't win political campaigns without being aggressive.' Being right is just one piece of the puzzle. When you are running against [infamous GOP operative] Lee Atwater, you have to expect that it will be terribly negative, you have to respond to it and throw a few punches of your own."

That ethos certainly guided subsequent election efforts under Clinton and Obama. But what the Dukakis experience meant for Kagan is not entirely clear. While she was involved in defending the candidate from attacks, those who worked with her say her expertise was in policy minutia.

"She was extremely talented," recalled Dach. "One of the things you see in a campaign is that people have a tremendous ability to understand policy and the public implications of it. And they do it instinctually and in real time.... She just impressed people with the work ethic and how smart she was and her ability to deal both in the policy and the public worlds."

Those months in Boston in the summer of 1988, it appears, drove Kagan away from electoral politics but not government altogether. She followed the campaign stint with a job at the powerful D.C. firm Williams & Connolly, after which she went, predominantly, into the world of academia. But when she took a job on Clinton's Domestic Policy Council, she joined a cadre of other famous Dukakis alums, including Larry Summers (Treasury Secretary), James Steinberg (Deputy National Security Adviser), Susan Rice (foreign policy aide), Tom Donilon (National Security Council) and Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State).

In the end, there may be little to actually draw from Kagan's time with Dukakis -- certainly not much that can help divine what kind of Justice she would be on the bench. Her nomination, indeed, says more about the Dukakis legacy (repaired, perhaps, by the staffers who helped build it) than about the future of the Supreme Court itself.