THE FORUM: THE COURT of public opinion.
The case: Ralph Nader v. Michael Dukakis.
The charge: Reckless verbal conduct. Deportment unbecoming a former Massachusetts governor. Possible incitement to violence.
It all started on election night when David Broder, the Washington Post columnist, called Dukakis to discuss the emerging results. At that point the exit polls made it seem as though Nader's vote might help give Republican George W. Bush a win in some of the so-called Dukakis 10 - the states the former governor carried in his ill-fated 1988 campaign.
Dukakis told Broder that if Nader ''keeps Gore from winning them, I'll strangle the guy with my bare hands.'' (Where, you might ask, was that ire back in 1988, when CNN's Bernie Shaw posed his famous question about Kitty?)
The idea of being strangled by Dukakis didn't sit so very well with the Green Party champion, who penned a starchy note to his onetime comrade-in-causes, demanding an apology.
''It is reckless, it is out of control, it is uncalled for, and it demeans the dignity of the former governor,'' says Nader.
An unrepentant Dukakis fired back an equally shirty letter. ''I said, not only was I not going to apologize; if he followed through with his plan to run Green Party candidates in 2002 and thereby virtually guarantee another Republican Congress, anger would be too mild a word to describe my emotions.''
Self-indulgent digression: As a onetime target of Dukakis's wrath, I know just how unbridled it can be. In 1987, after I wrote an article for the Boston Phoenix saying his campaign was brain dead, Dukakis approached me at an Iowa airport.
''I'm brain dead?'' he said, his voice rising an ominous eighth of an octave. ''You're brain dead.'' Takes one to know one, I wanted to retort, but who could collect his (half)wits after such a brutal broadside?
The defendant: ''I think he is taking himself too seriously,'' Dukakis said. ''I was trying to be funny. You have to have a sense of humor in this business.''
The plaintiff: ''I have done Saturday Night Live four times,'' Nader says. ''Who says I don't have a sense of humor? But if he thinks that is a sense of humor ...''
Instructions to the jury: As an evidentiary matter, in the post-Dana Carvey-era, hosting SNL needn't be taken as dispositive proof of a funny bone. Meanwhile, those who covered Dukakis for years can attest that he, too, can lay some claim to a sense of humor. The issue was in doubt for several decades, but proof came on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1989.
Mick Jagger had stopped by to chat with Dukakis. When they met the press later, Dukakis said: ''He asked me if I like his stuff. I said, `It's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it.'''
The press corps broke into loud guffaws. The strange sound seemed to baffle the Duke, but he recovered quickly - and promptly repeated the line. Twice. There was some question about whether Dukakis knew why it was funny - the suspicion was that the quip was staff-written - but there can be no doubt he soon recognized that it did indeed have comedic properties.
Dukakis's closing statement: ''Needless to say, I do not intend to do physical harm to Brother Nader.''
Nader's summation: ''That is not the issue. The issue is he said it, and it coarsened the dialogue and demeaned him. I am trying to teach him some manners.'' (And not just to Dukakis, but to a more stubborn student still: Hillary Clinton. Nader says his office has called her 16 times asking for an apology because she chimed in ''that's not a bad idea'' when, on election night, a Clinton friend suggested killing Nader.)
One judge's split verdict: Get a grip, guys, and not on each other's throats. Governor, the real reason Gore lost is that he ran the worst race since ... ahem, let's rephrase that: The real reason is that he was the political personification of pathetic. And without the normal nonvoters Nader brought out, the Democrats would never have battled back to a 50-50 Senate split.
But Ralph, even mild-mannered men like Dukakis occasionally use colorful language. It's hardly the modern equivalent of Henry II asking ''Who will free me from this turbulent priest?'' and thereby inciting the murder of Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. It's figurative speech, and we recognize it as that. Funny or not, there's no public penance required.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company