PORTLAND – Former Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis kicked off his appearance Tuesday night at the University of New England with an apology.

“If I had beaten Bush One, you probably would never have heard of Bush Two,” he said, referring to his 1988 election loss to Republican George H.W. Bush and his running mate, Dan Quayle.

Dukakis, who said he traveled to Maine on his favorite mode of transportation, the train, came to speak about providing decent, affordable health care to working American families.

Dukakis has become a passionate advocate for providing health care to all Americans, and something of a historian on the subject. The issue was first raised in the early 1900s by President Theodore Roosevelt, Dukakis said.

“We have been debating this issue for nearly a century,” he told the audience of nearly 150 people at UNE’s Portland campus.

Dukakis was invited to deliver the college’s fourth annual Paul D. Merrill business ethics lecture at the Eleanor deWolfe Ludcke Auditorium on Stevens Avenue. Though his topic was “Health Security for Working Americans: A Moral Imperative,” Dukakis could not avoid talking about his 1988 presidential defeat.

Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts at the time, lost the race in a landslide, carrying only 10 states and the District of Columbia.

“The next time I run for president, I intend to ask Angus King to serve as my adviser,” quipped Dukakis, whose vice-presidential candidate was Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.

Former Maine Gov. King, an independent who served two terms from 1995 to 2003, currently teaches a leadership course at Bowdoin and Bates colleges.

King introduced Dukakis, calling him a “great governor” who always put family before politics. He compared Dukakis to former Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1968 and a presidential candidate in 1972.

“The major similarity between them is that they both should have been president,” King said.

King said that if Dukakis had defeated Bush, he would have become only the second U.S. president born to immigrant parents — the other was Andrew Jackson.

Dukakis was born in Brookline, Mass., in 1933, the son of Greek immigrants. His father, Panos Dukakis, was a general practitioner for 52 years.

Growing up in the home of a doctor made a lasting impression on Dukakis.

“He delivered thousands of babies,” he recalled. “We used to get canned tomatoes and ouzo (a Greek aperitif) in lieu of fees.”

“Good and affordable health care is the birthright of every American,” Dukakis added.

Dukakis said he has been disturbed by the quality of the rhetoric over health care reform in Congress, saying it “has bothered the hell out of me.”

He blamed President Obama and his administration for failing to refocus the health care debate to one key issue — that every working family deserves to have health coverage.

“The president isn’t saying this, the Democrats in Congress aren’t saying it,” he said.

“I think it would be a tragedy if we as a nation didn’t commit ourselves to the proposition that all Americans are entitled to decent, affordable health care. It’s one of the great moral questions of our time,” Dukakis said.

Dukakis said he spends his winters in Los Angeles, where he teaches at UCLA. During the rest of the year, he lives in Brookline and teaches at Northeastern University.

He served three terms as governor of Massachusetts, from 1975 to 1979 and from 1983 to 1991.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: dhoey@pressherald.com