Interview on NHPR's "The Front Porch"
June 29, 2004
NHPR's audio RealPlayer recording of this program may be heard at http://nhpr.org/audio/audio/fp-2004-06-29.ram.
John Walters: Today on "The Front Porch," "the Scream Heard Round The World."
Dean Audio Clip: I don't regret it for a minute. But it's a fascinating case study in what the media can and will do. Probably not-- I don't think they were trying to sabotage my candidacy, but they essentially created a news event that didn't happen.
John Walters: This is "The Front Porch" on NHPR, I'm John Walters. Howard Dean had one of the most extreme roller-coaster rides in the history of politics. He was the early front-runner in the Democratic presidential race. But his campaign fell apart after setbacks in Iowa and and New Hampshire, punctuated by the famous "Dean Scream" on caucus night in Iowa.
The former Vermont Governor has his own thoughts on "the scream," and the rest of his campaign, but he's turned his focus to the future. He's recreated his campaign organization as a movement for political change called Democracy For America. He hopes to revitalize the Democratic Party by organizing at the grassroots level. He joins us to talk about his political past and future. Governor, welcome to "The Front Porch."
Howard Dean: Thanks for having me onto "The Front Porch."
Walters: You had one of the most intense roller-coaster rides in political history. Have you recovered by now?
Dean: Absolutely. And it's pretty exciting what we're doing. We're taking a long-term view of this.
Obviously I'm trying to do everything I can for John Kerry's bid for President, but we're also taking a long-term future look. We need-- I think the Democratic Party needs fundamental change. It does not look like we're gonna be able to survive as a party if we don't do something about the grassroots. We need a lot of people to get enthusiastic about politics again. It does not look like we're gonna survive as a party if we don't do some of the things that the right wing of the Republican Party did twenty years ago, which is to run candidates at the grassroots level, for school board, and county commissioner, and freeholder, and all these different offices around the country, not just concentrate on the House and the-- United States House and Senate. So that's what we're doing.
And we're also campaigning in areas that other people won't campaign in, places like Mississippi and Utah, where there's not much Democratic strength right now. Well, we're never gonna build Democratic strength if we keep looking at this on an election-by-election basis. We've gotta look long-term, and that's what we're doing.
Walters: It sounds like the change is more a matter of tactics rather than policies.
Dean: Well, I'm certainly not gonna change our policies. The country actually hasn't moved that far to the right, but the political discourse has moved far to the right. I see-- I believe I'm a centrist. I call for balanced budgets and health insurance for every single American. Every other country in the world, in the industrial world, has health insurance for every single American (sic), there's no reason we shouldn't, and to think that's some sort of left-wing, nutty idear as the right wing is portraying it, is silly. And we've gotta move the dialog back to a place where people are more comfortable with it in this country.
Walters: You came out of a small state where the press corps probably numbers-- you could count them on the fingers of both hands. What surprised you about stepping into the spotlight of the race for President? What surprised you the most?
Dean: Well, it was very very tense, of course. You know, a lot of scrutiny, a lot of, you know, a lot of hard-ball politics, and that's the way it is if you want to become President of the United States, you're gonna have to expect some hard-ball politics. Some of the things that have come out of it are pretty good, though. We have organizations in every state, including a great organization here, DemocracyForNewHampshire.com, which is running candidates and supporting people. So, you know, what we did was really switch from a campaign based on getting an individual elected President, to a campaign to continue to change the body politic of the country.
Walters: This time last year, you were considered a long shot. Why did you emerge from the pack? What made you different?
Dean: I think we were saying things, and saying them with conviction-- I think that's what people really want. They don't expect you to agree with them all the time. What they do expect is, and they hope for, is somebody who says what they think so they know where you are.
Walters: And that's counter to all the focus groups and the pollsters and the consultants and all that..?
I had the most interesting experience about 4 or 5 weeks ago. I went to a dinner party for DemocracyForAmerica, put on by a woman who I've known for a long time, who has a 30-year-old daughter who's an evangelical Christian. And the discussion was about church and state, and it was a pretty liberal and very smart group of people, and she piped up and told us about her views, which of course were very different than the folks in the room.
Afterwards, I went up to this young woman, and I said, "You're an evangelical Christian. How did you happen to support my campaign?" I said, "You must have very different views than I do on gay rights and abortion." She said, "I do. I'm deeply troubled by your views on gay rights and abortion, but evangelicals are people of conviction, and you're a person of conviction. And we like people with convictions, because even though they're not ours, we relate to people who have convictions."
There are a lot of people who don't vote in this country because politicians don't appear to have convictions. They appear to say whatever is necessary in order to win. I think whatever's necessary in order to make the country better is more important to talk about, and that's... what you see is the truth.
Dean: The Internet made an enormous difference. I still think most people in this country don't understand the Internet, certainly most political people. We were able to raise an enormous amount of money, more than anybody else, because of the Internet. But the thing that-- about the Internet that people don't understand, is that it's a community, it's not just an ATM machine. And it's gotta be a two-way communication with people. The Internet is a community that just doesn't happen to be in one geographic location.
Last week there was a
woman who's... I don't know how old she is, she's probably in her early 30's-- who ran an outfit called
PunxForDean during the campaign. (Walters chuckles) But over the weekend, after this conference that she came to
in Washington, she took a plane ride back to California and was taken ill, and eventually ended up in an
emergency room, with no health insurance, and had a miscarriage, except it was a pretty awful miscarriage, 'cause
her fetus was 21 weeks along, and the child was born live and then died, which was not an unexpected outcome from
a 21-week fetus. And, of course, that's a devastating event.
The whole community, the Internet community, which knew her, came around, raised some money for her to help her pay her hospital bills and was incredibly supportive of her. That is what we really built-- and the truth is, we didn't build it. They built it around our campaign. If you don't understand the Internet in those terms, you're never really gonna successfully exploit the incredible ability of this new medium to connect people from all over the country, and ultimately, all over the world.
Walters: We're talking with Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, and former Presidential candidate. He's now head of Democracy For America, a movement for political change and grassroots organizing.
When and why did your presidential campaign begin to come up short?
Dean: Well, we had a l-- first of all, we had a bunch of structural problems. We were always the underdog, with no money. We started out in a office above a chi-- one-room office above a chiropractor's office in Montpelier. And, so, we didn't-- we weren't able to compete in the same way that some of the other candidates were, and we weren't able to do the kinds of things that, by hitting back at the spinmeisters that the other campaigns had hired. There were some structural problems in the campaign that we were never able to overcome, because it started out essentially from nothing.
Walters: And probably a lot of growing pains, because it was so-- rapidly
Dean: That's right. Enormous growing pains. I think the biggest problem we had was we were the front-runner, and when you get to be the front-runner, especially with 3 months to go before the first caucus, all the other candidates become unified against you, and the media, of course, thinks it's their job to make sure that you-- every last foible that you have is (chuckles) fully exposed. And including a few that you don't have. So... you know, the biggest problem was we were the front-runner. There were some other problems as well, but the biggest one was that we were out front, and we became the target for everybody else.
Because since so many things go wrong in so many campaigns, it's pretty hard to put your finger on exactly just what went wrong and cost you the nomination. In medicine we call that instrument the "retrospectoscope", you can always get it right when you know what the outcome is after the fact. But it's also an instrument of course that's completely worthless, and it's pretty worthless in politics as well.
Dean: I think that showed how bad the media coverage was, but it didn't have much of an effect on the campaign.
Of course, "the scream" really never happened. What really happened was, this is a very interesting story. The-- there was a huge rally at the end, after we'd lost the Iowa caucuses and came in third, and a fairly distant third. And, I gave a real stemwinding speech, because 3500 kids from around the countr-- people of all ages, really, from around the country, had come to New Hampshire-- Iowa-- as they later did New Hampshire, and I thought I owed them a real pep rally and so forth. And that was a mistake 'cause I could've used the opportunity to give a "national" speech to a "national" audience. But the truth is, that we knew whoever won Iowa was gonna win the whole thing anyway, 'cause of the way the primaries were so compressed. It was very interesting, though.
Because after the speech, our press corps, who traveled with us, didn't think anything of it. So, the next day, their editors called them up screaming at them, saying, "how come you didn't-- this is a big deal, how come you didn't cover it?"
Well, what happened was, the cable networks, which are principally an entertainment medium, not a news medium, did not show the crowd, which was 1200 kids who were screaming so loud that nobody could hear me in the room. And they piped the sound directly in from the microphone, directly into their cameras, without any crowd noise. So of course it looked like I was a lunatic on the stage. That, in fact, didn't happen. You know, I didn't look like a lunatic on the stage, Tom Harkin was with me, who hardly could be classified as a lunatic. We were having-- had a great time. And I don't regret it for a minute.
But it's a fascinating case study in what the media can and will do. Probably not-- I don't think they were trying to sabotage my candidacy, but they essentially created a news event that didn't happen. And then broadcast it 6 or 900 times or whatever it was in the following week. And I think it'll probably end up being a case study in journalism school of how to avoid doing the things that are-- the media's in so much trouble. 'Cause they continue to do, which is create news, instead of report it. The reporters with us did not think there was any news in that speech.
Dean: Well, I mean, obviously, I'm slightly biased, I think if I had won, I would have thought the primary schedule was just fine, but I don't think it's just fine, I think the idear of having primaries every single week... you know, once the initial candidate wins, there's no real looking back on it, and there wasn't in this situation.
I also think you gotta put this in historical perspective. We can criticize the primary system and the caucus system but, it's a whole lot better than what we used to do prior to 1968, which was to have a bunch of guys, mostly white, middle-aged, cigar-smoking guys, sit in the back room of some center, in some hotel, and decide who the next candidate was gonna be. That's what used to happen, pretty much. So, you know, the primaries aren't a perfect system, but other than their scheduling, I think they're a good system, and I think they serve us well.
Walters: What do you think about New Hampshire being the first primary state?
Dean: I think it's fine. I don't have any problem with the order of the primaries. I think the biggest problem is the compression.
But again-- you know, if John Kerry wins this election, then it'll turn out to have been the right thing to do. The most important thing was not making Howard Dean president. The most important thing was sending George Bush back to Crawford, Texas. And if John-- the voters chose John Kerry 'cause they thought he was more electable than I was. And... I have a huge amount of faith in the voters' judgement. I really do. Everybody gets so nervous on election days, and I would always get very serene on election days, 'cause I knew that all the hooting and hollering was over, and the voters would make their choice. In general-- you know, I've been in politics a long time-- and in general, I think the voters usually make the right choice.
So, you know I'm working very hard for John Kerry, and that's the person the voters chose, and if he wins, I think, you know, it's hard to fault the primary system. They produced a winner for the Democratic Party, and that's what they're supposed to do.
Dean: So did everybody else.
Dean: It's great.
Walters: He seems to be more cautious lately, are you disappointed at all in him?
Dean: No, I think that's more national media problem, and here's how it works. If you're a national reporter, you cannot write the same story 30 days in a row. But if you're the candidate, you've gotta give the same speech 30 days in a row, because that is really, you're in 30 different places. You may think everybody's heard it before, but the people you're speaking with have not heard it before.
I've been on the road with John Kerry. He is doing very well. He was terrific out in Oregon, which was the last time I was on the road with him, other than the thing we did last-- a couple of nights ago in New York. He connected very well with a big crowd, and then we went to a smaller group where we did an unemployment thing, mostly people testifying about their... they lost their good jobs and couldn't find another one for a year, and things like that under the Bush economy. Kerry was terrific. He connected with them, he was succinct. I thought he was great.
The national press of course doesn't report that, 'cause they can only write that story once. So they buy their time by reporting about who's doing what to who in the campaign, and who might be Vice-President, who might not, and all that kind of stuff. But the local press is terrific. And they give a much better window into what candidates are about when they come to your town and your state, than you're gonna get from reading the national newspapers.
Walters: Who would you like to see as John Kerry's running mate?
Dean: I actually have the privilege of talking to John about that. We've become pretty good friends, and so, since I'm giving him private advice, I make it a habit of not giving the same advice publicly which I give privately, which of course you wouldn't blame me for I'm sure.
Walters: Howard Dean is on "The Front Porch" on NHPR. I'm John Walters. We'll be back after a short break.
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Walters: This is "The Front Porch" on NHPR. I'm John Walters with Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, and former Democratic Presidential candidate. He's now leader of Democracy For America, a group that promotes grassroots activism in politics.
You were a doctor before you got into politics. Why did you go into politics?
Dean: Well, I was a big fan of Jimmy Carter's. I worked for him on his 1980 re-election campaign, and I got to know a lot of people in Vermont, just, you know, the usual volunteer stuff... you know, licking stamps, licking envelopes, making phone calls and all that. And I ended up going to the national convention and getting to know a lot of people, and then I ended up in organizational politics. I was a county chairman for a while, and then I decided instead of getting other people elected, maybe I'd take a shot at the policy stuff myself, and ran for the legislature, and that's really what got me into politics. I never actually left being a doctor until the day I became Governor. Most of the offices over here on the Vermont side of the river are part-time offices, just as many of them are in New Hampshire as well. So, I was Lieutenant Governor, I was still able to practice medicine part-time, and then one day, August 14th, 1991, I got a call from the Governor's office informing me that Dick Snelling had passed away and I was the Governor. And that's how I left my medical practice.
Walters: You were in your office, I think, when that happened.
Dean: I was in my medical office doing a physical.
Walters: That was the last patient you ever saw?
Dean: That was the last patient I saw for money. There have been a few people by the side of the road, and a few folks on airplanes that I've tried to help out, but that was the last time I practiced my profession as a profession.
Walters: In your five-plus terms as Governor of Vermont, what are you most proud of?
First is balancing the budget. Our state's in great shape financially, we have the highest bond rating we've had in years and years-- double-A-plus, which is probably the highest a small state's ever gonna get.
The second is the health care. When I left office, every child in my state, virtually every child, 99%, were eligible for health insurance or had it.
The third is our early intervention programs. Our child abuse rate has dropped dramatically, our teen pregnancy rate's dropped dramatically, 'cause we intervene very early in families' lives, when we find out that they're in trouble. Long before they get to school.
And the fourth is, we set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of land that'll never be developed. You know, the Vermont way of life will be sustained for many, many, many generations. The "Champion Lands", the Deerfield Reservior, these really big chunks of land, that we can always hunt and fish, snowmobile, do the things that Vermonters like to do outdoors, and that won't change five generations from now, because of what we did when I was Governor.
Walters: One problem you dealt with as Governor of Vermont, that's also been a very difficult problem in New Hampshire, is the whole issue of how to pay for schools and property taxes and all that sort of thing, and you and the Legislature tried to fix it in ways that are very unpopular. (see story) Do you see a way through all that?
Dean: I do. One of the things I have to say about Vermont, is that they bite the bullet when they have to. In 1998 the court told us that we had to fix this, and we did. And it was very unpopular; we can talk a little bit more about that, but we did it. We had a statewide property tax, which people didn't like, we had some other parts of this thing, called Act 60. So basically in our state, the same amount of funding is behind every child, whether they're in a wealthy town or a poor town. It was very unpopular, and I certainly didn't get anything close the majorities I got previously in my first three terms.
Then in the next, two years later, the court told us we had to do civil unions, or we had to do something that would give gay and lesbian Vermonters equal rights under the law. And the choice was essentially between civil unions or gay marriage, and we chose civil unions. That was really even more unpopular, and then my vote total went down to its lowest ebb in my career. But the Legislature bit the bullet and we did it. They did what the court said. And of course now, nobody cares. It's turned out civil unions didn't have any bad effect on anybody's life. And it had a pretty good effect on gay and lesbian vermonters' rights, because they have the same rights that everybody else does in our state.
On that school funding stuff, I don't know that you could have that approach in New Hampshire, I know the statewide property tax is very uncomfortable for a lot of New Hampshirites. It seems to me you gotta do something, but it doesn't seem to me the former Governor from Vermont oughtta be telling the people of New Hampshire how to fix it. You just gotta fix it in your own way.
Walters: Well it is a problem that many states all over the country are facing. And--
Dean: They all do, and there's been twenty-three or -four court decisions like the one in Vermont and New Hampshire, and to my knowledge, Vermont's the only one that's done anything about it. The exception is Hawaii; they have one school district that covers the whole state, which is a whole different way of doing things. I don't think that Vermonters would have wanted to do that, 'cause they like their local school boards, local control of their schools a lot, and I do too.
Dean: We think the Democratic Party needs to be revitalized. We think there's been too much emphasis on national elections and not enough emphasis on the grassroots. I think the discourse in the country, as I said before, has moved so far to the right that ordinary people are not represented any more, and that's why they don't vote. And we think the way to do this, is very similar to what Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich did for the Christian Coalition in the Congress. Make sure that every office is contested, and support local folks.
There's a group called Democracy For New Hampshire which is supporting John Lynch, which is supporting a candidate, I think in the Second District for Congress, but they're also supporting a whole lot of local people for local offices. We want them to succeed, and we want that grassroots fervor that began during the campaign to continue in politics in general. The message of the campaign, if there was a single message, is that we do have the power in this country, to change our lives. If they sit in their living room and "woe is me", then they don't have any power. But if they go out and do something about it, especially in numbers, they have significant power.
Walters: Where do you see Democracy For America in, five or ten years?
Dean: The bottom line is, I think that you can do better in an election if you say what you think, instead of say what the focus groups tell you you should think. The public is-- are much smarter than politicians think they are. And they really get the i-- they can tell if somebody's just telling them what they wanna hear. Sometimes they'll vote for you anyway, if you tell them what they wanna hear, because it's the lesser of two evils. But what they really want more than anything else, which is why I told the story about the young woman who's the evangelical Christian, what they want is somebody who believes in something. Even if it's not exactly what they believe, and they'd rather have somebody who believes in something, than somebody who's just kind of playing caretaker, and trying to get ahead in politics.
And that is what Democracy For America is all about, is encouraging people to go out there and run for office. We've got 600 people running for office around the country, most of them for local offices. Democras-- I used to give lectures about voting, and how important it was, in high school and college and all that... voting's the bare minimum. If you want democracy to survive, you've gotta do something about it, you can't just hope somebody else is gonna vote or let somebody else run for office. I say the minimum is, you've gotta run for office yourself, if you can't do that, then you've gotta work 3 hours a week on somebody else's campaign, and you've gotta give 5 or 10 or 25 bucks to the candidates that you like.
And our campaign proves that you can raise millions of dollars-- we had no debt, we owed nothing to corporate America, which of course made them very nervous in our campaign. Cause it was all funded, for the most part, by people kicking in 25 and 50 and a hundred dollars at a time. We raised $53 million, which was far more than anybody else raised while we were in the race.
Dean: Certainly, I would be open to it. I certainly have no intention of even thinking about it until after November, and I certainly hope I won't have the opportunity until 2012, 'cause I really would like to see John Kerry as the next President. I don't think we can afford 4 more years of half-trillion-dollar deficits and foreign adventures, not to mention the loss of moral position that we've suffered in the world. We were the moral leader of the world between the end of World War I and the day we went into Iraq, and I would like to resume that position, and that's a position that I think America belongs in.
Walters: Might you run for the U.S. Senate at some point, if either Jim Jeffords or Patrick Leahy decided to step out?
Dean: Well, I've given that almost no thought whatsoever. I'm really very focused on what we're trying to do here, trying to change the country, and I'm not gonna think about that. I've endorsed Jim Jeffords for re-election in 2006, I've already endorsed Pat Leahy for 2004, so really, I haven't given it any thought at all.
One of the things your organization does is support candidates in places that are heavily Republican, places where these candidates probably don't have much of a chance of winning. How does that make a difference?
Dean: The reason we support candidates in places like Mississippi and Utah, which are heavily Republican, is because, even though I think Zell Miller's gone kinda bonkers, the title of his book is right. We're not a national party if we're afraid to go to Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama and Utah and Montana, and spread the Democratic message. So, we do support candidates who may not win this time, but sooner or later, since everybody in America, their principal agenda is jobs, healthcare, and education, sooner or later, people are gonna say,
That's how Newt Gingrich took back the Congress. People were just fed up in 1994, they wanted a change; lo and behold, 50 Democrats lost their seat and Newt Gingrich became the Speaker. Nobody ever thought that could happen. Well, that happens from time to time, and if you're not prepared, you can't take advantage of it.
Walters: That sounds like you've been reading Thomas Franks' new book, "Whatever Happened To Kansas," I think it...
Dean: I actually went out and did a book reading with Thomas Franks and Studs Terkel, it was great.
Walters: His book basically is about how Kansas used to be a hotbed of progressive politics, and it's now very conservative, very sort of Christian right-wing, and sort of speculating on how that happened, and what might be done to make it progressive once again, and it sounds like that's exactly what you're trying to do.
Dean: Well, as it happens, we're supporting 5 or 6 candidates for the State Senate and the State House of Representatives in Kansas, and I was just out there about a week ago, campaigning in Kansas City for some Missouri and some Kansas candidates. And there are some good ones out there. Kansas does not have to be a right-wing state, which once had the embarassment of having the state Board of Education demand that every school in the state teach creationism instead of evolution. That's how far right Kansas got. Kansas now has a Democratic Governor, a fascinating and terrifically capable woman named Kathleen Sebelius, and we can bring Kansas back from "the great beyond," as it were. But simply-- we've gotta get out there and give our message. People are willing to listen. Sometimes it just takes a little while, and repeating the same thing again and again and again. That's what the Christian Coalition did, and that's what we gotta fight.
Dean: We have. It's been quite terrific, and quite, personally, quite humbling. Our e-mail list went from about three-quarters of a million to half a million, it's now back up towards 600,000, we're growing again. The army of supporters is now supporting candidates all over the country, and they totally get this. It took a while to make the transition, but it actually happened relatively quickly. And now I think we're in shape for a long-term effort.
Walters: Other former candidates have tried to form a lasting movement, I think of Ross Perot, John Anderson, even Theodore Roosevelt, for that matter, and they usually fail. Why will you be different?
Dean: Well, of course time-- only time will tell if we're different or not. But I think America really is ready for a substantive and substantial change. I think we've gone farther in terms of our elected officials to the right than we meant to go. We started electing people who really are struggling to even govern, and certainly don't represent the majority of Americans. Those are the kinds of conditions that cause reform movements, and this is a reform movement, and I think it's gonna be successful.
Walters: Aside from Democracy For America, any plans or any thoughts about what you might do next?
Dean: Well, this is gonna be pretty full-time. I don't take a salary from Democracy For America, because I don't think I wanna ask donors to pony up for my salary. I think we want most of that money to go to the field. But, you know, I'm making a living giving speeches, I'm writing a book, you know the kind of stuff that you might expect a former candidate with an interesting story to do, and... But my principal interest is to change the country and to change the Democratic Party.
Walters: Well, Governor, thank you very much for joining us today.
Dean: Thanks very much for having me on.
Walters: Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, former Democratic Presidential candidate, now leader of Democracy For America, a group that promotes grassroots activisim. We'll post a link to its website on "The Front Porch" section of NHPR.org.