A few days ago, at the Netroots Nation conference, I had the good fortune to catch a session with former presidential candidate, and progressive standard bearer, Howard Dean. Following is the first of three videos I hope to post over the coming weeks, accompanied by my quick attempt at transcription. In this clip, you’ll hear Dean, who until somewhat recently served at the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), talk about how he made the decision to run for President, the genius of his campaign, Cheney’s “horse shit,” Bill Clinton’s lying, and the price he paid for telling the truth. (The questions during the session were posed by Joe Joe Rospars, who got his start with the Dean campaign before moving on to be Obama’s chief digital strategist during both of his presidential campaigns. In an attempt to streamline things, I’ve reworded and simplified his questions in the transcription below.)
What made your 2004 campaign so revolutionary?
I didn’t win, so I’ve had 10 years to think about the campaign. (Laughs.) What I realized is, the great genius of our campaign was not that I was against the war and all of that stuff, when nobody else was. The great genius of our campaign was that we had tons and tons of 23 year olds like Joe who came to work for us. And we actually listened to them, and let them decide what to do. And that is actually how this got built. So I actually see our campaign, for those of you who are a little grayer, even though I bear no resemblance whatsoever to Gene McCarthy in many ways, our campaign was in many ways the Gene McCarthy campaign of the ‘60s. It was the expression of a whole new generation… that I call first globals and not millennials. And that’s what the campaign was all about. It wasn’t as well organized as it might have been, but we sure had a hell of a lot of fun. And I do think that we revolutionized politics, but not because I was revolutionizing politics. What I did was give young people the freedom to come to the campaign and revolutionize politics. And that’s really what happened…
How did you decide to run for President?
I didn’t ask anybody, including my wife, whether or not it was a good idea to run for President… So I’ll tell you how I got to run for Lt. Governor (of Vermont). I was in the legislature for two terms… And everything in Vermont, until you get to the top five offices is part-time, including Lt. Governor… So, during my second term, Judy and I were getting ready to have our second child, and that was clearly much to much for our small loft apartment in downtown Burlington, for which we were paying the huge amount of $125 a month. And so we had to move. We had to move out of my district. And, in the district I moved to, there were two State Reps, both of whom were Democrats. They were incumbents. And I wasn’t going to run against them. I could have run for State Senate in Chittenden County. But Chittenden County, by Vermont standards, is a big, very expensive county (to run in). And I could have run against Jim Jeffords, which would have been a loosing proposition. But I figured, “Ah, I could get my name out there.” Or, I figured, I could run for Lieutenant Governor. And I figured, “A Chitlin County race is just as expensive as a Lieutenant Governor race, so you might as well run for Lieutenant Governor.”
So, then, I thought I was being so smart and clever… and I was about 35, or something… and I sit down with this rookie reporter from the Rutland Herald, which, at the time, was the most respected paper in the state in terms of politics, people who know politics, and so forth. And I’m trying to be so clever… as the southern part of the state has no idea who I am whatsoever… as the Burlington Free Press is the big paper in my area… so I thought that I’d hint, and float a trial balloon. And I’m thinking that I’m so smart and so sophisticated. And the next day, on the front page of the Herald… it’s a Saturday, and there’s not anything going on… and the headline says, “Dean to Run for Number Two Spot.” (Laughs.) So I’m working on Saturday morning and my wife gets a call. “What do you think about your husband running for Lt. Governor?” And she says, “WHAT?” (Laughs.) So, the Presidential decision was pretty much made the same way. (Laughs.)
Did you go into the race with the intention of building a grassroots campaign?
No… Actually, opposing the war wasn’t on purpose either. I think one of the charms that the campaign had was that I pretty much said what I thought, which got me into trouble on numerous occasions. But I think it was refreshing for people to see a candidate who said what he thought, and wasn’t looking at 19 polls to tell them what they should think. What happened was… First of all, I realized that, over this past ten years, we were really running against the Democratic party. The Democratic party had completely lost its way. They had deregulated Wall Street, which was a disaster, and we’re still paying a price for it. They had voted for Bush’s tax cuts, which had led to this enormous deficit which Obama keeps getting blamed for. The truth is, those deficits are mostly due to A. the recession that was caused by Bush, B. the tax cuts which were caused by Bush, and C. the Iraq war. That’s where the deficit comes from. So Obama deserves no blame for the deficit whatsoever. You can’t say that when you’ve been President for six years, but, in fact, that is the truth. So the Democratic party was becoming increasingly what we would now call corporatist. They’d given up. They just weren’t fighting for a better country.
So I’d intended to run on balancing the budget, which I thought was important, and on universal health care, which hadn’t been looked at in a long time. And then the Iraq war came along… and I’m not that much of a dove. I supported the first Iraq war because I thought we had a treaty obligation to Kuwait. I supported the war in Afghanistan because they harbored people who killed 3,000 Americans. But I’d also lived through Vietnam, and I read the British press… mostly the Guardian and the Independent… and, in Britain, they publish defense stuff that you couldn’t get published here. And the two intelligence agencies in the world that are the closest are not the Israeli and American intelligence agencies, but the British and the American intelligence agencies. So I was pretty sure that whatever the British knew, the Americans knew. And British intelligence was saying there were, in fact, absolutely no weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq. And they were also saying that… because Cheney was trying to make out that (Iraq) had an atomic weapons program, which turned out to be complete horse shit… (Laughter.) I actually did not use that word during the campaign, but it’s one of the few that I didn’t… So it turned out that what the Brits were telling their people, which is what was getting in the papers, was that there was probably not an atomic program. And, even if there was, it was five years from any progress.
So, I’d been in this movie before, where a President of the United States was lying to our faces, and sending 55,000 American kids to die in Vietnam. And I didn’t want to see that movie happen again. And that’s how I got to be against the Iraq war. At the time I didn’t know that much about foreign policy. But I’m thinking, “These guys are lying to our faces, and, if they’re lying to our faces, I don’t know what the facts are, but I do know that they’re lying, and we shouldn’t be going to war. If the President and Vice President think it’s OK to lie to us, A. they shouldn’t be in office, and B. we shouldn’t be going to war.” (Applause.) So that very bluntness unearthed… The support of the campaign was actually a bimodal distribution. The young people we drawn to the campaign because somebody was willing to stand up and say what was what. Young people have always been drawn to frankness. As you grow up, you realize that’s not always the best political tactic. (Laughter.) But that’s the way I am, and I wasn’t going to change. And there were also a ton of people my age who had given up on politics. And they came out in droves. A ten thousand person rally, which is what we had in Seattle, just blew me away. By Obama standards, that’s not all that big, but it was an incredible thing. People who didn’t believe in politics because of all of the shananagins that had gone on, suddenly began to think that there was hope again. And then the 23 year olds came in.
And we didn’t know how to do any of this stuff. Joe and his huge team, all of whom were being paid about two hundred bucks a week, when they got paid at all at the beginning… We had these old, clunky sites. Remember, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. There was no YouTube. There was email. We had this company Convio, which has somehow still survived. (Laughter.) and Lieberman and Gephardt were using Convio at the same time. So, every time we’d send out an email, and all of these gazillion dollars in contributions would come in, all of their sites would crash, giving us a double benefit. (Laughter.) We’d be bringing all of this money in, and they couldn’t bring any in. So these guys were building this stuff on the fly. (Points to Joe.) They were inventing all of the tools on the fly. We had a lot of interesting stuff, but no one had figured out how to put it all together. Of course, those days, everyone over 30 was totally incompetent with everything having to do with the internet, except for tiny handful of geniuses. But these people who were 23 knew everything. So we said, “Great, you take over the campaign, and I’ll just go out and talk.”
How was running a state different from running a campaign?
I didn’t run the campaign, and that was a mistake. The candidate should never run the campaign, but we were in a lot of disarray back in Burlington. The biggest problem was me, of course, because I’d say what I thought, and I was impulsive. What I said was true, but you do get penalized for telling the truth. I remember when Saddam Hussein was captured. It was on the day of my first major foreign policy address. It was to a group of foreign affairs people in LA. And so we worked out this speech, which was about five or six pages of single-spaced stuff which I was supposed to read. And I absolutely hated reading speeches. I hated it with a passion. But I agreed to do it, because every “i” had to be dotted, and ever “t” had to be crossed. It was all very diplomatic language. And, when Saddam was captured, I didn’t call the office, and I didn’t talk with any of our foreign policy people, and we had some very good people who were working with us, including Susan Rice and Sandy Berger, and I didn’t call any of them. I just crossed out a few lines and wrote in, “And we are not safer now that Saddam Hussein has been captured.” And that is true. This was irrelevant… But it was a stupid thing to do on this triumphal day when everyone could feel good about the American armed forces for having captured this terrible person, who was hiding out in a cellar somewhere. So that’s the kind of stuff which just didn’t help. When you have a candidate who basically does what they damn well please after having agreed to do something else…
Then there was the problem with management at the top of the campaign. Which I’m not going to go into.
And the third problem was our operation in Iowa. And we didn’t have the means to fix it. And that was the only state that we didn’t understand. We were way ahead of everybody else… Kerry actually had to borrow our electors in New York State. New York State is the hardest state to get on the ballot of any state in the country, by far. You have to have a certain number of signatures in each of the 45 counties, or whatever it is. And then you have to have three electors from each one of those counties. And we had a full slate, and no one else did. So our on-the-ground people were unbelievable. But there were a lot of problems on the campaign and that’s the real reason we didn’t (go any father).
You can’t really run your own campaign if you’re running for President. And you shouldn’t. But you do have to have a very disciplined, experienced, organization. And it wasn’t just that.
And there was also the fact that other Democratic candidates were trying to stop you. Weren’t the other campaigns coordinating to keep you from getting the SEIU endorsement?
Edwards actually stayed out of it, to his credit. It was Lieberman, Kerry. Gephardt and Wes Clarke… who was actually… These are stories you never heard before… (Laughs.) I’ve probably never told this on in public before, but I’m going to tell it…
So, the day that Gore endorsed us, which was the 9th of December. This is a big surprise, and all of this… After he endorses us in New York, we fly to Iowa and do an endorsement there. And then he flies to Sweden or somewhat, and I’m flying back… because, of course, I’d disrupted my schedule (for this). And I get a call as we’re taking off, and it’s President Clinton. And he said, “Hey, Howard, how are you?” (Doing a Clinton impression that gets big laughs.) I said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m doing just great.” …I learned two things from this call… And he says, “I know there are a lot of rumors around that the Clintons are supporting Wes Clark, and that is just not so. It’s not true.” And I said, “Umm Hmmm.” And I knew exactly how long he was going to talk. He was going to talk for 37 minutes. Because that’s how long every phone call he… He once called me in a candy store in Vermont, where I was buying presents. The phone rings. And I was at the cashier’s desk. And it’s Bill Clinton on the other end of the line. And it’s Christmastime… And he says, “That is not so.” And so we talked for a while. And the plane is taking off… Cell phones, by the way, do no disrupt plane takeoffs. (Applause and laughter.) …So the plane is taking off and we’re getting higher and higher, and the cell drops off, and that’s the end of the call with the President. So I learned two things. One, I learned that he thought that I was going to win, although he never said that, because he wouldn’t have called me (otherwise). And, two, they had indeed gotten Was Clark to get into the race in order to get me out of there, which is why he insisted that he hadn’t. (Laughs.)