AP Interview: Howard Dean Looks Back

June 11, 2004

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The following story by the Associated Press just went out over the wire. In an extensive interview the AP's Christopher Graff, Governor Dean offers one of his most in-depth looks back on the campaign.

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - One of Howard Dean's most poignant memories of his presidential campaign is of a woman in a wheelchair who gave him $50 in quarters at a breakfast meeting in Iowa last summer. The money came from her federal supplemental income check.

"Even now I can hardly tell that story," says Dean, his voice choking in a rare display of emotion.

"She said she had been saving the quarters for two years, when she could, for something that was really important - and this was really important to her."

Dean is in awe of his rise. He is accepting of his fall. He readily concedes he made mistakes. He has difficulty, though, coming to grips with the sacrifices and trust of his legions of devoted supporters.

"I am pretty overwhelmed," he says and pauses as his eyes brim with tears.

"I don't really feel I let them down, I must say, but I am pretty shocked by not just how supportive they were, but what they were willing to do."

It was an amazing ride and Dean is the first to admit it. "Since the campaign ended I have just looked back and scratched my head and said, `What could you have been thinking of? You started out in a room over a chiropractor's office and you thought you were going to be president of the United States?'"

One year after Dean formally launched his bid for the presidency, and four months after he dropped out, he offers a precise diagnosis of how he caught fire.

"I think there was an enormous vacuum and the Washington guys didn't get it until much later," said Dean, appearing relaxed in a sweater and jeans during an interview over lunch at a South Burlington restaurant.

"Nobody was saying the things that needed to be said to run a winning campaign. For two and a half years the Democrats were terrified of Bush, they were terrified of his numbers and they were terrified of losing, so they wanted to be like him - because winning is what matters in Washington."

Dean, then an unknown former Vermont governor running as the straight-talking outsider, filled the void with brutal attacks on Bush and on Democrats who Dean felt were all too ready to compromise with the president on his tax cuts, the Iraq war and the No Child Left Behind education legislation.

"People were ready for the message," he said. The young, the disaffected, and the cynical embraced Dean's call for political activism; their activities on his behalf grew rapidly but almost invisibly, coordinated through e-mails and Internet blogs.

"I knew a lot about both coasts. I knew something about the South although I learned a lot about the South. I didn't know a lot about the Midwest, which was the battleground. I was astonished about how bad the economic situation had been and how bad free trade had been for the Midwest. I was astonished what it was doing to rural America and how tough life was in rural America.

"You don't know what economic devastation is until you go out and see the major employer in a rural Iowa community leave with no jobs. Vermont farmers get by by having family members work off the farm. In places like rural Iowa, when the plant goes to Mexico, working off the farm means working at $7.50 an hour with no benefits if you are lucky enough to get a job."

In what seemed like a flash, Dean went from back-of-the-pack to front-runner: In August he appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek; his Sleepless Summer Tour attracted thousands and thousands of roaring supporters; he set fund-raising records; his innovative Internet site was a magnet for money and eager volunteers; and by the end of the year he led several national polls as well as those in crucial states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and California.

As this year opened, the nomination was his to lose, and lose it he did.

Asked why, Dean quickly and almost dispassionately ticks off three reasons:

"I think Kerry pulled himself together to do a good job in Iowa and he should be given credit for it," he said. "Secondly, we peaked too early, and gave everybody an opportunity to go after us. We knew that whoever won Iowa was going to win the whole thing and we just peaked too early, and there was not much we could do about it.

"Third of all, because I started out from so far behind, we never really had the money, and then we didn't have the time, to build the kind of infrastructure you need to sustain you through a campaign the whole way."

"Mistakes we made early on because we had no money were mistakes that haunted us through the whole thing. Not having spin people who could spin the press, spreading ourselves too thin, things like that. There is some advice that I listened to that I should not have listened to. I am not going to go into what it was. I take full responsibility for not winning the campaign. Even though it drove some of the campaign people crazy, I participated in virtually every major decision - how much money to spend on advertising - I OK'd every major ad but one."

Dean dates the beginning of the end to the endorsement in December by former Vice President Al Gore, a move that galvanized the opposition. "Everyone figured, including Bill Clinton, that we were going to win the whole thing when that happened," said Dean. "They figured that was it. The other five guys started having meetings about how to take us down after that happened."

The others, as well, saw Dean's success, and adopted his message. "You could hear my lines in their speeches," he said.

The slide came quickly. By the time the first votes were cast - in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses - Dean's campaign was all but over.

Much has been written in the past few months speculating on who and what is to blame for his dramatic fall. Dean dismisses it all. "I take full responsibility for not winning the campaign," he said.

"The reason I don't like all the kiss and tell stuff is there is no need to fight about whose fault this was. I will take all the blame. I oversaw those decisions and I accepted them and I approved them."

There are things he would have done differently: He says he should have had better debate preparation and more media training.

"The first (debate) was tough. I had a lot to learn about debating. That's another thing I should have done and we meant to do it, we never got around to it, but the schedule never was done the way it should have been. I needed some serious media training. I did it on the job but I could have saved myself a lot of hassle if I had done it earlier on."

He feels he and the campaign staff were spread too thin and did poorly handling the press; and he wishes he had asked his wife Judy, a doctor in private practice, to join him on the campaign trail sooner.

"The major mistake I made - not for the sake of the campaign because I don't think it would have had a major effect on the campaign, but for the sake of the country - was not asking Judy to come out earlier.

"She was a huge hit," he said. "We got all these wonderful letters afterwards saying it was so wonderful to see a normal person just like me in this role. I was shocked by how well she did and I was more shocked that she liked it. She was great! She didn't want to give up her doctor's practice to do this full-time but she was good at it and she liked it."

Dean doesn't rule out a future bid but is putting his energy and hopes into a Kerry victory in November. "I frankly hope there won't be a next time because if there is, it means Bush wins. I don't think the country can afford four more years of George Bush," he said. "I would much rather have John Kerry win than position myself for a future race."

He says he doesn't spend much time second guessing the decisions of the past year or reliving the campaign. Nor does he blame the press, although he is concerned. "The press has huge problems in this country. I didn't lose the election because of the press, but I do think it is in a lot of deep trouble in America."

He thinks often, though, of the people who worked for him, who supported him, who contributed to his campaign and who saw in him a reason to get involved in politics.

"I was astonished by the response of the public - by their enormous enthusiasm. You have no idea what people did for us. I certainly didn't.

"People would work 16 hours a day on top of their job, 60 hours a week on top of their jobs. People quit their jobs. Look at the kids. They just drove to Burlington. It was just shocking to me. I never thought anything like that was going to happen," he said.

He knew he had struck a chord by the reaction to a speech at the California state Democratic convention in March of 2003.

"I gave the stump speech and then I got into this cadence of what the right-wingers had done to this country. And that's when the stuff started flowing," he said.

"Finally I said I am tired of taking orders from the fundamentalist preachers any more, and when I said that, the entire room exploded. Everybody felt that this incredibly oppressive group of people had taken over the country and there was no reason to hope anymore.

"We gave people hope."

Around that time Dean began adding to his speech the line "I want my country back again." It too sparked applause and cheers.

"That was sort of this guttural thing that just came out without thinking about it, and then I changed it to `We want our country back' because the whole campaign was about empowering people."

As for the line that became his signature - "YOU have the power!" - Dean doesn't have a clue where it came from. But it, more than anything, summed up what he believes.

More than the rough-and-tumble of the race, the time away from his family was the most difficult aspect of the campaign for Dean.

"The only thing that really bothered me a lot was the amount of time I spent away from home in my son's senior year. As it turned out, the campaign ended before the hockey championships so I got to see all the games at the end, but that's the one thing that really got me. Paul once scored the winning goal in a game with a minute to go or something and I wasn't there and that really bothered me. I just didn't like spending six days a week on the road. I am just a home person. That was the thing that was the worst on the campaign."

At times Dean had trouble coping with the force he had unleashed.

"It was a little scary," he said, recounting a stop in Seattle on his Sleepless Summer Tour that attracted 10,000.

"You could look all the way back to these huge buildings and there was no space between any of the people," he said. "I got up there and said `Oh, man! I am going to be responsible for all of these people.'"

It is those supporters - and perhaps a nagging concern about disappointing them - that keep Dean on the road six days a week, long after his personal campaign has ended, campaigning for others with the same energy that marked his pursuit of the presidency.

Gone are the chartered planes and the entourage. No press plane. No aides. Just Howard Dean.

"I think if I had dropped out of the race on February 18 and said that was that, that would have been a terrible thing to do," he said, his voice breaking once again.

"Because it would have just been about me - and it never was."

Linked on the DemocracyForAmerica Blog

Note: this is a "consolidated" version from both the version posted by DFA, and some other excerpts posted on that thread of the blog by 'Phil from Iowa'

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