Howard Dean is Interviewed by Tavis Smiley

PBS Radio, March 23, 2004

Credit: Tavis Smiley on PBS

Tavis: I'm pleased to welcome Governor Howard Dean to the program tonight. The one-time Democratic front-runner is putting the recent past of a hard-fought presidential primary season behind him. Looking forward to the next phase of his public life, he joins us tonight from the City by the Bay, San Francisco. Governor, nice to see you, man.

Gov. Howard Dean: Tavis, nice to--thank you for having me on.

Tavis: I'm glad to have you on. First of all, how have you been?

Dean: I've been good. I've been taking a little time, cleaning my house, which I haven't cleaned for 2 years, and now we're getting a new organization up and running to try to change the country. Sound familiar?

Tavis: Sounds familiar. Let's start our conversation right there. You did, last week on Thursday as I recall, make a big announcement about the next phase of your public life. For those who did not see or hear about it--I can't imagine who that might be--but for those who didn't see or hear about it, what did you have to say last week?

Dean: Well, the issues that drove the campaign and inspired a lot of energy into the Democratic party to rekindle the Democratic party have not gone away. We have an administration that doesn't seem to be able to tell the truth about foreign policy or domestic policy, particularly the economy.

We have a group of folks in Washington who are upholding the special interests, and we want to change that, and we think the way to do that are, first of all, to send a Democrat to the White House. I think that's gonna be an enormous improvement, and then secondly, to encourage people to run for office and support them. Get ordinary people to run for their school boards, their county legislators, their state legislatures, help some Congresspeople who helped us. So we're gonna try to rekindle the grass roots spirits that drove the campaign to revitalize the Democratic party, change it, and then change Washington, which desperately needs change because it is desperately out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Tavis: When you say change, how do you do that specifically? What exactly are you suggesting you are going to do or needs to be done?

Dean: Well, the first thing we need to do is send President Bush back to Crawford, Texas, and that is what we're gonna be focusing on at the top end. At the bottom end, it's gonna be a long-term process to take this country back, away from all the corporate interests that the president serves, back to ordinary people.

We've been in this position historically, Tavis, before. When President McKinley was president, we had the great trusts, which strangled small businesses and middle class people, and Teddy Roosevelt came along and began to change that with the trustbusting. Under Herbert Hoover, again, business was so powerful, and they crushed ordinary people. The depression really started in about 1926 in the Midwest, and then Franklin Roosevelt came along and changed that.

We need a real change in this country. George Bush may be a perfectly nice person, but his constituency's about the top 1% of people in this country, and he's forgotten everybody else, and we're gonna try to forget him after this election.

Tavis: All right. I want to talk about Howard Dean in this conversation. I got you for the whole show. So I want to talk about Howard Dean. I want to talk about George Bush. I want to talk about John Kerry. Before I get to Bush and Kerry, let's talk more about you. I know you've been asked this question, but not by everybody, so indulge me here for those in my viewing audience who haven't had a chance to hear you since you've been in, you know, in seclusion for a few weeks, and you deserve that. You deserve that, but now that you're out, tell me what you ultimately think went wrong with the Dean campaign?

Dean: I'm not really sure. I think what really happened was the Washington establishment got a little bit frightened, and the other candidates went after us, and we made a mistake in Iowa, and we went after one of them. Because when you have a multi-candidate race, getting in negative attacks with another candidate sends you to the bottom and everybody else to the top, and I think that's basically what happened. But, you know, you can piece together all the mistakes that we made. Everybody's campaign makes mistakes. It's just the ones that win don't think they've made any.

Tavis: Yeah, or they made fewer mistakes.

Dean: That's right.

Tavis: I confess at the outset of this question that I was certainly bitter, and not even because I'm a Howard Dean fan or friend, although we've known each other for years. I confess we're friends. We've known each other for a long time. But I was really, really upset because I thought the media completely overdid it, and I'm on television so I can't use the word I really want to use. But I thought they were really out of control on the videotape, what they termed the "I-have-a-scream speech" out of Iowa. In retrospect, you can be honest with me, come on. Keep it real with me. Tell me you were not--I mean, just outdone by the way that videotape was handled.

Dean: You know, the truth is, I don't have cable television in my house, Tavis, and I don't watch it, so I never saw any of that stuff. You know, I think the media is a big problem in this country, but I don't think it's necessarily in relationship with my campaign. I'm gonna pretty much hold off on criticism of that for a while, because if I do, the media will just say, "Oh, it's sour grapes 'cause he lost," but there are some real serious problems. Pack journalism is one of them, and that was a good example of it. But, you know, the truth is, I lost the Iowa caucuses before they put that thing on television 693 times or whatever it was. So I really don't think that played a particularly significant role in the fact that I didn't win. I really don't.

Tavis: Well, maybe it didn't in Iowa. But maybe it did hurt you in New Hampshire and the rest of the way.

Dean: Well, Tavis, I actually don't believe that's true. Our strategy was the same as John Kerry's. Our strategy was to win in Iowa, and we knew if we won in Iowa, we were gonna win the whole thing. But we didn't win in Iowa. The way the primaries are set up, all front-loaded, the momentum is everything. As soon as John won those primaries in Iowa, we knew he was gonna--that caucus in Iowa, we knew he was gonna be very, very difficult to stop, and John Edwards really proved the case. He didn't have anything like the speech played 693 times, and he wasn't able to catch John Kerry either. So I think really the speech didn't have a whole lot to do with it. I think it does say something about the media, which we'll get into a few months down the line after the election is over.

Tavis: So you're telling me, then, that everybody in your campaign--we've all seen the inside story of the Dean campaign on CNN--so everybody in your campaign was P.O.'d about that. You're telling me you honestly weren't pissed about that?

Dean: Oh, you know, I wasn't actually that mad about it. I didn't think it was the media's finest hour, but there's a lot of that going on, and there's a lot of complaints we can make about the media, but I thought that was more an indictment of cable television than it was of our campaign. We had already lost the race by that time, and it underlined the fact that in cable, you got a lot of hours to fill, and the biggest problem in news today is it's become an entertainment medium, not a news medium. And that's an issue the news media is gonna have to address, but I don't honestly, Tavis, think that it had a big effect on my campaign. I know our campaign supporters were mad about it, our campaign staff was mad about it. I truly do not believe that that undid the campaign.

Tavis: Speaking of Iowa, and I'll move on to some other things here, there are some who argue that it was a comment you made some years ago about the Iowa caucus, as kind of degrading it and demeaning it, that people thought may have been in the minds of Iowa voters when they went to the caucuses. You and I met years ago doing commentary on a program on that show, and you actually made that comment some years ago. Did you regret having made that comment about Iowa?

Dean: Well, I was talking, actually, about Vermont conventions. As you may remember, the show was not about the Iowa caucuses, and they never mentioned the word Iowa as far as I can tell, but I don't really regret a whole lot of things. There are some things I would have done differently. The truth is that the struggle goes on. We need to change this country. I'm not gonna be the nominee of the Democratic Party, and I'm not gonna be the next president of the United States, but we need to change this country, and that's what this organization I'm putting together is all about.

Tavis: All right, let me talk now--enough about Howard Dean. I'm sure that makes you feel a little bit better. I can move on to some other issues now and not talk about the past, but talk about the future, 'cause since elections really aren't about the past, they are, in fact, about the future. Let's talk about the future.

Tell me how much trouble you think that George W. Bush is really in, if any at all, around the issue of his credibility or the lack thereof. There are any number of issues we can talk about, but talk to me about whether or not you think this guy is in trouble around the notion of whether or not he's credible, whether or not he's believable.

Dean: I think he's in very serious trouble. You know, one of the things that I discovered is that people cared about the Iraq war, but not as much as they did over the past summer that I was campaigning. If Iraq was the number-one issue, I'd be the nominee, but it wasn't the number-one issue. Jobs and the economy are.

What's become the number-one issue in this campaign now is the credibility of the president of the United States. He has just told too many falsehoods. All the series of things he said to get us into Iraq, but the most serious one recently is his administration ordered a government employee to conceal facts from Congress. The fact that the prescription Medicaid bill--Medicare bill--which was aimed at helping pharmaceutical companies and HMOs was gonna be a third more expensive than he said. $140 extra billion coming out of taxpayers' pockets. You have this specter now of the president not telling the truth about Iraq and then not telling the truth about domestic matters, promising us 2 1/2 million new jobs. We had 21,000 in the last month.

This president--the one thing you cannot do as a governor or as a president or a public official is you cannot lose your credibility, and I think this president's credibility is very much on the line in this election. I think it's gonna be the biggest issue after jobs and maybe the biggest issue even more so than jobs.

Tavis: He's got a lot of money, though. How do you combat that? These TV commercials are everywhere.

Dean: They are, but the truth is that, much as we may complain about the media in politics, the free media has an enormous influence. And I think the press is going to examine the fact that the president was not truthful not just about the war, but he wasn't truthful about things that cost the American taxpayers a lot of jobs and a lot of money.

Tavis: Speaking of money, you have contributed something, speaking of contributions, to the American body politic as we know it, that everybody gives you credit for, and that is a whole new way to raise significant amounts of money on the internet. If you didn't do anything else, you have shown politicians how to raise money on the Internet. Tell me what you think that's going to do to politics as we know it years down the road.

Dean: I hope that it has substantial changes. One of the problems as I said at the top of the show is that big special interests and corporations are running the capital right now. We got a Medicare prescription bill which is for the benefit of the insurance companies, HMOs, and drug companies, but not for seniors. We get No Child Left Behind, which does nothing for ordinary students, in fact, it hurts them. We get the no-bid contract with Halliburton. On and on these things go.

It's very clear that what's happening in Washington is based on what's good for all the people who write those big checks. If our way of financing campaigns--and this is one of the reasons I think we were such a terrible threat to the people inside the Beltway in Washington--is if our way of financing campaigns triumphs, then we will never be faced again with the problem of having big money finance campaigns. What's gonna happen is that small donations will finance campaigns and the government will be back in the hands of ordinary Americans again.

Tavis: Heard your phone ring. Maybe somebody's calling to make a contribution, even though the campaign's over, so you can continue the work that you've already started on the campaign trail, but I digress on that point. Let me ask you what you now--give me one thing vis-a-vis relative to campaign finance reform in this country or the need for campaign finance reform. Tell me one thing about campaign finance that you felt one way about before you got in the race that you now have learned a completely different lesson and feel differently about now with regard to money being the mother's milk of politics.

Dean: Well, actually, there's nothing I feel differently about. I actually signed a public campaign finance bill when I was in Vermont. The courts--the governor of Vermont, the courts threw some of it out. Arizona and Maine have 2 very good systems, and we ought to use systems like that. I believe in public finance of campaigns, small donations, and outlawing big donations and getting rid of all these groups that both the Democrats and the Republicans are using and anonymously disguising very large contributions to influence the course of politics.

Tavis: Something just hit me, and I should slap myself for not picking up on this when you said it, but I want to go back to something you said just a few minutes ago. You used the word "falsehoods." You very clearly said that "George W. Bush has told too many falsehoods." What occurs to me now, 3 minutes later, is that here again is another difference between you and John Kerry. John Kerry was caught on tape, as you know, days ago, suggesting that this camp, this administration, these Bush folk, these Republicans are the biggest bunch of liars that I've ever heard. He got taken to task by that, and this guy backed down.

Dean: Oh, I don't think he did, Tavis.

Tavis: Oh, come on, he did back--come on, come on.

Dean: Let's be fair to John Kerry.

Tavis: Howard Dean, he said, "I wasn't talking about the Bush administration. I was talking about these attack dogs." The fact of the matter is he called Bush and his cronies liars. He wouldn't stand by it. You have the guts to come out and say that, but is John Kerry really the guy to step up and take Bush on?

Dean: Look, John Kerry is the only guy to step up and take George Bush on. He's gonna be the Democratic nominee.

Tavis: But successfully.

Dean: I'm gonna defend John Kerry on this one. I don't feel obligated to defend anybody, but I'm gonna defend him on this one from you, because he did step up. He refused to apologize, and he said he was talking about the Bush administration. I didn't get what you got out of that one.

Tavis: All right. So since we're on this, tell me why you're being so nice to John Kerry now. There are folk watching this right now who may have been on vacation for the last few months, didn't know you'd gotten out of the race. They turn on this TV show, and they say, "Is that Howard Dean being so nice to John Kerry, defending John Kerry?"

Dean: Look, first of all, I think there's only one way of sending George--Everybody agrees on my side of the aisle--and a lot of independents--that you can't run half-trillion dollar deficits. You can't mislead the American people about going to war. You can't pass Medicare prescription bills and give the money to insurance companies and drug companies and not to seniors. It's terrible for the country. There's one way of saving this country, and that's sending George Bush back to Crawford, Texas. Only one person can do that, and that's John Kerry. If I want George Bush to go back to Crawford, Texas, I got to support John Kerry, and I encourage people to do that.

Tavis: All right. Well, since you're John Kerry's surrogate now, let me throw a few more John Kerry questions at you.

Dean: I knew I was in trouble now.

Tavis: You are in trouble now. When you decided you wanted to run for the highest office in the land, you understood one thing. Even for a guy who's from the whitest, the whitest state in the country, you understood that you could not win the Democratic nomination without the most loyal constituency within the Democratic Party--that being, of course, African American voters. And so, the Congressional Black Caucus, members of the CBC in Washington, when they had a choice, they didn't go with John Kerry, their Congress mate in the other House, a guy ostensibly they know something about--they served in Congress with this guy. They went with a guy--Howard Dean--from the whitest state in the country, up in Vermont. They did not go with John Kerry when they had the choice. Now, of course, to your earlier point, all the Democrats are gonna get in line behind John Kerry because it's the thing to do. Tell me, though, whether or not John Kerry really can excite and energize these loyal bases within the Democratic Party, namely black voters.

Dean: I think he can. And interestingly enough, he got a higher percentage of African American voters, for example, than John Edwards did, even in competitive states like Georgia. So I think he can. The issue is you cannot take African American or Latino voters, for example, for granted. You can't do that. One of the reasons I got in the race, Tavis, is that the Democratic Party had moved so far to the right and become so afraid of George Bush and the radical right that they wouldn't stand up to him. And that meant they ignored our core constituencies, which are, as you point out, African Americans, trade unionists, Latinos, women. Those are the core constituencies of the Democratic Party. What we did was go right to them first, instead of doing what the Democrats did in 2002, which cost us a bunch of seats, and say 3 weeks before the end to the African-American community, "Oh, please can't you get the vote out?" African-American voters are a lot different than they were when I was 20 years old during the Civil Rights movement. They are sophisticated voters who are not going to automatically vote Democrat anymore, and we should not, as Democrats, assume that they are. We got to give people a reason to vote--black, brown, or white. We just can't take them for granted because they belong to a single group. And that's a lesson the Democratic Party has got to learn, and they'd better learn it on time for the November elections.

Tavis: There are a lot of folk who still feel, inside of black America, that the Democratic Party does, in fact, to your point, take black voters for granted. That the Republican Party ignores the black vote. So what's a black voter to do then?

Dean: Well, we don't--we ought not to expect black voters to automatically vote Democrat. We ought to go out and get that vote. Look, I don't have much to do with the Republican party, but I'll tell you who the most successful political operative on the Republican side is in the last 15 years, and that's Ralph Reed. What Ralph Reed did with the conservative Christian Coalition is go out and get every single one of them to vote. We can do that with African American voters. For us to take African American voters for granted is not only insulting, it's dumb, because we can jack turnout up if we have something to say to the black community. And this also includes women, the Hispanic community, and trade unions-- again, the core of the Democratic Party. But we cannot take those constituencies for granted. We've got to treat them just like voters who we've never met before. We got to get our message out. We've got to work in the communities. We've got to get the vote out and give people a reason to get energized and excited and vote again. Then we can beat George Bush. Those guys are energized. Our guys aren't, and that's why we're not winning elections.

Tavis: All right, so here's your shot. Convince me. Not as a talk-show host. Not as a guy you've known for years. As a black voter. You don't know me, but I'm a black voter. Tell me why I, as a black voter, should go to the polls one more time for another presidential election in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic America ever. Whether I'm Republican or Democrat, the only choice I have is 2 white guys at the top of the tickets. Why should I support that?

Dean: Well, because this is not about race, although it's partly about race because Republicans always make it about race. You know, I was asked a question like this in Washington, D.C., at a big meet-up by a guy who was African American. And he said, "Tell me what you're gonna do." Just something like what you said. And I said, "Look, 95% of all the issues in this country have nothing to do with race. Everybody needs health insurance for their kids. The Democrats will do that, the Republicans never will. Everybody needs a job. George Bush has lost more of them than anybody since Herbert Hoover. The Democrats always have a better opportunity and better luck and better skill at creating jobs. Democrats do. That's historically correct. Everybody wants to see a balanced budget so people can invest in America and create jobs. Republicans don't balance budgets anymore. Democrats do." So my specific case is not just--although we can get to the specific African American case-- it's not just about African Americans or Latinos and so forth. It's about decent health care, it's about education and opportunity, and it's about jobs, and the Republicans have a terrible record in every single one of those areas. Now let's talk specifically about race. George Bush polarized this country by talking about quotas in relationship to the University of Michigan affirmative action program. The word quota is a racially divisive word, which the Republican pollsters use deliberately to send code words to some white folks who are afraid they're gonna lose their jobs to members of minority communities because of affirmative action. Democrats in general defend affirmative action. I always have. Democrats will. Republicans won't. That alone is a pretty good reason for African Americans to keep the faith even though we do need a much bigger effort in terms of diversifying the leadership of our party.

Tavis: I like that phrase, keep the faith. Maybe I'll use it some time on this show.

Dean: Ha ha ha.

Tavis: So we've talked about Howard Dean. We've talked about George Bush. We've talked about John Kerry. We've talked politics. We've talked black votes. Let's talk international issues. The elections in Spain--were they a referendum on George Bush and his fight against terrorism?

Dean: I don't really think so. I can't resist an opportunity to whack the administration when it's justified, but in this case I think it representedů In a small related way, it was. I believe the Spanish voters felt that Prime Minister Aznar misused the facts. He immediately accused the Basque terrorists. The group turned out to be Al Qaeda. I think the Spanish people--or enough of them--felt that he was manipulating the facts to try to influence the election, and they turned on him. So I don't think it was a referendum on George Bush. However, the parallel is that George Bush is also misleading the American public and manipulating information in terms of creation of jobs, in terms of what he's done for seniors' prescription benefits, which has hurt seniors, not help them, in terms of sending us to Iraq. So the referendum is going to end up being the same. Prime Minister Aznar was sent out of office because people felt that he had misused information for his own political gain. President Bush is doing the same thing when you see the World Trade Center ads, when you see the way he's treated veterans, when you see the way he runs up this deficit and costs us jobs. So the referendum is going to be ultimately on the credibility of the president of the United States just as it was on the prime minister of Spain.

Tavis: What should Bush have done differently with regard to Haiti, if anything?

Dean: Well, I tend to agree with John Kerry on this one, although it's a difficult case. I don't know as much about it as I'd like to. I don't have all the intelligence briefings, so I'm a little reluctant to criticize the president, but Kerry's point was a very good one. You have a democratically elected president. I think it would have been better to find a way not to spirit him out of the country and install a different government. On the other hand, the democratically elected president probably cheated on the results when he was re-elected, so it's a tough call one way or the other. In a place like Haiti where you only had one peaceful transfer of power in the entire 200 years of the history of the country, I think it might have been better for us to try to keep Aristide in power with some significant and substantial concessions. The reason I want to give the president a little bit of a pass on this is I don't know what was going on behind the scenes in terms of the negotiations between Aristide and the United States government. It may be that they proposed some things and Aristide refused to do it. I don't know the answer to that, and I'm a little reluctant to condemn the president immediately, but Haiti--we need some real focus on Haiti. I think that the United States has a real role to play there. We sent the Marines in 3 times in their history, pulled them out. It hasn't been effective. It's a small country. We could help that country significantly if we wanted to.

Tavis: If I gave you 10 seconds, 15 seconds--all right, 15--could you tell me one thing that you learned about yourself personally because of this campaign?

Dean: I'm tougher than I thought I was.

Tavis: That's a good one. Toughness is what we need in the White House these days, and whoever gets there had better have it if he wants to make America a better place to live and work. Howard Dean, it's such an honor to talk to you, as always. Thanks for coming on.

Dean: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Take care of yourself.

Dean: Thank you.

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