The Tavis Smiley Show

September 29, 2004

Tavis: Good evening from Boston, I’m Tavis Smiley. It’s night two of the Democratic National Convention. In a moment, a conversation with the former Democratic front runner who took center stage here earlier tonight, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean...

Tavis: Governor, nice to see you.

Howard Dean: Good to be back.

Tavis: Thanks for coming by, man.

Dean: Thanks Tavis.

Tavis: Since you are a featured speaker at this convention, you obviously gave up your delegation and encouraged them to support John Kerry. What’d you get for that?

Dean: Alright, I don’t look at what I can get for that, as John Kerry in the White House. I mean I started this campaign, “A” to change the Democratic Party, “B” to change the country. Of course I would have liked to have been president but that’s not going to happen in 2004. But I think we can still change the country, and to do that we’ve got to have a new president.

Tavis: What’s the most important thing that a platform like this provides one who ran the kind of campaign that you ran? What does Howard Dean most look forward to out of a platform like this to talk to a national audience?

Dean: Well, what I get out of this convention is,we got out of it a long time ago. When we were in the primary, I wanted to force the Democratic Party to be a centrist party again. The truth is, everybody said that I was the most liberal candidate in the race. The truth is I’m a centrist. I balance budgets. I support the death penalty in some instances. I got an “A” for the National Rifle Association. You know, now it is true we have universal health care for all our kids in my state under 18. We do early childhood. We have a strong environmental presence. We have equal rights for every American including gay and lesbian Americans. So, I consider that to be mainstream America, and the Democratic Party for a long time was, sort of, Republican like. Well, they’re not that anymore, and I think that what our campaign showed is that’s not what you have to do to win. What you have to do to win is stand up for yourself and say what you believe.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that because one of the things that I’ve been waiting to ask you about specifically is this notion that came from the top down--John Kerry down--that there’s going to be no Bush bashing at this convention, interestingly which we’ll come back to in a second. Jimmy Carter, of all people, the Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter, was the strongest guy, I think in many respects last night with some of the comments he made about our nation’s soul being at stake here. We’ll come back to Carter in a second, but the reason I want to--what I want to get to you is, this notion of no Bush bashing at the convention center as John Kerry and you’re a featured speaker and--my phraseology not yours--you went after Bush, and you and you went after Bush hard. That’s how you gained the attraction that you gained in the primary season. Obviously, it worked for you to a certain point, why all of a sudden no Bush bashing and how do voters know how to distinguish between party versus the other if you don’t want to make a distinction and the other guy?

Dean: Well, I don’t think anybody is saying no Bush bashing, meaning we’re not going to draw differences between our positions. I thought Bill Clinton’s speech last night was masterful. He very clearly--

Tavis: He’s pretty good at that.

Dean: He is--you know he’s still the best in the business.

Tavis: Yeah, he’s amazing, yeah.

Dean: But I know he laid he out the case. He said that this president chose to do this--run up a half trillion dollar in deficits. We choose to balance the budget. This president chose to send a thousand people to die in Iraq; we thought there was a different way of doing it. Now, that’s not Bush bashing. That is, there is a very clear record and a very clear difference. What I think he didn’t want--John Kerry didn’t want and I agree with him--is we ought not to have personal attacks on the president, and there’s certainly temptation to do that given the Halliburton scandals and the Enron scandals and all those kinds of things that the administration’s so close to. But I think this convention has to be about John Kerry. When you, in the middle of an eight year run for president, when you have that mid-year election--mid time election at four years, there’s two questions that voters have to answer, not one. In 2000, they just had to answer one question, “Which one of these guys do you want?” In 2004, the first question has to be, “Do you think the president should be re-elected?” It turns out that most people think the answer to that is no, right now. Now, the next question is, can the guy who’s running against them step into the job. That’s John Kerry’s job in these four days is to introduce himself to Americans, let people know who he is, what his values are, and what kind of president he’d be. That’s what he has to do in these four days.

Tavis: In various states around the country--very important states like Ohio and Missouri, those two come to mind immediately even in Michigan, there are a number of places--battleground states beyond where this race is really too close to call. Every poll, every survey, every study says that Bush and Kerry are dead even, and if not dead even, they are certainly within one guy--they’re both within the margin of error. Let me ask you a question, and I want to preface this by saying this is a philosophical question not a political question. Why is this race so close? If you believe this guy lied, you know, one of my favorite lines not in--in terms of the delivery of the line, Barbara Mikulski senator from Maryland said here yesterday that speaking of George Bush, he can’t find Bin Laden, he can’t find weapons of mass destruction, he can’t find jobs. We ought to find a new president. I thought that was cute. Great stuff. We’re going to get some great stuff from the Republican Convention as well, in New York. That was a great line. If this guy can’t find weapons, he can’t find Bin Laden, he can’t find jobs, he lied to the American public, if we’re to believe the Democratic message, tell me philosophically then, why this race is still so close?

Dean: There are two reasons. First of all, as I said, the majority of people who ask have already decided that George Bush ought not to be re-elected and having yet decided that John Kerry ought to be elected, they need to decide that, and the message that comes out of this convention’s going to be a lot about that. People don’t know John Kerry. People say, “How is that?” You and I, we follow politics closely. The average American is on summer--is out on the summer right now. They’re trying to take some vacation, maybe trying to visit with the kids. They’re working--they’re trying to make sure they can spend a little time actually with their families. They’re not paying attention to politics right yet.

Tavis: But if this guy is really that bad, who cares? If I didn’t know who Howard Dean was but he was anybody but Bush given how bad this guy has really been--the story you guys are trying to sell us--

Dean: George Bush’s policies are dreadful for the country. This is probably the worst president we’ve had since Warren Harding, but people like him. He has a personality that’s charming, he speaks with great conviction even though he’s usually wrong; those are attributes that are strong. Bill Clinton once said that people will vote for someone who’s strong and wrong before they’ll vote for somebody who’s weak and right. What we’ve got to show is that we’re strong and right. So, it’s not a surprise that an incumbent president has good poll numbers right now. I think it’s actually pretty awful frankly that he’s tied with a guy that most people don’t know much about. But I think, you know, he does have some strong personal attributes, but he’s a terrible manager and really bad things have happened. Half trillion-dollar deficits, jobs going to China and Mexico, and he’s doing nothing about it. So, people are going to look at his record ultimately and decide, can John Kerry be president? If they decide John Kerry can be president he’s going to win because they’re not going to re-elect George Bush.

Tavis: Weeks ago--literally just that recently--weeks ago John Kerry has been criticized by me and the media--many of us in the media for not having found a theme, as it were, for his campaign. He didn’t have a theme; he has a theme now. Respected at home, no, strong at home, respected in the world.

Dean: Yeah.

Tavis: I should know that by now. We’ve been here for three days--two or three days now. Strong at home, respected in the world. What do you make of that?

Dean: I think it’s a great thing, yes. The two greatest tragedies of George Bush’s presidency are the things that are most important for every president. We have an economy that’s built on a house of cards. You cannot run half trillion-dollar deficits year after year after year and expect our children to have jobs, let alone us. And we are the--this is the first president since World War I has ended where we’ve lost the moral leadership of the world. First time. American’s don’t like living in a country that’s become weaker, and, under this president, we’ve become weaker both morally and economically. I think it’s a great thing for John Kerry to talk about restoring America.

Tavis: If Al Gore had given the kind of speech routinely four years ago that he gave last night, would he be the president?

Dean: I think so; but on the other hand, if they hadn’t kicked 8,000 African Americans off the voting rolls illegally in Florida, he’d be the president. So, you know, there’s a lot of would have, should have, could have’s in this business.

Tavis: I raised this issue earlier today, governor, on a radio program with a couple of guests, including Dee Dee Meyers, Bill Clinton’s former press secretary; and I asked Dee Dee, which I now want to ask you, whether or not Bill Clinton does--as a matter of fact, I asked Bill Clinton this question--we had an interview with President Clinton on this TV program last night--and I asked the president this, whether or not he thinks that he does Kerry a service or a disservice? When he steps on the stage, he sucks up all the light. When he walks into a room, he sucks the oxygen out of the room. This guy clearly has got it. I ain’t trying to hate on the guy. If you got it, you got, and if you got it, flaunt it. The good news is he’s got it, and every time he steps on the stage here, you get reminded this guy’s got it. The bad news is when he reminds you that he’s got it, it reminds you that the other guy ain’t got it. [Is this] a disservice?

Dean: No, Tavis. I’ve done a lot of thinking about that because people have said that about me, that I’m as bad--hire people and all that stuff and junk--John Kerry is John Kerry. The best thing that John Kerry needs to do is not to worry about charismatic politicians and all that stuff. Nobody’s ever going to touch Bill Clinton, not in our lifetime. He’s the most charismatic extraordinary exceptional person that’s been in the White House in terms of his political skills since anybody since Franklin Roosevelt. John Kerry shouldn’t worry about that. Just be John Kerry. Everybody knows that people are different. When John--and I think John’s done a great job on this in the last few weeks. I’ve traveled with him, I don’t think the national media’s written about it yet, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’ve traveled with him. He started to connect with people, he’s starting to be more relaxed about who he is. All he has to show the American people is who he is.

Tavis: How good a selection was John Edwards?

Dean: Excellent. Couldn’t have done a better job. He bumped up John in the polls three or four points. He was the strongest candidate, and I think he’s going to bring some energy and some charisma and some populism to the campaign. I think it’s a great choice.

Tavis: How good, at this point, are Kerry and Edwards chances? What kind of bump are they going to get out of this?

Dean: I think they’ll get a bump. It’s impossible to say how much. I think this is going to be a very close race, just like you said, right down to the last two or three weeks. Finally, two weeks from the end, the last few people are going to make up their mind.

Tavis: Governor, it’s always nice to see you.

Dean: My great pleasure.

Tavis: Take care of yourself.

Dean: We'll see you soon.

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