Interview with Tavis Smiley

January 28, 2004



From NPR in Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley.

On today's program, a class-action reparations lawsuit gets rejected by a federal judge. Now litigants are exploring their next legal move. Medical commentator Dr. Ian Smith shares how diabetics can best keep themselves healthy. And a new book about mixed race hits home.

But first, New Hampshire and beyond. The race began in Iowa, and yesterday seven Democratic presidential hopefuls continued their sprint in New Hampshire toward their party's nomination. A record 180,000 registered voters battled ice, wind and snow to cast a vote in that state's Democratic primary. And as predicted, John Kerry, the US senator from Massachusetts, topped the poll.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Thank you, New Hampshire, for lifting up this campaign and the cause of an America that belongs, not to the privileged, not to the few, that belongs to all Americans. And I...

(Soundbite of applause, cheers)

Sen. KERRY: You stayed the course here in New Hampshire, and because of you, this has been a successful and a happy campaign.

(Soundbite of applause, cheers)

SMILEY: New Hampshire, with its reputation for unpredictability and surprises, last night produced an outcome that surprised few, in light of recent opinion polls placing Kerry ahead of the pack. Howard Dean, who just weeks ago was considered by many pundits to be all but the crowned Democratic nominee, came in second. But the former governor of Vermont says that that in itself is a victory.

And I'm pleased to welcome back to this program the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean.

Governor, nice to talk to you.

Dr. HOWARD DEAN (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Good morning, Tavis. How are you?

SMILEY: I'm doing well. And yourself?

Dr. DEAN: Good.

SMILEY: Let me just assure you at the outset of this conversation, you'll be happy to know I am not going to play any audio version of that speech. I'm not even going to go there. I...

Dr. DEAN: I thought the one last night was much tamer, but a lot of people complained it was so boring.

SMILEY: I mean, let's start there. You can't make people happy. You come out in Iowa and you try to energize your troops, you try to get them pumped up. They talked about you for doing that. Last night, you were, you know, a little less muted than you-a little less than you gave in Iowa, and they still talked about you. You can't win, I guess.

Dr. DEAN: No, I don't-you know, the media's entertainment. What are you going to do? I think it's fine. You know, my attitude is if you can't take a punch, you ought not to be running for president.

SMILEY: Yeah. Some pundits wrote you off after that speech in Iowa last week, but these same pundits say that you showed strength in your second-place finish in New Hampshire last night. So how do you see it?

Dr. DEAN: Oh, we did. We came back, we did what we had to do. And, you know, now we're going on. I mean, I just don't believe in the long run that we can beat George Bush with somebody from inside the Beltway. I really don't. I think that we've got to have a different message, a message for standing up for ordinary Americans, not just talking about it at election time, but really doing it.

SMILEY: You had a strong second-place finish last night, and I suspect on the one hand, before I move forward here, let me just ask, are you relieved that New Hampshire is out of the way and you did come in second?

Dr. DEAN: Well, I'm not relieved that New Hampshire's out of the way. New Hampshire let me get back in the race. But I do think that we did fine in New Hampshire. I wish we'd won. We go into every single primary hoping to win. But, you know, I think we did what we had to do, which was to come back, put Iowa behind us and get back in the race.

SMILEY: Now as I said a moment ago, many of the pundits last night were talking about the fact that you did come in second and that had to be a relief for your campaign. Alternately, though, the bad news is, to your point, that you did lose last night. You didn't come in first place; that means you didn't win in Iowa, you didn't win in New Hampshire. How do you move forward at this point?

Dr. DEAN: Oh, you just keep going. You just keep-we have a strong organization everywhere, right through the 19th of March, which is Illinois, so we've got good people working for us everywhere, and people who really fundamentally want change. Look, there's a real difference between me and all the other folks in the race. They're all good people. Any of them, in my view, are better than George W. Bush. But they've all had their careers in Washington. They've never balanced the budget. They've never delivered health insurance. And they're making a lot of promises to people that they can't keep.

We have a $1/2 trillion deficit. Now they're promising middle-class tax cuts. They're promising help for health insurance, help for college tuition. Doesn't this sound familiar? What we've done is reached out to 50 percent of the people that don't vote in this country because they can't tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, particularly at election time, and give them a reason to vote. And that is the only thing that's going to beat George Bush.

SMILEY: I've heard a lot of pundits over the last few days, certainly the last few weeks, say a lot of stupid things. I'm sure you have. I was just blown away last night by Robert Novak, for example, on CNN, who was doing a serious-You've got to get a copy of this tape, Governor. He was doing a serious analysis of you keeping your coat on, your jacket on last night in your concession speech and whether or not your jacket on or off was going to make a certain statement about you, which is really fascinating and stupid at the same time.

Dr. DEAN: Isn't that the guy who revealed the name of the CIA agent publicly?

SMILEY: Well, we won't talk about that, but...

Dr. DEAN: Well, maybe we ought to. I wonder if that's a criminal offense.

SMILEY: Yeah. Let me say this, though, that there are some things I'm hearing, though, that do seem to make some sense. And one of the things that we keep hearing, with all due respect to your campaign and your fine staff, is that people are switching to John Kerry, and now he's the front-runner and you're the former front-runner because of one issue: electability. They don't think that you can beat George Bush.

Dr. DEAN: Well, I think that's a matter for voters to decide. You know, a month ago the polls showed that I was the person that was electable and they weren't. My belief about that is that the person who seems to be the front-runner seems to get the tag for electability. But, you know, I've made my case. How are we going to beat George Bush by trying to be like him? How are we going to beat George Bush claiming we're standing up for working families when you've been in the Senate for 20 years or whatever? I just don't think that we're going to, you know, get the kind of traction that we're going to have to get in order to beat George Bush...

SMILEY: But when you say, Governor, that you want the voters to decide, that's precisely the point. The voters are deciding, and in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectfully, they think that on this issue of electability, the exit polls keep telling us that you are not the man to beat the president.

Dr. DEAN: Well, I respect the voters' judgment. That's what you have to do in this business, but I differ from it. And I'm going to make my case in a whole lot of states in the next 10 or 12 days.

SMILEY: Just...

Dr. DEAN: I fundamentally believe that we have no chance of beating George Bush with folks that have been in the political game for all that time.

SMILEY: I know you saw this Newsweek poll that put Senator Kerry ahead of you in a neck-to-neck, one-on-one matchup with President Bush.

Dr. DEAN: Right.

SMILEY: If that perception continues to persist, how do you successfully wage the rest of this campaign?

Dr. DEAN: You just continue to raise the issues. I'm standing up for ordinary working families. I think the power in Washington has forgotten all about America's families. And we've got a record in Vermont that, you know, frankly, trumps everybody else's. Not only did we balance budgets; we've invested in early childhood. Fifty percent of all my appointees to the bench have been women. I mean, there's not anybody who's got the record I've got.

You know, you mentioned the poll in Newsweek. CNN/Newsweek had a similar poll a month ago that showed that I, you know, could beat George Bush. You can't do this by polls. You've got to go out and ask voters. And, you know, every night, every week now we've got primaries and so forth. I love Election Day because it's when the voters get to speak, not the pundits and not the people who put you on the cover of Time and Newsweek.

SMILEY: You know this better than I do because you've spent a lot more time there than I have; Iowa and New Hampshire I speak of now. They happen to be, not just two of the smallest states in the country, but indeed two of the whitest states in the country. You now head down South.

Dr. DEAN: Yeah.

SMILEY: Next Tuesday, South Carolina. How are you going to play to people of color, namely black folk?

Dr. DEAN: Well, we've worked hard there. We're the only candidate who did significant buys of African-American newspapers, African-American radio stations. We believe in putting money into the community, and, you know, that's how we approach it. We've got a very strong Hispanic outreach program in Arizona and New Mexico. And we're just going to have to see how this goes. Missouri, there's a significant African-American population. Michigan, which is where I'm going on Thursday, significant African-American population.

So the issues that African-Americans care about are the same issues everybody else cares about: health insurance, jobs; what are you going to do for small businesses and educational opportunities? Everybody needs that, and I'd like to keep this campaign on the ground that Democrats can win on instead of the ground Republicans can win on, which is trying to pretend we're almost as conservative as them.

SMILEY: Is there a reason beyond the fact-and on my television show, I had Jesse Jackson on-Senior, and he-or actually Senior and Junior on two different shows, and this issue came up around the time that Sharpton was attacking you about your lack of a record for giving people of color, namely black folk in Vermont, positions in the hierarchy. And the defense of you was that there ain't a whole lot of black folk in Vermont. Beyond that defense, what do you say to black folk about your record on issues that are important specifically to black people?

Dr. DEAN: My record is actually better. What Sharpton said is, 'Do you have any black people in your Cabinet?' Well, we had six Cabinet appointees and the average duration of the Cabinet appointment was about six years. We did have African-Americans in the senior staff who were running the agencies and Hispanics, I might add, in the senior staff on my floor. And we had a great many more minority people in state government when I left than when I came. So, you know, I don't really take a back seat to anybody on civil rights. I signed a bill that jeopardized my political career to give civil rights to gays and lesbians. And I just said also that 50 percent of all the appointees to the bench were women.

You're going to have a campaign that looks like the rest of-I mean, a Cabinet and a federal government that looks like the rest of America if I become president. I think that's what's really important. Not only are they going to look like the rest of America; unlike George Bush, they're going to act like the rest of America.

SMILEY: I think John Kerry's wrong, respectfully. I don't think that a Democrat can win the White House without winning down South. One, what's your sense of that statement? And, number two, tell me whether a guy from the Northeast, a place like Vermont, can, in fact-never mind the issue of race. Can you win down South?

Dr. DEAN: I think we can win down South, but we've got to keep in mind that the issues down South are the same as they are every place else. The Republicans since 1968, Richard Nixon's strategy, Southern strategy, have been playing up race every year as the issue. We've got to get away from that. When they say 'race,' we've got to say 'jobs,' because everybody's losing their jobs in places like South Carolina. It doesn't matter if they're white or black. They still go overseas. Those are the kinds of issues you've got to stick to.

You know, the issues in the South are the same as they are everywhere else, and believe me, I've spent plenty of time in the South during this campaign, and we've got to get away from this notion that we're afraid of the South. I told all the leaders, even in Alabama and Mississippi, which are pretty conservative, that I'll be down there, you know, if they want me and I won't if they don't. But I'm determined to rebuild the Democratic Party as a national party.

SMILEY: Got about 30 seconds here. Let me ask you, after what happened in Iowa specifically, are you still as prepared now as you were then to be as adamant as you have been in your anti-Iraq, anti-war stance?

Dr. DEAN: You know, it's not so much that I'm anti-war. I supported the first Gulf War, which interestingly Senator Kerry did not, for reasons that are not clear to me. I supported the Afghanistan war after 3,000 of our people were murdered on our soil. But in this case, the president just didn't tell the truth. We don't know why he didn't tell the truth. Was he misinformed? Did Dick Cheney alter the intelligence reports? We don't know why. We do know that Dick Cheney went to the CIA and sat down with middle-level CIA agents and berated them for giving him information that he didn't think was helpful to his case. Whatever reason, the president was not truthful to the American people about why we went to war. And, you know, as commander in chief, I'm very happy to send people to war if we have to, if we have to defend the country, of course I'll do it.

SMILEY: Yeah. Gov...

Dr. DEAN: But I'm not going to send people to war ever without telling the American people why they're going and the truth about why they're going, and this president did not do that.

SMILEY: Governor Dean, I'm out of time. I've got to run. As always, a pleasure to talk to you. And all the best on the rest of the campaign.

Dr. DEAN: Thanks, Tavis.

SMILEY: Take care.

Dr. DEAN: Bye.

Copyright 2004 National Public Radio . All rights reserved.

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