Interview with Tavis Smiley

Los Angeles, CA, October 1, 2003


SMILEY: My pleasure.

Now we turn to the current Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean. Earlier I spoke with Governor Dean who was in Los Angeles for a campaign event and stopped by our studios for a conversation. I began that conversation by asking the former Vermont governor how he feels about being the current front-runner.

Former Governor HOWARD DEAN (Vermont; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Well, you've got to keep working harder, but that was true anyway.


Dr. DEAN: Mainly, I'm just picking the buckshot out of my backside. They all used to say that I was George McGovern so I couldn't win. Now they're saying I'm Newt Gingrich. So they've got to make up their mind someplace.

SMILEY: That's got to be uncomfortable, though. I mean, it's one thing to be in the middle of the pack or at the back of the pack and, you know, to come on strong. But once you get to that leading position, these guys want you.

Dr. DEAN: Yes, they do.

SMILEY: Every debate they're coming after you.

Dr. DEAN: They do. And, you know—but the thing is, I want change in this country, Tavis. I mean, I think the Democratic Party needs change. That's why we're not winning elections. We're stale. You know, we go out and appeal to the swing voters before we look to our base and that doesn't make any sense. And you're not going to get change with the five Washington guys who have been doing the same thing for the last 15, 20 years. What you've got to do, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, 'If you want to make an omelet, you've got to break some eggs first.' And that's what we're doing.

SMILEY: Has the success of this campaign, particularly the fund raising—I mean, that Internet fund raising, that Web stuff you're doing is amazing. Has the success that you've encountered at this stage in the process surprised you honestly?

Dr. DEAN: Yes. It really has.

SMILEY: That's why I like you. You're so honest about stuff.

Dr. DEAN: It has.


Dr. DEAN: I mean, we didn't expect to be here. But you know what's important is people really want their country back.

SMILEY: Right.

Dr. DEAN: People really do. And we are getting an enormous amount of support all across this political spectrum. We're even having some Republicans come to our campaign—some moderate ones who believe in balanced budgets, which I believe in. And then, of course, we're getting people all the way over to the Green Party. They just want somebody to say what they think again. They're so tired of all this Washington stuff. You know, a little of this and a little of that and we're going to buy—goodness, we're going to please all the interest groups and all that stuff. You just cannot do that anymore. We're not going to win elections. There's not going to be a Democratic Party if we don't stop doing what we're doing and start behaving like a separate...


Dr. DEAN: like we're really supposed to be.

SMILEY: What's the worst thing about peaking at this point in the campaign?

Dr. DEAN: Well, there isn't anything that's really bad about it. I mean, considering where I was last January, which is...

SMILEY: But some folks say you peak too soon, you peter out later.

Dr. DEAN: Well, that's the challenge.


Dr. DEAN: You know, this is a marathon. We've got to eventually take on George Bush if I get the nomination. So I'd much rather be where I am now than where I was last January.

SMILEY: Fair enough. Let me throw two or three things at you that are the rub against you when people talk about Howard Dean's long-term chances. They say, for example, that because you come from a small state like Vermont, you don't know black folk and you really can't inspire the black-base, the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party because there ain't no black folk in Vermont.

Dr. DEAN: Ah, yes. But I'm the only white guy that talks about race the way it needs to be talked about in front of white audiences. I'll talk about affirmative action and talk about what it means to have unconscious biases towards hiring people, like yourself, and institutional racism. I'll talk about quotas and what that means, which is a, you know, deliberate—the president used that word. That is a racially divisive word that is designed to appeal to people's fears that somebody in the minority community is going to take their job or their position in the university. I'll lay that right out in front of both black and white audiences.

SMILEY: Al Sharpton's in the race, so clearly one cannot label you the most liberal guy running for the White House on the Democratic ticket at least. But they say you're too liberal.

Dr. DEAN: Here's where I am on issues. I am very conservative about money. I want a balanced budget. On the other hand, in my state, a third of our seniors have prescription benefits. Now none of those—all the guys I'm running against from Washington, including Wes Clark, who has spent a combined amount of time of over 100 years in Washington, do we have health insurance benefits for seniors now? No—prescription benefits. Do we have health insurance for all kids? No. We have those things in Vermont. So I consider myself socially progressive and fiscally conservative. And I think that's where America needs to be.

SMILEY: They say, even if you had a shot, once Wes Clark got into the race, the momentum is going to shift and your time in the sun is over.

Dr. DEAN: I don't think that there are an awful lot of people in this country that are going to nominate a Republican to fill the Democratic slot for president. Harry...

SMILEY: Strong words. Is this guy really Republican, as you see it?

Dr. DEAN: He was until 25 days ago. I mean, I like Wes Clark. He is a good guy. He's a smart guy. But the truth is, he voted for Reagan, he voted for Nixon, he voted for Reagan twice, actually. That's not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is he claims he voted for Al Gore, but then 2001 after the election he went down to raise money for the Arkansas Republicans and told everybody that George Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were wonderful public servants. That doesn't sound like a Democrat to me.

SMILEY: Clinton calls you and says to you that, 'Hey, I'm not endorsing Wes Clark.' You guys had a private conversation which became very public when this story came out about Clinton talking to a few of you guys, at least the front-runners. Do you believe President Bill Clinton? Is he not supporting Wes Clark? Is he tacitly supporting Wes Clark? Where is Clinton these days?

Dr. DEAN: I don't know if there's any evidence that he's supporting Wes Clark. I had a nice conversation with—I try to keep in touch with him. He's probably the greatest political mind of any president since FDR. And I try to keep in touch with him. You know, what I think what Bill Clinton wants is somebody to uphold is legacy in terms of social programs, in terms of balancing the budget. And that certainly isn't going to be George Bush.

SMILEY: You were out early, you were out often, criticizing this war with Iraq. You obviously, in every chance you get, take on some of the Democrats running for the nomination along with you for voting for everything that George W. Bush wanted. You've given that speech 1,001 times. The question I guess now is: What do you make of this Iraq situation, the story about the White House leaking apparently—allegedly leaking the—and outing this undercover CIA agent? What do you make of this mess we're in in Iraq right now?

Dr. DEAN: Now that we're there, we can't get out. I mean, I disagreed with Wes Clark and John Kerry and Lieberman and Edwards and Gephardt and all those folks that supported the war at the time. They've all changed their mind or many of them—actually, Lieberman hasn't but many of the other ones have. And I think that's positive. But here I am, the governor of Vermont, with a pretty decent foreign policy team. I could figure out that the president wasn't being candid with us about what the facts were and the other guys couldn't. I think the most important part of foreign...

SMILEY: Did Bush lie or did he get bad information?

Dr. DEAN: There was no way of knowing that right now. But we know for a fact that he did two things that weren't—said two things that weren't true. One is that Iraq was purchasing uranium from Africa. That flat out wasn't true. And the other is that he led us to believe that Iraq and Saddam Hussein—I mean, Osama bin Laden were hand-in-glove and he admitted last week there was no evidence for that. That there was no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. So I think we did go to war based on a series of things that weren't true, and the president told us things that weren't true. We don't know why that was and I think there should be an investigation as to why that was. It's a pretty serious matter.

SMILEY: There are many who suggest that the president, if he's vulnerable at all, is most vulnerable on the situation in Iraq and obviously repeating the mistakes of his father, some argue, vulnerable on the economy.

Dr. DEAN: Well, I think that one of the strongest positions I have is the fact that I did come out against the Iraq war early when everybody else didn't. I think the Iraq war has now put us in a really bad position. I also think this president is very weak on defense. He's willing to give $3 trillion worth of tax cuts, but last week a major news organization smuggled uranium into Los Angeles from Indonesia and we didn't pick it up. He's willing to give $3 trillion worth of tax cuts, if you include the interest payments on the money that he's got to borrow to do it, but not enough money to buy the enriched uranium stocks of the Soviet Union. If that gets in terrorist hands, then we've really got a major problem.

SMILEY: Should the Senate give him this $87 billion he's asking for?

Dr. DEAN: I don't think the Senate should give him the $87 billion unless he's willing to get rid of some of the tax cuts. There's no reason that we should have to pay over and above what he's already given away to Ken Lay and his friends down in Texas. That $87 billion has got to come from some place and it ought to come from getting rid of those tax cuts on people who didn't need the tax cuts to begin with.

SMILEY: Your handlers are here to get you. You've got to go. Let me ask you, finally, you're back in California. You've been here many times before. You're here now on the eve of a historic election to recall the Democratic governor of the state, Gray Davis. Didn't want to ask you what you think about the outcome, that's conjecture. What's it going to do, though, nationally for you guys on the Democratic ticket if the Republicans upend Gray Davis in California?

Dr. DEAN: I don't think that's a good thing to recall this governor and have a Republican governor who's going to make it easier for George Bush to win California in 2004. I think it's a mistake and I hope they don't recall the governor, because having a Republican governor in California is not going to make it easier to have a Democrat in the White House in 2004.

SMILEY: Former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, now the front-runner of the Democratic side, at least. Governor, as always, it's nice to see you.

Dr. DEAN: Thanks, Tavis.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio ®. All rights reserved.

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