Interview: Kate O’Connor on Dean’s presidential campaign, Part 1

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(Host) Many stories have been told about what went on behind the scenes in Howard Dean’s campaign for president. Some of those stories involve one of Dean’s longtime and closest aides, Kate O’Connor. Recently, O’Connor looked back on the campaign in a rare interview with VPR’s Susan Keese.

In part one of that interview, O’Connor says some of the published stories are false. And she says she still respects the way Dean spoke his mind.

(O’Connor) “Howard got up and challenged the Democratic Party leadership for supporting the war. And to watch the people in the crowd stand up and cheer for Howard, you could just see the dilemma. He took on his party and eventually they had to all stand up in front and clap, but the look on their faces said ‘Oh, no.” It was an amazing thing to watch.”

(Keese) O’Connor hit the road with Dean more than two years ago to test the waters for a presidential run. Dean would speak to small groups at house parties around the country. O’Connor collected names and business cards from people who liked what he had to say.

As the campaign became a grass roots Internet insurgency, her chatty from-the-road posts made her a celebrity with Dean’s plugged in fans. She blogged about the rigors of the road and Dean’s passion for Krispy Kreme donuts.

O’Connor was Dean’s most trusted aide, starting in 1990 when she helped him run for lieutenant governor. Later she moved on with him to the governor’s office and eventually became Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs.

After the Dean campaign’s collapse, a lot was written about differences between key players. An article in the Washington Post blamed problems between Dean’s Vermont staff and his Washington campaign pros for the campaign’s unraveling. Joe Trippi was Dean’s campaign manager and the architect of his Internet strategy. In his recent book, he singles out O’Connor as the source of many of those problems. O’Connor said the accusations surprised her.

(O’Connor) “Which may sound like, you must be totally naive Kate, but – I was out on the road with Howard and I didn’t see it coming. All of a sudden I’m getting phone calls from reporters saying, you’re the reason that the campaign blew up. And I was honestly shocked by it and I was very upset by it because it just was not true. And there would be this list of stuff that I had supposedly done.”
(Keese) “Like what?”
(O’Connor) “You know, I didn’t let Howard talk with people in the office and I was telling him not to give speeches and I was hiding documents in my garage and I had documents in my trunk. It was the most absurd stuff that I’ve ever heard.”

(Keese) O’Connor acknowledges that she was often the bearer of bad news when Dean decided not to do something someone wanted him to do.

(O’Connor) “I never edited a speech before he saw it. I’d always give him the full text. But I’d always tell the people in advance, ‘You guys he’s not going to say it.’ So there was a lot of that.”

(Keese) O’Connor says no one, including her, could manipulate Howard Dean.

(O’Connor) “I think that’s one thing the people who didn’t know him didn’t understand at the time, that you just don’t take Howard Dean into a room and say, this is the way you’re going to do it.”

(Keese) O’Connor saw that as a strength on Dean’s part.

(O’Connor) “He got to frontrunner status with 10,000 people coming to hear him speak [by] just being who he was. So if he had changed that and packaged himself as a typical candidate, who knows…”

(Keese) O’Connor admits she and Trippi had their differences. An article in the Atlantic by Dean’s former pollster says Trippi was a brilliant visionary but a poor manager, given to lashing out at co-workers when things didn’t go his way. O’Connor says she wasn’t crazy about his Cherry Skoal chewing tobacco or the mountains of fast-food wrappers in the office they shared.

(O’Connor) “But in some ways I think we were the same. We had our opinions about things and we’d hash it out sometimes loudly. But we got along well in the beginning and I guess towards the end we had deteriorated more to a level than I had understood that we had deteriorated.”

(Host) On Friday we’ll have more of Susan Keese’s interview with former Dean aide Kate O’Connor, including her take on what went wrong in Iowa.

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