Interview: Kate O’Connor on Dean’s presidential campaign, Part 2

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(Host) Some have blamed the press for Howard Dean’s now-famous Iowa collapse in his run for the presidency. Others have singled out divisions between Dean’s Washington campaign and his Vermont staff. Throughout the campaign for the Democratic nomination, no one was closer to Dean than longtime aide Kate O’Connor.

In the second of two stories in which O’Connor reflects on the campaign, she tells VPR’s Susan Keese that the third place finish in Iowa was a shock.

(Keese) O’Connor says she doesn’t regret the role she played as someone who cared about the candidate and what he stood for, rather than just the race. As the campaign took off, she says, only three of its hundreds of staff were people who had worked for Dean before.

(O’Connor) “We became very close to someone who worked for Jimmy Carter when he ran for president and he said to me one day, he called me up and he goes, ‘Kate, you need to stay close to Howard.’ And this was when it was still Howard and I. And I said, ‘Well what do you mean?’ He said, ‘It’s very important that Howard have people around him that know who he is.’ And as the campaign grew bigger and bigger I began to understand what he meant. Because things can get away from the person that’s running, the candidate, so quickly.”

(Keese) The campaign started off slowly.

(O’Connor) “But it shot so fast. And I think it took all of us, even in the organization, really by surprise. We just weren’t ready for it.”

(Keese) She remembers a Martin Luther King Day event in Iowa. It was the morning before the caucuses.

(O’Connor) “It was in part poor planning on our part, but we were trying to get into the building where the King event was happening. And the press had surrounded Howard and it was people with TV cameras, microphones and some people were walking backwards – it was actually really scary.”

(Keese) Eventually Dean chose to leave rather than disrupt the gathering. Outside, he gave the press a tongue-lashing.

(Dean, talking to press outside) “You guys have got to behave yourselves out of respect for Dr. King.”

(Keese) But by then the damage had been done. In his book, Trippi says he saw the Iowa disaster coming. O’Connor says she and Dean were shocked by the third-place finish.

(O’Connor) “Our people in Iowa were telling us we had the people to go to the caucuses. So it wouldn’t have been a surprise to come in second, but the surprise was coming in third.”

(Keese) O’Connor says she doesn’t blame any one person or event. As the front runner, Dean was everyone’s target. The press was portraying him as a shoot-from-the-hip firebrand rather than the pragmatic governor she knew him to be.

Dean’s unscripted ‘gaffes’ were nothing new to her. But the daily damage control took its toll on his already exhausted staff.

(O’Connor) “It’s easy to look back now and say we should have done x, y, or z. But there are some things I think would never change and people ordering Howard to do something is one of them.”

(Keese) A last minute invasion by hordes of orange-hatted Deaniacs from around the country also backfired among campaign-weary Iowans. Negative TV ads hurt too. And the campaign’s negative response only made things worse.

O’Connor says the ferocity of attacks from fellow Democrats surprised her, though it had been clear from the beginning that the party leadership didn’t want Dean to win.

(Sound of Dean’s Iowa “scream” speech.)

(Keese) By the time Dean’s Iowa ‘scream’ speech became a national joke, the momentum belonged to Kerry and Edwards. Critics have said Dean should have had a written concession speech and O’Connor says in hindsight, that’s true.

But, although the noisy crowds of Deaniacs continued through New Hampshire and beyond, Dean’s race for the nomination was over.

(O’Connor) “It’s almost like in some way, I don’t think the country was ready for Howard either. You know, Howard is a different kind of candidate. He’s not the polished, the expensive suit, read a speech that you’re given. And ultimately he’s not president, but he was successful. He had an impact on this election that I don’t think anybody, even his strongest critics, can deny. You know, he talked about the things that people really did want to hear about and it was in a way that got them back involved in the process because they felt that here’s somebody that gets it.”

(Keese) O’Connor left about a month after Dean pulled out. She says she doesn’t know what’s next. Her two-year marathon with Dean left her feeling raw and somewhat disillusioned. But she’s also proud of what was accomplished.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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