Year in Review, Part 2: Howard Dean

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(Host) All this week, VPR marks the transition between the years. We look back at the events that shaped our state in the past 12 months.

The most compelling political news was the remarkable story of Howard Dean and a presidential campaign that wasn’t to be. Today, in our series on “2004, the Year in Review,” VPR’s Steve Delaney examines the mark Dean has made on American politics.

(Delaney) As the year began, the biggest political question in the country was can Howard Dean’s rush to the presidential nomination be stopped?

(Dean) “I’ll tell you right now – I personally like John Edwards, John Kerry and I like Dick Gephardt, but they weren’t there when it was necessary to stand up to this president of the United States and say ‘no’ on the war in Iraq. And I like John Edwards, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt, but they weren’t there when it came to stand up on No Child Left Behind.”

(Delaney) The former Governor had come to personify opposition to the Iraq war, and laid claim to custody of the Democrats’ core values. He challenged his party to take on President Bush, head to head.

(Dean) “We are not gonna beat George Bush with a Washington insider. We need somebody who’ll stand up when it counts. I stood up against this war when nobody else dared to, when George Bush was at 70 percent in the polls, I stood up against No Child Left Behind, because I knew what it was going to do to school boards and local property tax payers, when George Bush was ramming it down everybody else’s throat, and I’ll stand up for ordinary Americans, when folks are just gonna want to keep the culture of corporate fats cats and special interests in Washington, we’re gonna change that.”

(Delaney) Dean’s meteoric rise had been fueled by his campaign’s mastery of internet support-building and fund-raising, a new wrinkle that will probably be his real claim to a place in American political history.

Early in January, the doctor was in, running hot in Iowa, where conventional wisdom had it that John Kerry was flat, John Edwards was young, and Richard Gephardt was old news But there were also indications that the Dean campaign was sputtering, in its responses to attacks by rivals.

Three weeks later Kerry’s revitalized campaign won the Iowa caucuses. That night, Dean tried to re-energize his supporters in a speech that went into the Hall of Fame for self-inflicted political wounds, along with George Bush’s “read my lips” no-tax-hike pledge, Walter Mondale’s promise to raise taxes, and Ted Kennedy’s failure to explain to a CBS interviewer why he wanted to be president.

(Dean) “If you had told us one year ago that we were going to come in third in Iowa, we would have given anything for that. And you know something, you know something, not only are we going to New Hampshire, we’re going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Minnesota and North Dakota and New Mexico and California and Texas and New York and South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan and then we’re going to Washington D.C. to take back the White House. Yeagh!” (Dean screams.)

(Delaney) VPR’s Bob Kinzel has covered Howard Dean for 20 years. He was in the Iowa crowd that night.

(Kinzel) “I didn’t have headphones on that night so I heard the speech as Dean’s way of being heard above the very loud cheering of the 3,000 supporters in the room. Just to my right, a national TV reporter, with headphones on, heard Dean through a directional microphone that screened out the crowd noise. When he heard the scream, he rolled his eyeballs and shook his head. And at the moment I didn’t understand why he reacted the way that he did.”

(Delaney) Rightly or wrongly, the national media never let go of that moment. Campaign Manager Joe Trippi tried to assess why Dean got only 18 percent of Iowa’s caucus-goers.

(Trippi) “The mistake we made was twofold. One just in that whole three weeks responding to everything that was coming in we lost our message. And while we were doing that Edwards and John Kerry were sounding more like Howard Dean than themselves. At the same time Gephardt, he was fighting to the death here – fought to the death – and did a lot of damage to us. I mean, look what happened to him and it did a lot of damage to us as well and these two guys are sort of riding clean.”

(Delaney) Dean tried hard to recover in New Hampshire, but more disappointments would follow, including the departure of Trippi, whose reputation was gilded by Dean’s rise.

The road finally ended with another primary defeat in Wisconsin, only seven weeks after the year began with such promise. Back in Burlington Dean shut down his campaign.

(Dean) “I am no longer actively pursuing the Presidency. We will however continue to build a new organization using our enormous grassroots network to continue the effort to transform the Democratic Party and to change our country.”

(Delaney) Dean did not go away after he dropped out. He remained a force in the Democratic Party as cheerleader and fund raiser for the party’s liberals. He morphed his enviable Dean for America website into Democracy for America, and kept on preaching his ideas. And at year’s end Howard Dean was under serious consideration to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a long way down from the job he was seeking a year ago, but a long way up from “Howard Who?”

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.

Next in the series:
On Wednesday, we consider the diverse stories of the year – among them the Red Sox, the flu and a goodbye to Phish.

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