Sunday January 22, 2012

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

MANCHESTER -- In late 2003, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was a front-runner in the Democrat's race for the presidential nomination.

Crowds that could once be counted on one hand had grown into thousands, and "Deaniacs" would roar with approval when Dean would deliver the signature line they craved: "You have the power!"

Kate O'Connor, a longtime aide who first worked for Dean in 1990 when he was lieutenant governor of small, largely inconsequential Vermont, in terms of presidential politics, at least, was by his side for the meteoric rise. She was there for the campaign's collapse, too. A disappointing third-place finish in 2004's Iowa caucus would seal the campaign's fate.

O'Connor, who kept copies of Dean's hectic schedule throughout the campaign, has now chronicled the campaign for posterity in "Do the Impossible," a journal-style book that provides details of the day-to-day activities of Dean and senior campaign officials. The book is blunt and makes no effort to hide the naïveté of Dean and campaign staff.

"We were clueless, which I think helped us keep going," O'Connor said alongside Dean in an interview Friday at the Northshire Bookstore before speaking to about 150 people.

Dean agreed. "We were clueless. We just kept moving forward no matter what," he said.

The book's title is derived from the wild notion that a small-state governor like Dean, with little national name recognition, could run for president. He first broached the idea with O'Connor in November 2000, shortly after being elected to a fifth two-year term as Vermont's governor.

"If I didn't know him, I probably would have assumed that he was either joking or delusional. After all, Howard run for president of the United States? But I did know him and no matter how absurd the idea may have sounded, I knew he was serious," O'Connor wrote in the book.

Three years later, after countless days meeting voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states, Dean's message would resonate with part of the electorate desperate for an unconventional candidate. His face would grace the covers of "Time" and "Newsweek" and he would lead a main rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in polls.

In it to win it

"I always thought we could do it, because you can't get into this unless you think you can do it. Otherwise, what are you doing? You've never worked so hard in your life," Dean said. "There were a lot of epiphany moments, but the big epiphany moment was in Seattle. We did this tour and the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger and we got to one in Seattle in an outdoor square with about 10,000 people."

Dean's rise may have been unlikely. And it may have been in spite of internal politics within the campaign. Throughout the book, O'Connor, who was on the road traveling with Dean, details a terse relationship with campaign manager Joe Trippi, a newer member of Dean's inner circle.

While stories included in the book highlighting the tug-of-war between O'Connor and Trippi are humorous, it also depicts a rudderless operation that was perhaps destined to drift in a long, national campaign.

"It was simple and complicated, both at the same time. I think Joe and I were just very different people and approached things in a very different way. We were looking at the campaign from two different perspectives. He was in the Burlington office, really Internet driven. We were out. I was out seeing what people, actual live bodies, were thinking. It became sort of stressful on the campaign," O'Connor said.

Dean, known during the campaign for speaking his mind, is more direct.

"I'll be a little more blunt. Joe is a very complicated guy. He's very smart, but what Joe was doing was principally about Joe. You probably really shouldn't run a campaign like that," Dean said.

Despite those issues, Dean claims full responsibility for the campaign's failure to secure the Democratic nomination.

"The real problem was that this is a deal big deal to run for president and there were a lot of things I didn't know about at the beginning," he said. "Yes there were a lot of office problems, and it was mostly growth problems. When you grow that fast it's hard to get your legs out from under. We didn't have the vote count we thought in Iowa, and I made a lot of mistakes as a candidate, which is to be expected given that I hadn't been on the national scene before."

The outspoken candidate admits to a bad habit of "crossing out stuff in speeches and putting other things I thought would be better in."

"I have a long history of being right, but I also have a long history of not having my timing be exactly too good. You just can't do things like that. You can't take stuff in and out of speeches without telling somebody on the campaign what's going on," he said.

O'Connor recounts several instances when Dean spoke his mind, only to find trouble later. On April 23, 2003, U.S. forces took control of Baghdad. Dean told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that same day that it remained unclear if the Iraqi people would be better off. In fact, he said it was possible the Iraqi people could find the post-Saddam Hussein era worse.

A couple of weeks later Dean said during a campaign event in New Hampshire that the U.S. may not always have the strongest military.

The comment was picked up by media outlets and Kerry seized on it as a way to hurt Dean.

Dealing with the press on the campaign was a different beast, Dean said.

The ‘beast' that is the media

"The national media was pretty awful. I mean, they're really tough, they're not nice and they're not terribly professional. Here there is a respectful air between the press and the subject and everybody gives a little and you've got somebody like Sue Allen (spokeswoman for current Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin) managing so that people are straightforward with each other," he said. "Media I consider one of the failed institutions in America, along with Wall Street and the political system. I think that's why we're in so much trouble. I don't blame reporters, particularly, because the pressure on them to do things foolish is enormous."

The stumbling on the campaign trail was his own fault, Dean said, and is one thing he would have liked to change. "I would have been much more disciplined. I wasn't terribly disciplined as governor, but I was very undisciplined on the campaign," Dean said.

O'Connor's book also shows Dean's discontent with his schedule. The two often spent 18-hour days meeting voters and attending events. They would often visit multiple cities and states in the same day.

Dean eventually demanded a change in pace.

"It's not sustainable, that pace. I've got about as much stamina as anyone I know on the planet, and I was so dead after the campaign I barely could leave the plane and get to my house, where I stayed for about three weeks cleaning out the garage because nothing had been done in a year," he said.

O'Connor said she, too found it exhausting. But even after working for other candidates -- none who were running for president -- and for herself as a consultant, nothing has measured up to the experience of the Dean campaign.

"You can't ever do anything that's like working on a presidential campaign. But again, it's exhausting. There's nothing like it. Unless you do it you can't understand that there's absolutely nothing like it," she said.

Eight years after the campaign, after a successful stint as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and frequent appearances on cable news shows, Dean is now teaching a course about politics at Yale. Had he secured the nomination and gone on to win the presidency he could be wrapping his second term. Although Dean is disappointed, not all share his sentiment, even within his own family.

"I'm sorry I didn't win. Very sorry I didn't win. But, my wife isn't sorry. Every year she says, ‘You know Howard, the country really could have used you. You would have been a terrific president, but I'm really glad you didn't win because every time I see what Michelle Obama has to do I think, Oh my God, that could be me,'" Howard said.

Could there be a reprise of Dean's presidential aspirations? Dean says not likely, but it can't be ruled out entirely.

"You can't say that in politics. We'll see. I think the odds are against it," he said. "I would never do it again the same way we did it."

And would O'Connor be along for a second ride? She simply smiled, so her former boss answered for her.

"You know I'd rope her in," Dean said.

The book, self-published through the Northshire Bookstore's Shires Press, is available at the Northshire Bookstore, the Bennington Bookshop and will soon be listed on Amazon.

Contact Neal Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com. Follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami

Editor's Note: Goswami was an intern on Dean's 2004 campaign for President.