Just as the elevator doors were closing, a loud gasp came from the crowd inside. They’d just realized that the compact, graying man in the dark suit and button-down white shirt, awaiting an up elevator, was indeed Howard Dean.
“I love it when that happens,” says Dean, mimicking the astonished looks. “I feel like I’m constantly in an Alfred Hitchcock movie these days—I pop up in places that normal people do, and they don’t expect it. It’s a cameo, this guy on national TV for six months walking by, and they can’t quite place me.”
In these weeks leading up to the coronation of John Kerry at the Democratic convention in Boston, as the nominee prepares to anoint a vice-president, this is a strange time to be Howard Dean, a man who had the nomination seemingly within his grasp and then lost it all, running through more than $50 million without winning a single contested primary. Rather than poring over polling data and vetting potential running mates, he’s pondering offers for celebrity endorsements: So far, Dean has turned down TV ads for a submarine-sandwich chain and come close to doing an Herbal Essences shampoo commercial. “I drove my staff crazy with the Herbal Essences ad,” Dean says. “I wanted to know everything about it.”
Dean is already back on the trail, zigzagging through the country under the auspices of his grassroots political-action committee, Democracy for America, drawing surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowds who treat him as a folk hero rather than a loser. As he talks up Kerry at every opportunity and urges disaffected Democrats not to defect to Ralph Nader (he’s debating him Friday on NPR), his strategy is apparently to make himself indispensable to the Democratic nominee—a high-profile Cabinet job would be a decent consolation prize—and simultaneously position himself for another presidential run should Kerry lose. “Sure, I’d consider it,” says Dean, “but I hope the job’s not vacant until 2012.”
At the peak of Dean’s popularity, the Kerry camp came up with the slogan “Date Dean, marry Kerry”; now that voters have made their choice, many are looking back with more than wistfulness at what might have been. In a sense, Dean is the ghost of a Democratic dream. He was a candidate with the same angry fervor in combating the Bush administration that animates Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. He was the candidate who would speak truth—loudly—to power, and his hot rhetoric can make Kerry seem tepid by comparison. “Howard was the guy who woke people up,” says Joe Trippi, his former campaign manager. Along with the other primary candidates, Dean is tentatively scheduled to speak Monday night at the convention. “Howard will have a major role at the convention,” says Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “We want people coming out of the convention feeling fiery and energized, and Howard can help us do that.” But there’s hardly unanimity about Dean’s prospects; as one major player in 2004 politics recently remarked incredulously, “He’s got a future?” Still, no one in the party has ignited such passion since—well, since Bill Clinton.
Dean’s Icarus-like rise and fall have inevitably left some psychic scars, but he insists he’s disciplined about avoiding the “retro-spectroscope” and does not replay the campaign endlessly in Groundhog Day fashion. “One of the things that’s been enormously helpful to me is being a hockey dad,” he says, sitting in the boarding area at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “Both my daughter and my son played, and I guess I’ve seen 1,000 games. I’ve seen state championships lost in the fifth overtime or won, and in the end, it’s woulda, coulda, shoulda. If the referee hadn’t done this, and the defenseman hadn’t done that. If, if, if. I tend not to look back on things I can’t change. What’s the point in agonizing over ‘If I’d only done this or not done that’? You drive yourself crazy.”
“Woulda, coulda, shoulda. What’s the point in agonizing? You drive yourself crazy.”
His family is intently watching his moods. “You assume he’d be depressed, but he’s quite exuberant,” marvels his mother, Andrée Dean, in a conversation in her son’s childhood bedroom—now a study—in her Park Avenue apartment, admitting that she “felt terrible” for months after her eldest son’s flameout. “He still has plenty of fans. Maybe that’s what keeps him going.” Judith Steinberg Dean, perhaps the most reclusive candidate’s wife in modern presidential politics, says she wasn’t sure how her husband would handle losing. “I expected it to be harder than it was,” she says. “He’s still very busy, he’s getting lots of support, his family loves him. It’s a disappointment, but he’s doing great.” She explains that her husband has become a Mr. Fixit when he’s at home, painting the trim on the house, cleaning the garage, planting trees, keeping busy rather than brooding. “He always says he’s not a woulda, coulda, shoulda person, and he’s not.”
I ask Dean if he still dreams about the campaign, and he replies, “I dreamed there was a horrible story the other day—it was a bad dream, I’m not going to tell you the details—that someone put a story in the papers that was picked up in the national wire that was silly and bad.” He shakes his head with distaste at the memory, and when pressed, declines to further flesh out the nightmare. Dean remains angry about some coverage, and he’s even willing to name names, citing as “sleazebag reporters” Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, Brian Ross of ABC, and the AP’s John Solomon, investigative journalists who looked into his Vermont past. “At the end, we were being absolutely hammered every day by the press and our opponents; every day stuff would get in the paper that I didn’t think was flattering or wasn’t true,” he says, his voice rising. “The New York Times put a story on page one that I’d participated in insider trading. It was the most ridiculous thing. Even the Times ombudsman took issue with some of the coverage.” Then Dean turns philosophical, saying, “But that’s what the front-runner goes through.”
Dean also feels vindicated that many of his much-criticized pronouncements—such as stating that the capture of Saddam did not make America any safer—have proved true. “I was right in all those supposed gaffes,” he says. And then he adds, with a wry smile, “Barry Goldwater said, ‘I’d rather be right than president.’ I think Barry Goldwater didn’t know what he was talking about.” (Goldwater borrowed the phrase from Henry Clay.) Dean is distressed that several former top advisers have gone public with finger-pointing comments and revelations about backstage jousting. Paul Maslin, his campaign pollster, wrote a devastating Atlantic Monthly article detailing campaign missteps, such as too much early ad spending plus Dean’s refusal to release his government records, and said that “our candidate’s erratic judgment, loose tongue, and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down.” Dean has had little contact with Joe Trippi, whom he ousted, since the end of February, when Trippi gave an interview to Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz complaining that it was “hard for a campaign manager to function” amid the “infighting,” and placed much of the blame on two longtime Vermont loyalists for the campaign’s woes. Both pieces retailed the idea, put forth by some staffers, that Dean never really wanted to be president, an assumption he dismisses as “just silly.”
“I don’t believe in kiss and tell,” says Dean. “I don’t have any animosity towards him [Trippi], but I think you can’t put the campaign’s business in the street. Who’s mad about what, who didn’t speak to whom, no sense in that.” But he does give the rumpled former ad-maker his due: “I think Joe was a visionary. There’s no question the campaign couldn’t have gotten where it was without Joe Trippi.”
Ask Trippi whether he thinks this rift will heal and he replies, “I would hope so. I find it hard to believe that after all we’ve been through together, one story in a newspaper could erase all that.”
At the peak of the campaign, Dean had 600 paid staffers. Now he has a bare-bones staff of twelve, based in Burlington, working for Democracy for America. Lindsay Lewis, who had been Dean’s New York City finance chair, has moved from Manhattan to Vermont to run the group’s fund-raising. “My friends told me I was crazy, but I really believe in the guy,” says Lewis. Tom McMahon, Dean’s deputy campaign manager and now executive director of the pac, recalls his intense discussions with Dean once the presidential race ended. “His whole thing was, ‘How do I stay relevant? How do I keep giving people a voice?’ ”
Dean’s answer has been to use his newfound celebrity to back progressive candidates. He endorses a “Dean Dozen” every two weeks, flies around the country to appear with Democratic political aspirants, and raises money, passing out nearly $300,000 so far, with the goal of at least $1 million by Election Day. While Dean handed over a $5,000 check to U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama in Chicago, most of his endorsements are for little-known campaigns to local offices running in traditional GOP strongholds. “You’ve got to support the farm team,” he insists.