Politics Today: Interview with Howard Dean

Public Service at Yale

Howard Dean (Yale Class of 1971) is an American politician and physician from Vermont. While serving in the Vermont House of Representatives as Lieutenant Governor Dean received notice that the current Governor of Vermont had died of cardiac arrest, and left his medical career for full-time political office. He served six terms as Governor of Vermont and chaired the National Governors Association from 1994-1995. He ran for President in 2004, but ultimately lost the nomination to John Kerry. Afterward he served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005-2009.

The Politic: When did you first become interested in politics, and what do you believe drove that interest?

I don’t really know what drove it. I ran for an election in 7th grade and lost, and then became sort of involved at Yale, but the 60s were a depressing time to be involved in politics with Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, etc. No one wanted anything to do with it. But I became very interested again after I went to Vermont and a friend got me interested in working for Jimmy Carter’s campaign.

The Politic: What grabbed you about Jimmy Carter’s campaign?

Yeah I always liked Jimmy Carter. I actually thought that the way to win, which turned out to be true, was to have a southern Democrat run because otherwise we couldn’t win the South, and that was true for both Carter and Clinton, they did win. And I liked him, and I thought he was a good person. So I just read the paper one day, this person who turned out to live four doors down from me who was running for State Senator [Esther Sorrell, running for her fifth term] was running the campaign, and she became my mentor in politics. Her sister, who was living with them, became my treasurer for all my campaigns except the last one.

The Politic: Going back to your time at Yale a little bit, although you said it was a depressing time to be involved in politics — did you try to become involved in politics at Yale? Did you have any mentors?

No one was mentoring me in politics. I did become the social chairman, which was the only elected office. We didn’t have any of these student government councils or any of that kind of stuff, so the social chairman was the one who basically ran all the parties, which was very fitting based on my career. But there were professors I admired greatly – John Morton Blum, Charlie Reich who taught at the law school who wrote The Greening of America. There were extraordinary numbers – I took a lot of philosophy classes, a lot of classes on Chinese Communism, Russian Communism – one of my teachers had been imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain in the 50s and jailed in a Russian jail for a while. This is a great university, it always has really interesting people teaching here who had very interesting real-life experiences. I certainly benefited from those great teachers too.

The Politic: What were the most worthwhile things you were involved in at Yale?

Organizations weren’t big, there were a lot of people who turned down tap. People weren’t into that stuff. Fraternities failed when I was here – they went out of business and went broke. 

The Politic: What was it that called you to run for President?

Well I was clearly not going to be governor of Vermont; I’d been governor longer than anybody else in the state’s history, but not longer than anybody in Vermont’s history. The only governor that served longer than I did served 17 one-year terms, but nine of them served under the Republic of Vermont. Most people don’t know that Vermont was an independent republic for 14 years; we declared our independence from Britain in 1777 but were not admitted to the Union until 1791. Of course New York claimed half of us, and New Hampshire claimed the rest. Your readers if they’re interested should read Thomas Chittenden: Vermont’s First Statesman, by a Dartmouth professor named Frank Smallwood – it’s wonderful.

It’s essentially a look at the American Revolution through the eyes of a group of people who were sympathetic but not legally American, which was Vermont. So I was done with governor, and there wasn’t much left to do. I’d worn out my welcome between civil unions, healthcare, putting aside hundreds of thousands of acres never to be developed – it was a very activist time in Vermont’s government, and I think people need a little break after somebody like me, which they got. Ironically, I wanted to campaign for president on the basis of universal healthcare and balancing the budget, because I was fiscally conservative. Someone reminded me that they used to say on the liberal end of the Democratic Party when I was governor: “why do we need a Republican governor? We have Howard Dean.” I was very conservative about money but very liberal on social issues. There was no place else to go and I wasn’t done, I was in my 50s when I left the governorship — so I really wanted to try to transform the country. We did in some ways, but not the way I intended to.

The Politic: So those were the big issues for you — universal healthcare and the balanced budget? And you were also opposed to the war in Iraq.

I thought we were in deep fiscal trouble, which I think is much worse now after eight years of Bush, and we ought to have a healthcare program that works for everyone. We don’t. It’s ridiculous that we don’t — we’re the only industrial democracy that doesn’t. I started running, didn’t have a lot of traction at first, raised a lot of money in the LGBT community because I did the first civil unions bill in the history of the country. The message we caught on with we stumbled on almost accidentally — being against the war got me some attention, but the message of the campaign turned out to be self-empowerment. The book I wrote afterwards was called You Have The Power.

It was about individuals that can change lives. The interesting thing was I think it fit really perfectly with your generation. I think your generation isn’t interested in politics — people at Yale are, but not in general. I think most people in your generation seek to change the world by living in their communities or someone else’s community – Teach For America is a perfect example. I once said to my son, “do you really think that dropping untrained people in a classroom no matter how smart they are for two years really can make a difference?” He said, “Look at it this way Dad — most charter schools in this country are started by TFA graduates.” That’s an example of change from the bottom up. I think that’s the hallmark of your generation.

The Politic: What unique traits do you believe our generation has to contribute to the public sphere? What are our strengths and weaknesses?

The strengths are easy — a deep commitment to change, which I think you have, an understanding that change doesn’t come from the top down, a well-deserved cynicism about the political process, a willingness to avoid the cable shout shows — my generation looks at the 10% of things we disagree with and fights to the death, yours looks at the 90% we do agree on and gets some things done, which is really essential. I think you’re more conservative about money, but more liberal on social issues because you’ve grown up with every different kind of American kid there is.

The biggest thing is you have the Internet — you don’t have to petition Congress, you can find a thousand people who agree with you online and use the power of that. The perfect example was getting rid of that intellectual property bill, which would have put more power in the hands of the Hollywood creators as opposed to the Internet providers — that disappeared in three days. Bank of America understands how the net works very well — when they tried to raise their fees on debit cards, the people on the net just went on and said pull your money out of Bank of America. In three days they gave up. It’s an extraordinary tool, but the emphasis is probably on fixing communities, and less talking and more doing.

I think women are going to assume a more prominent leadership role in your generation, partly because the educational opportunity is better, and partly because I think that after 5000 years it might be time to change things around a little bit. The skills women bring to leadership are not the same skills that men automatically bring — I don’t think it’s a stereotype to say that women are likely to be more collaborationist, for example, and I think there’s going to be a greater and greater role for collaboration in international affairs and in American politics. My prediction is that it won’t be because of women coming up through the political process, though I’m certain in your lifetime we’ll have a woman president, I think the changes will be elsewhere in the core things that have to happen to make America work – businesses, for example, educational fields, medical fields, law – these are where women will make huge advances and assume leadership roles.

The Politic: Today, partly due to a New York Times piece last December on the proportion of Ivy League undergraduates who go on to careers in finance and consulting despite their universities’ supposed dedication to public service, Yale has been doing some soul-searching on why undergraduates make those choices. Do you have any theories on why this may be the case? What do you think primarily deters people from pursuing careers in public service?

I don’t think there’s an example being set at the top. The Ivy League when I was here and Yale in particular was the central university in the leadership for social change in the United States. For example they had a program called Transitional Year Program (TYP) which two of my roommates went through run by a 25-year old named Jonathan Fanton who now runs the MacArthur Foundation, and they brought kids from segregated schools from all over the country but mostly the south for a year and did a lot of remedial education, and those kids went on to the best universities in the country. That kind of thing is extraordinary.

Kingman Brewster I still think was probably the most extraordinary college president in my lifetime. He was the only one who didn’t get fired during the 60s and early 70s of all the Ivy League presidents because he understood you could roll with the punches and had tremendous political skills. This university was really extraordinary with how it coped with the social pressures of a very rebellious generation, and understood how to try to fuse a common ground between the older and younger generations. Since that time the university has had great strides in getting its financial house in order, which is very important — when you see the restorations of all the colleges, it’s a remarkable thing.

So we’ve had terrific financial management. But the social mission has virtually disappeared as much as I can tell. Dwight Hall is very well-run but is a small piece of it, the high school scholarship program for students in New Haven is very good, the housing program for employees who buy houses in New Haven is very good, but there’s not that leadership to find real social change. It’s more from the students up. So the message is: it’s okay to go into consulting and Wall Street and all that stuff to make lots of money. The students themselves actually feel guilty about it, a lot of them, and don’t enjoy it once they’re there. Some of them do.

It’s never a bad thing to have people who make lots of money because it keeps the university going, but you’ve been left on your own in terms of deciding what you want to do and how that’s going to benefit the world. But I still find a very high quotient of idealism among your generation — I’m a big fan of your generation, I had two of them roll through my house in my life — and I think there’s a deep commitment to real change. But I don’t think the university is leading, I think the university is following in this case. Another area where the leadership of Yale has been extremely lacking is in the area of women’s equality.

I think that the university has done a terrible job handling the story about the quarterback; I think they’ve done a terrible job handling the DKE fraternity issues. I think that there are probably some women who feel abandoned by the administration, and I’m embarrassed, frankly, that this is my university and one that I care a great deal about. I think there’s a lot of ducking of issues. And it’s not just this issue. I think in this day and age the older generation deliberately ducks issues that are tough, and sometimes the younger generation does too, particularly around race and gender.

I think we’re in trouble in this country today because of the failure of three of our major institutions: 1) the political class, 2) the financial class, because they’re running the country broke by just gambling on Wall Street, and 3) the media. Unfortunately the media here reflects the greater media, because of course they all want jobs in the New York Times one day. I don’t think the New York Times is a particularly good model for where you want to go with the media. I think in general the media presents both sides as though they have moral equivalence, which is absurd, they have policies that allow every wing-nut to say whatever they want at any time, and I don’t think they look at things in a terribly thoughtful manner. That’s an example of where they need some leadership in a strong direction. I think the most innovative Ivy League universities right now are Brown and Princeton, and coincidentally, though I don’t happen to think it’s coincidence, they are headed by women. 

The Politic: So if the desire for change is already there, how do you re-incentivize the students to go into public service? What specifically could the university be doing differently?

First of all, there’s the age-old dilemma of how universities are run — whether you reward teaching or research. This is not a problem that’s new in your generation, the problem is that research always gets the front page and excellent teachers don’t necessarily get the front page. Problem number two is that the university sends a mixed message to the community. They basically have been somewhat generous with the scholarship program and so forth, but we need lots of kids in the schools — if they want to do TFA, why not start in the fourth year rather than the first year out of college?

This effort was led by Princeton President Shirley Tilghman — they don’t do loans, they just do forgiveness below a certain income level. I don’t want to say the university has not done anything, I think they have, but the statement of TYP is that we believe in diversity, and not just racial but economic diversity is important to us, and we are going to put our money there (which is easier when you have $22 billion in endowment) and put our talent there and create leadership programs that undergraduates can get into and learn the skills to bring in new undergraduates from parts of the population in the United States that are underrepresented here. That needs to be pushed much, much harder.

The Politic: Have the demographics of the university changed significantly since you were here?

The first two years I was here there were no women. So the answer is yes! Other than that I would say that there are fewer middle-class students here. There’s a barbell distribution. I don’t know if there are more lower-income students here now than when I was here, but there are more higher-income students. And I think that’s just because of the price of higher education. If you’re a valedictorian in your high school and you get in to a state university and Yale, some pick the state university. When I was in college there were probably 15 or 20 universities you could get a top-flight education from in this country, probably now there are 50 or 60. If the state university is going to leave you graduating without debt, I think that gets a better look these days.

The Politic: If you could pass on one piece of career advice to aspiring government employees or politicians at Yale, what would it be?

Stand up for what you believe in even if it costs you your seat, otherwise you’ve wasted your time.


Donna Horning is a junior in Davenport College.


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