Do The Impossible

My Crash Course on Presidential Politics Inside the Howard Dean Campaign

DO THE IMPOSSIBLE can be purchased securely online by clicking here.

Article published Nov 20, 2011

New book offers fresh look at Dean candidacy
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau

 

 

On Jan. 24, 2004, shortly before midnight, an ashen-faced Howard Dean sat motionless in the window seat of a charter jet leaving Des Moines.

Hours earlier, the former Vermont governor had unleashed what would become forever known as “The Scream.” Now, after his devastating third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, flight attendants carrying shrimp and champagne told of the victory party that would never be.

“His face was a shade of gray that was slightly lighter than the charcoal suit he was wearing,” Kate O’Connor writes in the latest retelling of Dean’s failed 2004 presidential candidacy. “The look of disbelief on his face told the story. The self-proclaimed ‘greatest grassroots campaign of the modern era’ had been cut down.”

Like any great campaign aide, Kate O’Connor knows how to play to an audience. In her new book, “Do the Impossible: My Crash Course on Presidential Politics Inside the Dean Campaign,” she wastes little time dishing the goods.

The “scream,” understandably, isn’t O’Connor’s favorite subject.

“I always get annoyed because that’s what people ask me about,” the longtime Dean aide said in a telephone interview last week. “But because it’s such a pivotal thing, I felt like I needed to talk about it in the book.”

O’Connor’s blow-by-blow recounting of the “Yeahhhh!” heard-’round-the-world offers a sensational glimpse behind the former Vermont governor’s catastrophic verbal misstep. And for political junkies craving an inside look at the infamous dysfunctionality of the Dean campaign, O’Connor delivers.

“There wasn’t anything embarrassing I left out,” she said.

Through it all, the 473-page book portrays O’Connor’s unfailing allegiance to the politician she shadowed for more than a decade, first during his gubernatorial tenure in Montpelier, and later on endless campaign stops across the United States. (O’Connor is the sister of Rutland Herald reporter Kevin O’Connor.)

The story of the Dean campaign is by now well chronicled, as is the vicious infighting that strained the organization. In a 2004 Washington Post story headlined “Divide and Bicker,” Howard Kurtz characterized the internal dynamics as a “nasty civil war that crippled decision-making and devastated morale.”

“The polarization revolved around two people: Joe Trippi, the rumpled, passionate, sometimes headstrong campaign manager who drew rock-star coverage in the press, and Kate O’Connor, the quiet, shrewd, low-profile Vermont confidante who never left Dean’s side,” Kurtz wrote.

Trippi certainly plays the villain in O’Connor’s book. Which is only fair, she said, since in Trippi’s book, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” O’Connor is given a less-than-flattering portrayal.

In one revealing passage, O’Connor recounts an exchange between her, Dean, Trippi and Trippi’s partner, Steve McMahon, as news of the Iowa loss sunk in.

“(Dean) looked at Steve and Joe and in a stern voice said, ‘It was the message. It was the message.’”

Dean departed the scene to perform his obligatory media interviews, and “when Howard was out of sight, Joe looked directly at me and yelled, ‘It wasn’t the message. It was the messenger!’ I was too angry to respond.”

O’Connor said she began a draft of the book shortly after the campaign ended, but had to shelve the project when raw emotion took over the prose.

“We had our own internal struggles with each other as a staff, and there was a lot of hostility that came through in what I was writing,” she said.

O’Connor’s book, however, dwells less on oil-and-water personalities than it does on the fundamental strategic differences for which she ultimately seems to blame the campaign’s demise.

“Basically we had a different philosophy about what the campaign should be about,” O’Connor said. “I was resistant to making Howard somebody he wasn’t, but Joe had a vision. The question was whether Howard was running for president or starting a movement. I was like, ‘He’s running for president.’ Joe wanted to start a movement.”

Trippi’s attempt to cast Dean as a “transformational leader” may help explain the stark contrast between Dean’s image inside the Green Mountains and his brand outside of them.

Back home, Dean had become known as a fiscal conservative who seemed almost to revel in his ability to rankle the left with austere budget proposals. To a broader audience, he was the liberal firebrand whose anti-war, pro-gay stance lit a progressive flame.

“It kind of took on a life of its own that Howard was a super liberal lefty as a presidential candidate when really that wasn’t true,” O’Connor said. “He never changed the way he thought about budgets or fiscal issues, but the war issue I think created that image.”

O’Connor, who serves as treasurer on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s re-election campaign, said the state’s two most recent Democratic governors share some notable similarities. Both are fiscally conservative, both made health care reform their central policy initiatives and both have cemented their liberal credentials with high-profile fights for gay rights.

“I also think they are very much alike in that they say what’s on their minds,” she said. “Peter doesn’t hold back. If he’s thinking something, he says it. And obviously that was a trademark of Howard,” she said.

O’Connor’s tightly worded descriptions of the pedestrian realities of campaign life will disabuse any notions of glamour. From sweatpants-wearing campaign workers “who hadn’t seen sunlight in days” to a fridge full of “Yo Baby” yogurt, the life of 18-hour days on the trail was often mundane, if not depressing.

“I think people sort of glamorize the whole thing, because they don’t know that’s what’s going on,” she said.

Still, O’Connor doesn’t deny lingering “Deaniacs” the chance to relive their hero’s unlikely ascent to the apex of the American political scene. Of a speech early in his candidacy in Seattle, she writes: “energized by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, he stretched his arms out to the audience like a preacher drawing his followers into a sermon.”

In many ways, O’Connor said, the Dean campaign has left a lasting mark. In “Do the Impossible,” O’Connor has left hers.