Howard Dean ’71 wants to be the next president. But before he served five terms as governor of Vermont, before he began practicing medicine, and before he abadoned his career on Wall Street, Dean was “The Walrus.”
At least, that was what he told his Yale classmates when the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was released during his freshman year of college.
“He loved the album, ran around singing it all the time, and seemed to land on ‘I am the Walrus,'” Bill Kerns ’71 said. “When you ran into him singing ‘I am the Walrus’ you knew he was identifying with it and laughing at himself in the same breath. We all sang along with Howard, buzzed by his phenomenal energy.”
Now, the former Beatles-belting Yalie and longtime governor of the nation’s 49th-most populous state is trying to harness this energy in his campaign for the presidency. Last May, Dean became the first Democrat to announce his candidacy for the party’s 2004 presidential nomination. Since then, he has garnered increasing media attention and has been joined in the race by political heavyweights, including two other sons of Eli — Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 of Connecticut and Sen. John Kerry ’66 of Massachusetts.
As Dean ascends into national view, his Yale classmates remember him as an outspoken friend with a magnetic personality — traits they say will serve him well during his campaign.
‘A glint in his eye’
When Dean came to Yale from New York City, the Pierson College freshman wasted no time in making a name for himself in Wright Hall. Friends said his exuberant personality made him popular.
“He was very refreshing,” Jeff Knight ’71 said. “He always had a glint in his eye. He could always see the humor in the situation.”
Even classmates who remembered little else about Dean recalled “his antics freshman year in Wright Hall,” Kerns said. His friends, however, declined to comment on the record about Dean’s pranks. Neither the Vermont Governor’s Office nor the Dean for America campaign responded to interview requests.
But friends recounted other stories that were typical of Dean’s spontaneous personality.
“He was famous for saying, ‘Let’s go to New York right now.’ And everyone would get in the car and go to New York, even though it was midnight,” said David Berg ’71, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale. “He had a brother in North Carolina, and one night he said, ‘Let’s go visit Charlie right now.’ He jumped in the car and drove to North Carolina and the amazing thing was that he convinced other people to follow.”
Dean served on the social activities committee in Pierson and often became the social coordinator for his group of friends.
“After a Pierson mixer or party, if there was a keg of beer left over it would end up in Howard’s entryway and the party would continue,” Ernest Robson ’71 said.
Berg said Dean often suggested doing “some outrageous stuff,” but that it was never anything that hurt others. Other classmates, too, mentioned that Dean was caring and thoughtful, and Kerns said he “never hurt anybody.”
But Dean did not always apply the same standards to himself, and his adventurous spirit occasionally put him right in harm’s way.
“He played intramural football, line and guard, and he’s not that big a guy,” said Knight, one of his teammates on the Pierson intramural team. “It was pretty brutal — a lot of the guys on our team had played varsity football in high school. But he got in there and scrapped and I was always pretty impressed by that.”
A mind of his own
Beyond his fun-loving nature, Dean’s classmates remember him as a great communicator, at ease with people and words. He was not extremely involved in campus politics, but he put his communication skills to other use, tutoring and student teaching in New Haven, Knight said.
Dean was inquisitive and interested in the world around him. He read The New York Times every day, which was unusual for the time, Robson said. Ralph Dawson ’71, one of Dean’s freshman year suitemates, said he was always interested in discussing the Vietnam War and race relations.
“He loved those nighttime bulls— sessions as much as the rest of us. But he was not somebody who would bend your ear on politics all the time. He was very outspoken and engaging but not in a pedantic way,” Berg said.
Dean has said several times that he was skeptical of politicians during the politically turbulent years he spent at Yale, and he was not an activist in college. Friends said Dean shied away from standard political camp or holding to extreme dogma.
“Howard was an independent thinker, not a straight-jacket, dialectical thinker,” Dawson said.
Even if the topic was not one of national but personal importance, Dean was a vocal participant in discussions with friends.
“He was a very expressive, exuberant guy — especially when we played hearts,” Knight said. “He was sort of the opposite of how you’re supposed to be when you play any sort of card game like that. He was way too expressive and would give away his hand. But I think he enjoyed the outlet.”
Dean joined in regular games of both bridge and hearts, and Berg also remembers Dean as a lively card player. Their group of friends especially enjoyed spending hours the night before an exam playing heated games. But cards also brought out another side of Dean — Berg said Dean was an unshakably confident player and that he and his bridge partner became known for their unrelenting stubbornness.
“The bidding would turn into a war between them,” Berg said. “His partner would sometimes say, ‘Howard, you’re being an idiot.’ But they would play out their bid and they would go down about seven tricks. They lost sight of the fact that they were both wrong.”
The unexpected governor
The 1971 yearbook, like most, is filled with pages of seniors announcing their intentions to study law. But in Dean’s entry, under “Future Occupation,” he simply wrote “living.”
Indeed, Dean’s road to politics was far from a straight or short one. After leaving Yale, the political science major spent a year in Colorado skiing and washing dishes before taking a job as a stockbroker. After two years, he decided to trade his Wall Street job for a medical degree. Dean, who had not taken enough science courses at Yale, spent a year in night school completing his pre-med requirements. After medical school, Dean moved to Vermont with his wife — also a doctor — to complete his residency and begin private practice.
Dean began to involve himself in local and state politics and was elected lieutenant governor in 1986. He was serving his third term in the post when then-Gov. Richard Snelling died of a heart attack. Dean, who had continued his medical practice, was sworn in as governor of Vermont.
During his tenure in the state’s top office, Dean tackled several high-profile issues and received national attention for his staunch support of a bill legalizing civil unions for homosexuals.
Death threats and hate mail forced Dean to wear a bulletproof vest during the last month of the campaign for the bill, Berg said.
“He would’ve risked losing the governorship for that issue,” said Berg, who has remained close to Dean. “I think he learned a lot and really grew from that. Until you’ve been through that crucible and what it does to you and your family and your community you can’t know the price that is required to be paid periodically in defense of civil rights.”
Dean for America
In January, Dean stepped down from the governorship, ending his run as the longest-serving governor in Vermont history. Before giving up his post, he had also been the longest-serving Democratic governor in the nation who was still in office.
Dean is now devoting his efforts toward his run for the presidency, crafting a platform around the repeal of the Bush tax cut and the establishment of universal health insurance. Dean also supports legalizing civil unions for homosexual couples, protecting reproductive rights, and placing gun control under state jurisdiction.
Knight said Dean’s record as governor is evidence that he is more than prepared for the nation’s top office.
“I don’t think you’re re-elected governor as many times as he was without political savvy and the ability to handle varied constituencies and complex issues,” he said. “Experience as a chief executive of state is the best training. It’s a lot more analogous to the job than working in the senate.”
But Dean still faces numerous challenges, and his campaign must work against the higher profiles of his senatorial competitors. In addition, he hails from a small state that is known for its predominantly liberal constituency. Some have pointed out that Vermont does not have a large black population, a demographic upon which the Democratic party has traditionally relied.
But Dean’s experience living with two black students his freshman year at Yale meant he spent a lot of time with members of the college’s black community, Dawson said.
“I don’t want this overplayed, because you cannot — even in five, 10, 20 situations of being the only white person in a room — truly understand. But I think he did get a real sense of what it was like for us, from our side,” he said.
Robson, an Iowa native and resident, said he has been following Dean’s progress in the state, which holds the nation’s first caucus and has traditionally played a key role in the presidential nomination process. Robson said politicians often think the race comes down to “who can pump the most money into the media machine.”
But Robson added that the American populace is “not that stupid.”
“He’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Robson said. “I’ve had a dozen different people in Iowa come back to me after meeting him and say they were very impressed with him, with how he relates to people. I think people are underestimating how well he’ll do, especially in Iowa.”
Even in the midst of his political career, Dean retained the same spirit of mischief, Berg said.
Several summers ago, their families were vacationing together at some property they and several of their Yale classmates own in Virginia. The adults were playing cards by the side of the pool while Dean’s two children — one of whom is now a freshman at Yale — and Berg’s two children were swimming. Berg’s daughter Sophie found a water gun and secretly filled it up.
“She sneaks up on Howard and douses him. He looked sort of blusterful and then laughed and said, ‘If you do that again, I’ll throw you in the pool.’ So Sophie goes and refills the water gun and does it again. He jumps up and grabs her and throws her in the pool. Howard’s always had that sort of dramatic way of getting engaged with others, while still being able to take charge. He’s always been able to really connect.”