When Howard Dean ’71 became the first governor to openly support gay marriage in 2000, he needed “a bullet proof vest” to brace the repercussions from his constituency.
But politics is all about having a “backbone,” he told a crowd of 20 students in Horchow Hall Monday afternoon. As a part of the event hosted by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, students from across Yale’s schools received career advice from Dean — a former six-term governor, Democratic National Committee chairman, presidential candidate and physician.
In his talk, Dean, a Jackson Senior Fellow, shared his experience as a U.S. politician. He emphasized that his career began from small beginnings as a staffer on a political campaign.
“If you work for a presidential campaign, it’s like going to university,” Dean said. “It’ll be an alumni connection and network for life.”
Dean also lauded the benefits of working on a local campaign, where staffers can serve multiple positions and learn about where their interests truly lie.
But Dean’s circuitous career path did not begin in politics. When he graduated from Yale College, he moved to Colorado, where he washed dishes and spent the day skiing. He later left the mountains for Wall Street and spent a brief stint as a New Haven public school teacher, but ultimately matriculated to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a medical school in New York.
“My belief about your 20s is that they are about learning what you don’t want to do for the rest of your life,” he said.
While he practiced medicine, Dean also served in the Vermont House of Representatives and as Vermont’s lieutenant governor.
“Vermont’s a very small state. I was not a natural politician, but, as county chair, my job was to get other people elected,” Dean said. “Politics is all about personal connection, even when you’re running for president. I knocked on doors every day after work because I knew, if I went home first after work, I would find a reason not to go.”
But Dean’s career took a major turn in 1991 when he left medicine to serve as governor of Vermont. He emphasized that, as a politician, he balanced urgent and important matters with his own personal checklist.
“Of everything you do in life, 90 percent is urgent, 10 percent is important,” he said. “[As governor,] my main goals were balancing the budget, setting aside lands for conservation and universal health care for kids. I kept a list in a drawer, and I checked it every day to see if I did something on that list.”
Even in the midst of the career advice, Dean did not shy away from commentary on the current political climate. He pointed to Beto O’Rourke — the Democratic candidate challenging Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate — as a paragon for running an honest campaign. He also speculated that not all Trump supporters were “racists,” hypothesizing that the president’s voting-base thought the country needed a change they believed President Donald Trump could accomplish.
He saw the current political environment as a “transition period” and expressed optimism about the country’s future.
“This is a game about the survival of our country and whether we continue to be a beacon of morality to the rest of the world,” Dean said.
Students from across Yale’s schools, including the college, Divinity School and School of Medicine, all praised Dean’s remarks as constructive.
“There is no shortcut in politics: You really do have to work from the ground up,” said Akhil Upneja ’17 MED ’22, echoing Dean’s thoughts. “The most valuable experience you can get is working on a campaign that allows you to get to know the people and what their views are, rather than using our position as Yalies to speed our way to the top.”
Nathan Empsall DIV ’19 said Dean’s remarks reinforced that personal relationships matter in politics.
“The country has lost that focus: We’re not listening to each other enough in politics because we’re not listening to each other in daily life,” said Empsall.
Dean has taught a course at the Jackson Institute called “The Politics of American Foreign Policy” for the past eight years.
Samuel Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org