From front-runner to also-ran: Looking back on the Dean ‘scream’

Staffers with 2020 contenders should prepare to put aside hard feelings, focus on Trump, former Howard Dean spokeswoman says

Tricia Enright, center, talks with Sen. Cory Booker, left, as he and her boss, Sen. Robert Menendez, arrive at a 2013 immigration event. Enright was communications director for Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, which never recovered from an Iowa speech that ended in “the scream.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It was the second time Tricia Enright had seen a campaign fly high and crash hard. 

Presidential contender and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had just finished a disappointing third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses when a pep talk urging supporters to keep up the fight ended with an otherworldly yell.

Now known in political lore as “the scream,” the clip was played repeatedly on television and became a meme before memes were a thing. It provided ammunition for the Democratic establishment to argue that outsider Dean — who wasn’t really taken seriously until small-dollar donations helped him raise a stunning $15.9 million in the third quarter of 2003 — did not have the right stuff to be president.

“It was never going to be about policy,” recalled Enright, who was Dean’s communications director then and now holds that post on Capitol Hill in New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez’s office. “The narrative was temperament. You know, ‘Gosh, he seems like a smart guy, but Howard Dean does not have the temperament to be president.’ So how do you counter that?”

The crowd in that Iowa banquet room, including the campaign staff, didn’t hear Dean’s yell the way the world ultimately did, Enright said. It was noisy, with campaign workers and Dean yelling at each other to pump up spirits as he ticked off other states they were going to win. But the microphone connected to the mult box connected to the TV cameras canceled outside noise, and only captured the increasingly throaty Dean’s exhortations.

“There was no sense anything had gone awry” as the campaign packed up and flew back to Burlington, Vermont, Enright said.  Dispatches filed by print and wire reporters in the room also made no mention of the yell, she said.

TV told a different story. By the time Enright and campaign manager Joe Trippi were having lunch the next day at TGI Friday’s, they knew something dramatic was needed before the make-or-break New Hampshire primaries up next.

“I’m sitting there with, like, 15 televisions on, none of them with the volume, and they’re just constantly playing the same thing on the screen over and over and over,” Enright said. “We knew we needed to do something different.”

Tricia Enright remembers the night Howard Dean sealed his fate. The 23 Democrats now seeking the presidential nomination — and the aides who support them — would do well to heed lessons from his campaign. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Enright says the 23 Democrats now seeking the presidential nomination — and the aides who support them — should heed lessons from Dean’s campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

First up was taping a segment for the David Letterman show with Dean reading a “top 10” list that actor, director and ardent Dean supporter Rob Reiner helped write. No. 10 was “Switch to decaf”; No. 6 was “Show a little more skin”; and No. 1 was, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe fewer crazy red-faced rants.”

Dean followed up by having his wife, Judy, join him for an “ABC Primetime” interview with Diane Sawyer. Enright still gets choked up talking about watching Dean with his wife, a physician who until then had stayed off the campaign trail.

“No one had ever seen her, and she was stunning. Natural. And self-deprecating, and gracious, and funny,” Enright said. It helped smooth out Dean’s rough edges, but it wasn’t enough.

“It was too much to overcome, and the numbers obviously began to slide,” she said.

Enright had felt this way before. She had been deputy communications director for Vice President Al Gore’s campaign in 2000, and worked in Florida during the recount that ultimately tipped Republican George W. Bush’s way.

Some of her colleagues for the Gore campaign were working with Dean’s rivals, and when attacks came at Dean, she said she would see her old colleagues’ fingerprints on them. A personal friend was behind a television commercial showing Dean’s face morphing into Saddam Hussein’s, she said.

But after Dean suspended his campaign, Enright went on to work for nominee John Kerry’s drive to deny Bush a second term. And that’s the lesson she hopes will be learned by the campaign workers backing this year’s crop of 23 Democrats seeking the 2020 nomination, half of whom are in or served in Congress.

“I can’t reconcile this belief that, ‘If it’s not my person, then nobody. I’m staying out of the game or I’m going to go find a third-party candidate,’” she said. “I had to put aside a lot of pretty hard feelings, about quotes you read in the paper from people you worked with, friends said things about your candidate. It’s important to be loyal, it’s important to fight like hell for your candidate in the primary. But when that person chooses not to move forward you need to move on too. There’s no sense in wallowing.”

“If you believe in what we stand for as Democrats, that’s what you do,” she said.

Also watch: Cory Booker is running for president — Here are some congressional basics

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