JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Margaret Warner spoke with him this afternoon, before our interview with Secretary Rumsfeld.
MARGARET WARNER: Governor Dean, welcome.
HOWARD DEAN: Thanks for having me on.
MARGARET WARNER: You and Senator Kerry had some fairly bitter disagreements during the campaign, particularly over the war in Iraq. Was it hard for you to endorse him today?
HOWARD DEAN: No, actually it wasn't hard at all. John and I met a few weeks ago. I've had a lot of contact with his campaign folks and with him also on the phone. I think when you go through primary campaigns, we focus on the differences among us, but now we're on the same team and it's much easier to focus on the things we have in common.
We both believe in health insurance for every American. We both think that $500 billion deficits a year are killing the American economy. We're both deeply concerned about the fact that the president sent us to war without appearing not only to tell the truth but appearing not to listen to his advisors about the dangers of the real problem for America which is al-Qaida, so I have no doubt in my mind that John Kerry will be a far better president than George W. Bush in terms of national security and in terms of our economy, and I'm happy to endorse him.
MARGARET WARNER: During the campaign though, you didn't just have differences on issues, but you seemed to have some criticism really of his political character. I mean, you said essentially he was part of the old Washington culture, the Democrats who hadn't had the guts to stand up to George W. Bush particularly on the war. You always had a reputation, I mean, your supporters loved you for your straight talk. What are your supporters supposed to conclude from your decision to do this?
HOWARD DEAN: Look, we wanted to change this country, and we wanted to change the way the Democratic Party works. I think we did change the way the Democratic Party works. I think our supporters essentially wrote the Democratic Party platform, but you can't always make all the changes you want immediately.
My argument to my supporters, most of them are going to support John and they already have. I was online with his supporters and many of my folks came on, they gave him money. You know, we're in the business and well along in the business of trying to support John Kerry, but for those who are thinking about voting a -- voting for a third party the choice is very simple.
Either John Kerry or George Bush is going to be the next president of the United States. If it's George Bush, this country is in deep, deep trouble. If it's John Kerry, we've taken the first step by sending this president back to Texas permanently towards a better America, a new America, a more optimistic and hopeful America, an America that listens to the truth.
There's no question in my mind, and this is why I don't feel the least bit troubled or ambivalent about endorsing John, because there's no question in my mind he'd be a better president than George Bush, and, therefore, I have no question, no hesitation in recommends him to the people who supported me during the campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: In an online posting to some of your supporters this week, and you were starting to talk about this -- you said "I don't want to give any of you a heart attack." You were acknowledging that it may be hard to bring some of them over.
HOWARD DEAN: It is, and don't forget, what -- what we tried to do with Dean for America and now with the new entity, democracyforamerica.com, is to recreate the political culture in the country, to change fundamentally the Democratic Party, to get people's attention out of Washington, into the rest of America, to create grassroots politics. That doesn't happen in one day. We took a -- we took a lot of steps towards doing that. We've made a lot of progress, but it's not going to happen in one day.
But, look, I've been a governor for a long time, and I know that when you can't get everything, you get what you can get and then move on and get the rest of it later on. There's not any question that if you want to change this country, the first step is changing presidents, and John Kerry is the person who is going to make that change. Of course, I'd much rather have it be me, but it's not going to be me and we've just got to do what's right for the country and that's supporting Kerry.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the story that's preoccupying certainly all of Washington this week and that's the public hearings by the 9/11 commission, the charges by the former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke that the Bush administration didn't appreciate the al-Qaida threat certainly before 9/11. The White House is trying to undercut him. Do you find him believable? Does what he says ring true?
HOWARD DEAN: It does ring true because it validates all the things I was saying in the beginning of the campaign. This administration has engaged in the pattern of deception. Secretary Rumsfeld said on Tim Russert that he never said Iraq was an imminent threat and Tim Russert then played some footage that showed he had said that. The vice president said that Iraq was about to get nuclear weapons. There was no evidence of that. The president himself told us that al-Qaida and Saddam were all terrorists in this together. That was totally untrue, and the president knew very well it was untrue at the time he was saying it or at least he had been told by Richard Clarke that was not true personally and to his face.
The biggest issue in this campaign may well end up not being jobs or the war. The biggest issue in this campaign is do you believe the president of the United States? Is this a credible person because when the credibility of the president disappears, that president will be replaced by the American people.
MARGARET WARNER: So if you take Richard Clarke's two major charges and certainly the second one having to do with the war in Iraq being a diversion, it's something you also talked about, but if you take the first one which was that the Bush administration was somehow derelict, he didn't use that word, pre-9/11, what -- what should the public take from that, from what he has to say?
HOWARD DEAN: I maintained during the campaign that this president is a weak president on defense, not a strong president, because he's afraid of the facts. What Mr. Clarke testified was that he had presented the president of the United States with substantial and significant evidence that there was no link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. The president not only refuted that but refused to listen to any follow-up information, nor did his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, pass any additional information along to the president.
This means we have an -- a president of the United States and an administration who is willing to send us to war, 560 Americans, brave American soldiers killed without wanting to know what the facts were. That is not someone who is capable of being president of the United States and exerting meaningful leadership in this country.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that other members of the Bush administration or even the president owe what Richard Clarke gave yesterday which was essentially an apology to the families of the 9/11 victims?
HOWARD DEAN: I believe that we need a commission of independent inquiry to find out what the president knew and when he knew it. I think this calls into question the capacity of this president to serve us any longer as president of the United States, and I think it's very fortunate that an election is coming up when the American people will make their judgment. The president's credibility and honesty is now in question.
MARGARET WARNER: And you said, I think a week or two ago on Meet the Press that you thought the No. 1 issue would be jobs, but you now think perhaps not.
HOWARD DEAN: Well, there's been a lot of talk about the president's credibility on the question of Iraq. We now have someone who is a counterterrorism expert who has testified I think credibly so to the American people through various television outlets that he presented the president with the facts which from all our intelligence committee, including having vetted it with the CIA and FBI, show there was no relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
The president of the United States chose to willfully ignore that and send 560 Americans to die, countless thousands to be permanently injured, spending $160 billion and more importantly ignoring the very significant problem that we had with al-Qaida, which resulted in 3,000 deaths in our country, 200 deaths in Spain and many others around the world. This is a very serious problem. The president said he was going to run as a war president. That may be his undoing.
MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that he bears some responsibility for 9/11?
HOWARD DEAN: I think the responsibility -- in the literal way, of course not. The terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, drove the planes into them and killed 3,000 people. That was their responsibility and, of course, they should pay for that. We have started down that road.
The president, however, does bear a responsibility to defend the United States of America, and it appears the president willfully ignored information that was given to him by his administration, by a member of his administration who spent more time working for Ronald Reagan and his father than he did for any Democratic administration. The president willfully ignored that administration and therefore this country was at risk. That is a very serious charge. I find that charge to be horrifying, but, unfortunately, credible.
MARGARET WARNER: These are very tough words about the president. Are you speaking as a John Kerry surrogate --
HOWARD DEAN: Of course not.
MARGARET WARNER: -- or for yourself?
HOWARD DEAN: You didn't invite me on the show to be John Kerry's surrogate and I have not been invited to appear on behalf of John Kerry. I am speaking for myself. These are very deep concerns that -- I was horrified, Judy and I watched 60 Minutes and saw Mr. Clarke's appearances. I watched him and heard him subsequently. I find him to be credible. I find him to be knowledgeable, and I find that the pattern of deception and denials of the Bush administration has continued to give us to be less and less believable.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But then getting back to John Kerry, I mean, John Kerry also voted for this war that you said was based on deceptions and lies. How hard is it for you to go out attack President Bush as you just have and in the same breath say vote for John Kerry?
HOWARD DEAN: I know John Kerry. I've come to know him. One thing about John Kerry is that he listens to all sides before he makes a decision. Yes we had stern and strong disagreements about the vote on the war, but the fact is, and I believe John Kerry when he says he got all the information he could before he made that decision.
It is evident that the president did not get all the information that he had access to before he made the decision to ignore or to, excuse me, minimize the al-Qaida threat and then to deliberately go to war with Iraq when perhaps the right choice would have been to go to an extended action against al-Qaida which we're now undertaking many months after we could have, so I don't think there's any comparison between John Kerry voting for the resolution after getting as much information as he could on hand and the president of the United States ignoring information deliberately from the -- from the national security counterterrorism advisor which had been vetted by the CIA and the FBI.
This is a very, very serious charge. I think there needs to be testimony under oath by many people as to -- to find out just what happened -- 560 people have lost their lives as a result of this decision. 3,000 Americans lost their lives. We have a right to know if the president protected us to the best of his ability.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you have created this new grassroots organization called Democracy for America that you said was devoted to trying to elect progressives up and down the ballot. How will this either complement or conflict with whatever you're going to do for the Kerry campaign?
HOWARD DEAN: Well, I think it will help a lot. There are, as we've pointed out in the beginning of this show, there are people who are nervous about supporting John. They supported us and now hopefully they are all going to vote for John Kerry, but they want to put their energies in other places right now, so a lot of our people will support Kerry actively, but a lot of them are, you know, they are saying, well, gee, we're really interested in the grassroots. Well, now they have a place to go. We want them to run for office.
We already have 200 people from our organization running for school boards and county commissions and state legislatures. We want to train them; we want to support the ability of Congress to be taken back by the Democrats. We want to support the ability of the Senate to do that. So there are a lot of things that I can do through this new organization, democracyforamerica.com that I couldn't do as candidate for president and that I think will be in addition to my personal work on behalf of Senator Kerry.
MARGARET WARNER: Now this work that you're going to do for Democracy for America will, of course, cost money. I assume you're going to tap the base, you had 500,000 Internet donors. Will those donors also be available to John Kerry? Are you also contacting them and urging them to give?
HOWARD DEAN: We've not done that, but we will do that, probably within the next couple of weeks. We have done some direct mail for John, and we will do -- we will use our list to try to raise money for John Kerry.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Governor Dean, thank you so much for being with us.
HOWARD DEAN: Thank you very much.