Return of the Angry Man

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, July 3, 2005

At some point in the next five minutes, Howard Dean is going to say something that somebody won't like. He will say it in words chesty and rough, with a voice that is raked out of the bottom of his throat. He might call Republicans "plunderers," or he might call them "brain-dead." Whatever he says, the sound of a politician speaking his actual mind will cause his admirers and detractors alike to react as if they just heard an explosion. The chatter fills the air like scattering flocks of jackdaws: Check me on this, but did Howard Dean just call half the country stupid?

Dean could stop saying these things -- but he won't. "Most of that stuff, I don't regret," he says. It's mid-May, and the highly charged chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a man described by his own brother as "radioactive," sits in a room at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, tilted backward in a chair. A crowded itinerary has taken him from a union hall in Oklahoma City to a fundraiser in the Back Bay in the space of a day, and he has been talking the whole way. "Of course, I'm not always right," he says. "And I almost never take a poll before I speak."

His eyes are winter blue, the shade that is buried in a block of ice. His temples are white. His complexion is a burnished outdoor red. He has a face like a flag. Dean's color tends to rise when he speaks, which only reinforces what he calls "the caricature" of him as the Angry Man of his party. When he is exercised by a crowd, the flush creeps up his neck, and he turns into the guy who stood on podiums during his failed bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination and roared, "I want my country back! . . . I don't want to listen to fundamentalist preachers anymore!" When Dean revisits some of his performances, he says, "even I'm appalled. The veins are popping out. I look like a lunatic up there."

His former deputy campaign manager, Bob Rogan, understood that the Dean candidacy had a serious problem the day he turned on the TV and saw even the weatherman imitating the Scream, Dean's thundering non-concession speech after he finished third in Iowa. The weatherman reported the conditions from state to state with a mock Deanian roar, "And New Hampshire! And Wisconsin!" The Scream, Rogan says, "will probably be in his obituary."

Howard Brush Dean III, the political insurgent and former governor of Vermont who became the flash candidate for president and fodder for cartoonists everywhere, would seem to be the worst possible choice to chair his party. It's a party that has lost control of Congress and the majority of governorships, and that hasn't won a majority of the popular vote but once in the last 10 presidential elections. The selection of such a remorseless firebrand as chair would seem, on the face of it, to confirm Republican charges that the Democrats are a party lapsed into confusion and hotheadedness. Dean represents "loony left redundancy," says former RNC chair Rich Bond, who also calls Dean's ascent "a disaster" and "a joke." Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has said Dean represents "a true death wish" on the part of Democrats.

But Dean is also the guy who made speaking up fashionable again for Democrats. And that is one reason his party is wagering on him. If Dean says things that are ill-considered, he also remains his party's leading rebel -- one with enough fresh fight in him to take on not only Republicans but also those change-resistant Democrats who would rather be titular heads of a dying party than less relevant figures in a renewed one. The hope for Democrats is: Dean will be the antidote for a party that is lacking a strong message and that needs somebody, anybody, to say something. Dean likes to quote his political hero, Harry Truman. "I don't give 'em hell," Truman said in 1948. "I just tell the truth, and they think it's hell." And the truth, as Dean sees it, is that mushmouthedness is killing the party, and so is voter neglect. "Somebody has to take those right wingers on," he says, "and I enjoy doing it."

In fact, it was another blunt statement that helped him get this job. Dean has vowed not to run for president in 2008, "and one of the reasons I'm not running," he told DNC delegates, "is because if we don't change this party, it won't matter who the nominee is."

The outsider-insurgent has taken on the ultimate insider's job. The gamble is that Dean, underneath the rhetoric, is a politician of real capabilities with clear ideas about how to fix the DNC. At his best, Dean is disarmingly direct; he cuts through the clutter, and, as he proved in his campaign, he has an ability to make people like him for his flaws. "I don't think you can win if you don't have backbone," he says, "and I don't think you can win if you're afraid of who you are."

The job of party chair in the best of circumstances is thankless, a matter of tedious mechanics accompanied by an endless circuit of chicken-dinner glad-handing. It has three components: fundraising, organizing the party and energizing voters. Democrats have faltered on the latter two. Basically, Dean has descended into the basement of the party to fix the broken pipes. It's a lousy role, and a potentially risky career move, because it makes him a walking bull's-eye. If candidates win, he will get none of the credit, and if they lose, he will get the blame.

"Howard," former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe said early this year, "you're about to become a human fire hydrant."

Dean's task would seem to be this: to take back his party from the left without pandering to the right or infuriating various Democratic "constituencies" -- from George Soros, to labor, right down to and including unlicensed ceramicists -- while also rebuilding dilapidated party infrastructure in 50 states. All without making himself the message or the star. Right now, you're probably feeling better about your own job. "Dean may think he's got the world on a string," says one political strategist, "but what he's really got is a yo-yo with the initials DNC on it."

Why would he want such a job? The short answer is that he was looking for work. And he's got the guts to try it. "I looked at the DNC chairmanship, and it ain't the presidency," he says, "but it was the best I could do, in order to contribute to making sure that this country got back on a path I think will lead to its greatness for another century, and not another 10 minutes."

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