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."
In his first four months, Dean visited 23 states, 10 of them Republican "red." A testament to the mileage he has covered, and to his Yankee frugality, are the loafers he is balancing against a desk. Two perfect half moons have been worn deep into the heels. The shoes suggest the man.
Dean's motto could be the Gadsden flag's "Don't Tread on Me." He refuses to submit to the opinion of others, and he insists on leading by his own lights. He is an old-fashioned Yankee fiscal conservative with moderate social values, the strictly reared son of one of New York's first families, whose anti-Republican rhetoric comes from a genuine loathing of deficits and resentment of governmental intrusions. "They're undermining American values," he snaps. At times, he resembles the kind of Democrat that existed pre-Great Society, in the mode of Truman. Dean so identifies with Truman that he used to read from David McCullough's biography to his children, Anne and Paul, at bedtime. "He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue."
Then again, sometimes he doesn't resemble a Democrat at all. Sometimes he sounds like a Rockefeller Republican, who preaches individual rights "but also responsibilities." It's a Deanian irony that the only people he angers more than conservatives are liberals. In fact, Dean resists simple ideology or box politics. What to do with a pro-choice, civil-unions, fiscal-conservative, antiwar, NRA-endorsed law-and-order-pro-death-penalty Democrat who won't keep quiet? He's a maverick.
"Maverick just implies someone who doesn't toe the party line, and I don't," he says. "And I don't toe the expected line."
One would not expect the DNC chair to fly coach. But he does. He rides the New York subway and the Washington Metro. He generally refuses car service, because he doesn't like to waste money or time in traffic. Also, he can't stand luggage carousels. "Anyone who travels with me has to do carry-on," he says. His travel bag is a beaten up Tumi with red masking tape jacked around the handle. It contains exactly one suit.
"The joke around here is that Howard needs a visit from 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,' " says Betsey Krumholz, a longtime acquaintance from Burlington, Vt.
One would also expect the DNC chair to spend considerable time in the capital. But Dean spends two days a week max at the DNC office here, preferring instead to visit state parties. Recently he had lunch with, as he described them, some "very old influential heavy-hitter lobbyists." They gently suggested that he ought to do more time in Washington.
"I can't," he said. "No votes in Washington."
That is the sort of smart and spiny thing Dean likes to say, and, when it's accompanied by rolled-up sleeves and a tie askew, he radiates a sense of possibility for his party. But he's also capable in the next instant of making a statement that forces staffers to roll their eyes and rush back to their offices to control the fallout. It has become a weekly ritual: Dean says something, such as calling Republicans "pretty much a white, Christian party," angering conservatives and scaring the wits out of centrist Democrats, who promptly distance themselves from him.
Yet Dean resists efforts by his advisers to discipline his frankness, or to groom him. According to Tom McMahon, the DNC executive director, when aides would prep Dean for debates during the campaign, they could never teach him to dodge questions artfully. He charges straight into his answers.
"Pivot," McMahon said he told Dean. "You don't always have to answer the question. Pivot."
"When I hear the question, I just feel like I have to answer it," Dean replied.
"Well," McMahon said, "I guess that's a strategy."
According to former campaign manager Joe Trippi, spontaneity is Dean's great strength and weakness. It lends him sincerity, but it proved his downfall as a candidate, because it obscured his abilities and more moderate convictions, allowing opponents to paint him as extreme. "He was caricatured, but in the end a lot of the caricature was ammo that he provided," says Trippi, who believes Dean almost reflexively defies any attempt to Washingtonize him.
"It almost got to the point where, if you wanted him to go out through that door," Trippi says, "you had to point to the other door."
Dean rarely speaks from a prepared text, preferring to jot thoughts on an index card, which he then barely refers to. Exasperated aides urge him to stick to a script. "Give the speech," says media consultant Tom Ochs, a member of Dean's DNC transition team. "That's why it's called a 'speech.' " But Dean gives speeches only on his terms. If Dems thought they were hiring a servile functionary, they were mistaken.
Dean has arrived at the Park Plaza in Boston to address the annual state Democratic convention.
He pulls out an index card, which he hardly glances at, and launches into a rousing delivery. ("We're not going to let Republicans define us anymore! We're going to say what Democrats are about!") Then three-quarters of the way through his remarks, he puts the card in his breast pocket. Things have gone smoothly.
Until he arrives at the subject of Tom DeLay. The House majority leader is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for taking trips paid for by lobbyists. Dean lights into him. DeLay needs to go back to Houston, "where he can serve his jail sentence down there courtesy of the Texas taxpayers!" Dean thunders.
Check me on this: Did Howard Dean just throw the Republican House majority leader into prison?
Dean's first weeks as DNC chair were strangely quiet -- for him. While debates raged about privatizing Social Security and the Terry Schiavo case, Dean was absent from the Sunday talk shows. Where was he?
He was doing the red states. In late March, he was in Nashville. The day before he arrived, there were reports that local Democrats would duck him. Gov. Phil Bredesen helped him out by stating that if Dean wanted to meet, "I'd be happy to do so." But a county commissioner, Curtis Adams, told the Nashville Tennessean, "Howard Dean will take this party down."
Also heralding Dean's arrival was conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who was in the area for a speaking engagement. She called him "the gift that keeps on giving."
Dean introduced himself to the party by visiting regional party offices, where he held confidential meetings and listened to complaints. His conviction is that the party has deserted its outposts in too many states. As the candidate who broke new ground in Internet fundraising and grass-roots motivating, he believes he's uniquely qualified to fix the gap.
One of his stops was at Vanderbilt University, where he faced a standing-room-only class. For the next 45 minutes, Dean lectured, bantered and spoke like a candidate. ("I do not believe that you can run enormous deficits year after year after year and not have consequences. I do not believe you can run a foreign policy based on petulance.") But Dean was almost as critical of Democrats. The class evolved into his first lengthy public explication of his view of the party, and his "idears" for fixing it, as he pronounces the word. "It is socially unacceptable in some parts of the country to be a Democrat," he observed. "The first thing we have to do is show up in 50 states and compete in 50 states. Second thing we're going to do is talk in a way that is not condescending."
Message has been a major problem for Democrats. "You ask people what Republicans stand for, they stand for less taxes, more defense and less government. If I ask you what Democrats stand for, there's going to be a poll in here," he said. If the Democrats' agenda is not clear, the party's liabilities are, at least to Dean. National security, he said, "is our biggest weakness." And as long as Democrats sound as if they are defending abortion, he declared, "we're going to lose the argument every time."
A student raised her hand. What was his specific plan for recovery? Dean ticked off several points. First, he would infuse state parties with cash and organizing help. The difference between the
Democratic and Republican operations in Ohio, where the presidential election turned, Dean hazarded, was that Democrats brought in thousands of volunteers from out of state. Republicans had thousands of volunteers in state, knocking on the doors of their neighbors. This lack of neighbor-to-neighbor presence, Dean suggested, was alienating.
Also, Democrats must contest races in all states, at all levels, in all years, not just presidential ones. "It is disrespectful not to come to Tennessee and Mississippi and Alabama as well as California and Michigan and Ohio . . . We need to come to Tennessee because what you could think of Democrats by watching [Republican] ads is all you're going to think of us unless we show up and make our case in person."
A young man stood up and asked what he could do to help the party, other than give money, which he didn't have. Dean bobbed on his feet, delighted with the question, because it allowed him to show off his best side -- the side that grew a presidential candidacy from a small Vermont operation with seven employees into a national campaign with 600,000 supporters.
"The number one thing you can do is run for office."
"I'm absolutely serious. I am not kidding."
The class grew quiet. Here was Dean as a Johnny Appleseed, sowing civics in the young. While Democrats have conceded parts of the country considered hostile, Republicans have left no office untested, he pointed out. The result is that Dems have no farm system, no ability to find young political talent in red states and groom it.
Run, he urged the students. Run for county road commissioner. Run for city council. "If you don't have people running for offices like county commissioner, who do you think is going to run for Congress a generation from now?
"You may not win the first time," he said, "or the second time or the third time . . . If you lose, so what? It's worth the investment if we can have somebody there who gives the message, who's articulate and thoughtful, and respectful of the voters, because they'll get a better impression of Democrats than they would otherwise if there was no opposition whatsoever. That's the great failure, one of the great failures, of the party. Because we were in power for so long, we didn't think we had to appeal to places like that. Well, we do. And we will."
Washington, March 23:
Dean's debut as DNC chair in Washington was not going well. The microphone didn't work.
A day after leaving Tennessee, he had his "coming out" party in the nation's capital, a fundraiser for $50-to-$100 small donors. Three hundred or so of them packed into the H2O Lounge on the Potomac.
On Dean's arrival here, he found a plush office at the brand-new Democratic headquarters on Capitol Hill awaiting him, complete with calf-colored leather sofas. This was thanks to McAuliffe, who despite his limo-driven, Hay Adams-lunching persona did some heavy lifting for the party. In 2001, McAuliffe took over an organization carrying decades-old debt. He lacked basic equipment and a voter file, thanks to years of insolvency, complacency and neglect. "We never invested because we had always been broke," he says. "And when Bill Clinton was in office he was such a great communicator that the lack of capability wasn't apparent because he was so good. Once he was gone . . ."
Over his four-year tenure, McAuliffe made the party solvent and professionalized operations. He raised more than $500 million, invested in computer technology and compiled a 175-million-voter database. But according to McAuliffe and Dean, much remains undone. The party is woefully inadequate when it comes to smaller, equally crucial aspects of party building. And that is where Dean takes over.
Example: Go to a Web site for Republicans in Oklahoma, Tulsagop.org. A crisp page appears, with a slide show that covers each issue of the day, from judicial nominees to stem cells. There are links to local GOP clubs, sharp color photos and an invitation to "participatory leadership training."
Go to Tulsademocrats.org, and you find an unpolished red-and-blue site with a handful of tabs. One of them says "Photos." Sounds promising. Click on it, and three words pop up.
"Flag Day 2003."
Dean and the Democrats can fashion whatever message they want, but if they don't have the infrastructure to get it across, it won't matter. "We have real problems as a party on just every level," Trippi says. "It's hard to point to something we're beating the Republicans at."
So it was perhaps fitting that Dean's Washington debut would be marred by a small but telling communications breakdown. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) took the stage at the H2O Lounge to introduce Dean, starting with a simple, "Good evening." Only it came out, "Good ev -- --"
Norton paused, and tapped the microphone. She blew on it, and tried again. "Good ev -- --"
More tapping and blowing.
"You know, I thought Democrats owned this place," Norton said. "Sabotage."
Only it came out, "sab-t-a -- "
Dean sidled up next to Norton. "We're holding off for a few minutes," he said. He turned and handed the mike to a technician. More tapping offstage.
From somewhere in the back of the room, a man's beery voice rang out.
"Don't scream, Howard!" he hollered.
You can see the problem.
Dean's most explicit quality is audacity. What makes a former governor from Vermont, a quaint nonconformist agrarian state of 610,000 that lacks the swat of even a New Hampshire, think he could run for president? Or that he can save Democrats from going the way of the Whigs?
One answer is that if Howard Brush Dean III is an outsider, William F. Buckley Jr. is a bounding arriviste. Dean may be a political interloper, but his social pedigree is one of pure entitlement. Ralph Wright, longtime speaker of the Vermont House, wrote a not-entirely-flattering description of Dean in his memoir, All Politics Is Personal: "Howard Dean never walked into a room with the slightest doubt that everyone who gathered there loved him."
He was born on November 17, 1948, the first of four boys, to Howard Brush Dean II, a stockbroker, and Andree Maitland Dean, an art appraiser. He is descended from the Rev. Nathaniel Huntting, the second minister of East Hampton, N.Y., who settled in the Long Island town at the end of the 17th century after studying at Harvard under Cotton and Increase Mather. Another ancestor, Benjamin Huntting, outfitted whalers in nearby Sag Harbor. His immense white-pillared mansion is now the town museum.
Dean comes from the old Eastern code that treats wealth as ethic. His father, "Big Howard," reared his sons along the lines of John D. Rockefeller, who once said, "Every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty." Big Howard made his living dutifully, and served his country dutifully. He suffered from diphtheria as a youth, and, when he was rejected for military service during World War II, he ran freight to the Allies in North Africa, Nigeria and Sudan, and helped resupply the Chinese nationalist air force against the Japanese.
Big Howard, who died in 2001, was a character, a stocky man with a deep voice and rigid rules but an antic sense of humor. He was a gagster who carried a collection of plastic bugs in his pocket. He couldn't stand stuffiness or ostentation. He was a staunch Republican and a member of the select Maidstone Club in Easthampton, yet he didn't seem class-conscious. His sons remember him playing golf at Maidstone one day, and hunting with local plumbers the next. "He didn't give a damn what the difference was," Dean says. He insisted that status was irrelevant and that his sons should pay their own way. "He earned every nickel and was a real penny pincher," Dean says. "We all were."
(Dean has passed it down to his children. A couple of years ago, friend Betsey Krumholz was working a ticket booth at Burlington High School, selling $40 passes for the football season. Dean and his wife, Judy Steinberg, came by, with son Paul trailing behind. Dean pulled out his checkbook and asked for two passes.
"Do you want a ticket for Paul, too?"
"No," Dean said. "He can pay his own way.")
The Dean family divided its time between an apartment on Park Avenue and a second home on Hook Pond Lane in East Hampton. But it's a peculiarity of a New York childhood that wealth doesn't entirely cosset you. The Dean brothers, Howard, Charlie, Bill and Jim, rode the bus and subway to their private, all-boys grade school, Browning. Bill remembers being mugged regularly for his bus pass.
The Dean household was noisy, and belligerent. "We were always competing to be heard," says Bill. "The only way I could do it was I just had to be louder than everyone else." Card games became wrestling matches. A family story has it that on the bus one day, some kid smacked Howard. His younger brother Charlie smacked the kid back. Just then, their grandmother happened to pass by. When a woman on the street said, "Look at those boys fighting, that's disgusting!" their grandmother said, "Those are my grandsons!" and smacked the woman with her pocketbook.
The Dean boys were encouraged to debate over family dinner and to be politically engaged. Charlie, younger than Howard by 15 months, was by all accounts the most ambitious of the Deans, a gregarious, take-charge kid who had his eye on office-seeking as a teen. "He was counting votes by the age of 14," says Jim. Charlie worked for the mid-1960s campaign of New York Mayor John Lindsay, a Republican, and dragged his brothers to headquarters to help. He did so much work for Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, Jim says, that he got an invitation to the inaugural. "He was the one you'd of thought of as a future prez," Bill says.
Howard was less outgoing, quiet but earnest. "I was a do-gooder," he says. At St. George's, a prep school in Rhode Island, where study hall and chapel were mandatory, he was elected prefect, a student leader in charge of discipline. He supervised bed-making and study, and comforted and advised younger boys. His self-description in a yearbook reveals an intense, and perhaps argumentative, young man. "From the outside looking in I am: a Prefect making a thousand announcements in assembly, a dorm prefect with a big stick . . . a big brother, a solid conservative defending the powers of the Student Council and lashing out at cynics and opponents . . . If you're the curious type who can put up with a temper, join the few who know me as I know me -- from the inside looking out."
When Dean was admitted to Yale, his father urged him to put college off for a year to travel. Big Howard believed his war experience had made him, and wanted to cultivate the same fearless independence in his sons. In 1966, Dean shipped off to Felsted, an English boarding school. The experience was more than his father intended. Dean departed a shorn young Republican in a coat and tie, "mindlessly for the war in Vietnam," he says. He returned with a mop of hair, in jeans and dusty boots. He had turned against the war and become preoccupied with social justice. "I remember him leaving," Jim Dean says, "and he didn't come back a year later."
In his travels, Dean found he couldn't defend the U.S. presence in Vietnam, or explain the civil rights injustices at home. He spent that Christmas in Tunisia. He and a group of classmates drove a Land Rover to Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia in the spring of '67. "I had a very rapid and comprehensive education in social justice," he says now.
The Dean who entered Yale in the fall of '67 had decided he wanted something different from what he grew up with, "for reasons I'm not entirely in touch with," he says. He was curious enough about the civil rights movement that when he filled out a questionnaire asking his residential preference, he replied that he wanted a black roommate. He was assigned to a four-person suite in Wright Hall. Two of his roommates were blacks from the Deep South, and a third was an Italian American from Pennsylvania.
One of them was Ralph Dawson, the son of a sheet metal worker and one of 12 children, from Charleston, S.C. Dawson, who is a partner with Fulbright & Jaworski in New York, recalls that Dean had a searching mind, and hair "that got longer all the time." Dean inquired freely about race and wasn't afraid to debate it, either. "He had a keen interest in getting to know what different people were about," Dawson says. "He was willing to engage, not afraid to step on toes. Not afraid to put forward his thoughts and let them be received however they'd be received in an exchange. He was much more willing to disagree with you than some other people."
In Dean's freshman year neckties were required at meals. By spring, the rule was gone, and Yale had become a cultural cauldron. "Yale brought a lot of freedom for Howard," Dawson says. "I think he had grown up in a situation where he was encouraged to conform." In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and, a couple years later, there were mass demonstrations and fears of rioting when Bobby Seale and several other Black Panthers were put on trial for murder in New Haven.
Dawson and Dean, who remain friends, talked late into the nights about militancy. As upperclassmen, they lived across the courtyard from each other in Pierson College, where Dean was famous for his stereo, which he would blast from his window. He was only a fair-to-middling student, preferring to drink beer and talk politics. He was suspicious of ideologues and espoused King's confrontational nonviolence. Dawson, meanwhile, went militant; he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, quoted Stokely Carmichael and got arrested at demonstrations. "We discussed the pros and cons of that ad nauseam," he says.
At the Dean home, family dinner discussions were getting testy. Charlie had also turned against the war, and he and Howard argued with their father. Big Howard believed in the system and didn't want to hear about racism and societal double standards. "There were times when his blood pressure rose and he would leave the room," Bill remembers.
Howard's graduation day became the occasion of another family story. Big Howard was proud of his son for getting through Yale, since he himself had flunked out before going to North Africa. He drove the entire family to New Haven for graduation, insisting everyone wear their best suits. It was a summer day, and the campus was boiling with unrest. A local union was on strike, and a huge student protest was underway. When the Deans arrived at Howard's room, it was occupied by a collection of long-haired, tattooed strangers.
During commencement, Big Howard stared aghast at the ragged students. "There are at least three different demonstrations going on," Jim remembers. "And it's hot. And we're sitting in our chairs watching this parade of seniors, and most of them have caps and gowns and not much else, bare legs, shorts, long stringy hair. And you can hear the catcalls from the demonstrations, 'Capitalist pigs!' And I'm looking at Dad, and he's getting redder and saying, 'These people never worked a day in their life.' "
At which point 15-year-old Bill piped up. "Congrats, Dad," he said. "This is your first Yale graduation." Big Howard dissolved in laughter.
Dean was slow to find himself after graduation. Exempted from the draft with misaligned vertebrae, he went to Aspen, Colo., and washed dishes while he skied for a year. On returning, he dutifully took a job on Wall Street, but selling securities to rich people wasn't his calling. He naively told friends he wanted to do something "morally unimpeachable," according to the campaign biography Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President.
"When I was in college I had the usual relatively immature ideology that students have," he now says. "But I believed that if you want the world to work properly, you have to have everybody getting a reasonably fair shake. And I think that has really driven my career."
Dean began volunteering at a hospital near his Greenwich Village apartment, St. Vincent's, and, out of the blue, announced he would go to medical school. Dean's resolve may have been deepened by family tragedy. Charlie had become steeped in politics, throwing himself into George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign after graduating from the University of North Carolina. Crushed when McGovern lost 49 states, he set off on a backpacking adventure to console himself. He hopped a freighter to Japan, went to Bali and Australia and then into Southeast Asia. Why is a mystery. The Deans never saw him again. He and a friend were riding a ferry on the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand when communist guerrillas took them into custody. Accused of spying, they were executed. The Deans did not recover his remains until last year.
Charlie's death left a hole in the universe for the family. "It's a little easier to talk about now that we got him back," Bill Dean says. "Howard and Charlie, there was a real partnership there in a lot of ways. Howard felt that, well, here we had this terrible loss, what were we going to do? We talked about it, and we figured the best face you can put on losing a sibling that young is make more of your life. And try to carry on the spirit of what he was trying to do. And so I think we kind of all figured, we'll do a little more."
Dean wears Charlie's belt every day. It's a wide black leather strap meant for jeans, and it doesn't go with a business suit, but Dean cinches it around his waist. Dean is not certain that Charlie was a specific impetus of his medical and political careers; all he knows is that the grief was murky and depthless. "I actually don't think it made us dig a little deeper in terms of achieving," he says. "It made us dig a lot deeper in terms of understanding the roads other people have to walk."
In Vermont, Dean is just a rumpled guy who paints his own house. You'll know the place by the dented yellow mailbox. It's a handsome but modest cream-colored home with picture windows and a minivan in the driveway. Once, during the 2004 campaign, Rogan stopped by early one morning to pick him up for a trip to Iowa. It was 7 a.m., and Dean was in the front yard mowing the lawn in his suit.
In his autobiography, You Have the Power, Dean says, "When I graduated from college I turned my back on much of what was expected of me -- a certain kind of marriage, a certain kind of Wall Street career." The answer as to why a Park Avenue mainliner would flee to Vermont is clear when you round a curve and see the alluring scenery. Rivers twine around verdant mountainsides, and Lake Champlain shimmers in the distance like God's own mirror. Burlington retains a turn-of-the-century charm, with spires, green squares and rows of red-brick buildings. White sails waft past a pair of old lighthouses, and fog comes and goes like a sigh. Vermont, for its residents, is a true love.
Dean arrived in Burlington in 1978 to take up his residency at the University of Vermont teaching hospital. He was joined the following year by Judy Steinberg, a woman he met in medical school. They wed in 1981 and set up a family practice. Steinberg is a slight woman with a mass of brown hair who shrinks from public life and declined to be interviewed for this article. Steinberg, Dean tells friends, is the superior doctor and intellect, and he cites one of their medical school final exams. The curve was so severe that a passing grade was 30. Dean got a 34. Steinberg scored a 92.
Dean retreats to Burlington on weekends. On the day after he threw DeLay into jail, he could be seen in old green sweats, as he strolled along a lakeside path deep in conversation with Steinberg. On most Sunday afternoons, Dean and Steinberg walk or bicycle along the shore of Lake Champlain on a path Dean is partly responsible for building. It was his first political engagement, and if it's one of the more quaint aspects of his résumé, it's also a monument to his stubbornness.
Shortly after he came to Burlington, he helped found the Citizens Waterfront Group and led what became a years-long legal and legislative battle to preserve the lakeshore from aggressive development. The path, several miles long, was built in excruciatingly piecemeal fashion, and not without hard feelings. Dean pulled up old railroad ties, laid paving stones and even preserved an old tree that was being gnawed on by beavers by putting a fence around it. He gathered petition signatures in supermarkets. He quit his Episcopal diocese when it considered siding with developers.
Vermont politics is intensely neighbor-driven, and it was a neighbor, Esther Sorrell, who fostered Dean's interest. Sorrell was the state coordinator for Jimmy Carter, and her house was a hive of Democratic activity. Her son Bill -- who would become Dean's chief of staff and now is Vermont's attorney general -- remembers piles of leaflets and voter lists around the house. "I was 16 before I realized the dining room table was for meals," he says. Dean met Esther in 1978 on the sidewalk while she was tending her flowers, and was drawn in. On Friday evenings, Dean sat in her living room and ate her brownies while they watched "Washington Week in Review." One Friday evening around that time, Bill stopped by, and there was Dean "feeding his face" and absorbing political gossip. "This guy needs to get a life," Bill Sorrell thought.
Dean started at the bottom, stuffing envelopes and sponging stamps. "He wasn't too big or too good for anything," Sorrell says. But Dean's ambition accelerated: He became county chair after Carter's failed 1980 reelection campaign and, by 1983, was a freshman in the Vermont House of Representatives. There he developed his reputation for political audacity. Wright, in his memoir, remembers Dean as cheekily dismissive of protocol, leapfrogging elders to go for the job of minority whip. By 1986, he was lieutenant governor. Wright recalls Dean becoming bluntly livid when a rival legislator's committee slashed the salary of his administrative assistant. "He's a no-good sonofabitch," Wright quotes Dean as saying. "I swear to God if it takes a lifetime I'll get the bastard." Dean admits in his autobiography that he needed chastening. A senior Democrat, Marie Condon, cautioned him. "Someone had gotten my blood boiling, and I must have said I was going to retaliate," Dean wrote. "Marie took me aside and said: 'You're going to do really well here, but you've got to get over this chip on your shoulder that tells you to fix somebody's wagon if they cross you.' "
Dean was seeing a patient one August morning in 1991 when he got the call telling him that Republican Gov. Richard Snelling had died and that he was the new governor. Dean immediately reassured the state by keeping Snelling's staff and his policies in place, setting a tone of pragmatism he would maintain for most of the next 12 years, as he became the longest-serving governor in the country.
Dean endeared himself to Vermonters with his oddball informality. He eschewed inaugural balls and wore either a $125 J.C. Penney suit or a hockey jacket and hiking boots to the governor's office in Montpelier. He drove carpool for his kids and, while Steinberg maintained her medical practice, often watched the kids in the governor's office.
Wright was struck by Dean's unaffectedness when the two of them visited Washington in 1993, for President Clinton's address on health care to a joint session of Congress. Dean was invited to sit behind the first lady in the gallery and to stay over at the White House. The next morning Wright picked up Dean. "Awaiting our arrival was this boyish guy, looking for all the world like he was waiting for a bus to take him to summer camp," Wright wrote. "[H]e had a suitcase I'm certain was made out of cardboard. His hair looked like he had simply run his hands through it and had a pronounced cowlick sticking up in the back. He had buttoned his shirt unevenly and the knot in his tie was closer to his shoulder than his adams apple."
How did it go? Wright wanted to know.
"I was tired. I went right to sleep," Dean said.
Well, did he see the Clintons for breakfast? "I didn't see anyone. I just got up, and showered, and came down here to wait for you guys."
"Governor," Wright said, incredulously, "you didn't even get to have a cup of coffee this morning?"
"I don't drink coffee. Besides, I wasn't sure where I was, and I didn't want to bother anybody."
Dean wore his clothes until they were threadbare, and he favored cheap suits and shoes. "Don't look at the socks," says Ochs. "If they match." He kept the office refrigerator stocked with generic soft drinks. "No name sodas. You couldn't find a brand you ever heard of," Sorrell says. His bicycle was a junker he bought at a garage sale for about $5, and, as Steinberg jokes to their friends, "he thinks he overpaid for it."
When the Clintons hosted a dinner for governors in 1996, Dean went into his closet and pulled out a tux he had worn in high school, and insisted it still fit him. "It didn't," Rogan says. "He looked like a sausage." Dean was suffering from a cold and, toward the end of the night, he had a particularly violent coughing fit -- and the tuxedo split open. "The whole front exploded," Rogan says. "It came apart." Dean had to borrow an overcoat to leave the White House. "And he went back and had that thing fixed," Rogan says. "He had it repaired."
As governor, Dean treated the citizens' money like his own. Sorrell remembers him pounding the arms of his chair in anger over the fact that he and the legislature had to assess a small sales tax. When he took over, Vermont was running a $65 million deficit. For 12 years, he was a fanatical balancer of the budget and also managed to lower taxes (helped by the Snelling policies he inherited).
Dean's management style in doing so was brisk, to put it charitably. He was impatient with procedure. Sorrell remembers Dean calling him in the early days of trying to erase the deficit. "Listen, I'm thinking about an income tax cut," he said.
"Whoa, Howard," Bill Sorrell said. "Whew. I got to chew on that one."
"Well you better chew fast, because I want to announce it today."
His style meant his staff was always trying to catch up with his policy, or his off-the-cuff pronouncements. At times, it bred confusion and discord. Dean liked to toss an issue on the table without warning and pit aides against each other. He'd sit back and listen to both sides. Sorrell, who controlled funding for programs, was often at war with the human services secretary, Con Hogan. "Howard would out of the blue throw an issue on the middle of table, knowing we'd be at each other," Sorrell says. Finally Sorrell called him on it. "What did you do that for?" he asked.
"I wanted to watch two gladiators go at it," Dean replied.
Dean's record shows a pragmatic doer who balanced budgets, cut taxes, extended health care to all of the state's children, was tough on crime and favored business growth. Vermonters are baffled at portrayals of him as a wild-eyed lefty. "That's not the Howard we know," says attorney Rick Sharp, a partner in the Citizens Waterfront Group. Dean was pegged as liberal for opposing the war in Iraq when 70 percent of the country favored it, but his position now looks more moderate.
There is considerable debate in Vermont about the extent of Dean's political courage. He tended to favor incremental measures and aggravated the left, the right, environmentalists, developers, farmers and gay rights activists equally. His most overtly courageous act was signing a civil unions bill in 2000, but his hand was forced by a state Supreme Court ruling. He signed it behind closed doors, refusing a public ceremony. Still, he signed it. Afterward, he was subject to screaming vitriol and wore a flak jacket when he marched in local parades. When he attended an annual maple festival in St. Albans, an elderly woman approached him and said, "You . . . queer-loving son of a bitch." Dean replied, "You should clean up your mouth, lady. You certainly didn't learn how to talk like that in Franklin County."
Christopher Graff, the AP bureau chief in Montpelier who covered Dean throughout his tenure, summarized his record this way in 2003. "He defies labels, following a pragmatic not partisan path . . . He hates dependency -- whether it is drinking or drugs or welfare -- and abhors debt . . . He is, by his own admission, 'an odd kind of Democrat.' "
His time as governor was the period in which Dean's backbone was formed, and his mouth, too. Initially a wooden speaker, as he grew comfortable he became extemporaneous and outrageously frank. He once called his own legislature "a zoo." In 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress, he took on Gingrich over school lunch programs. "They must be smoking opium in the speaker's office," he said.
Jim Dean contends that his brother's habit of blurting things out results from the fact that, as governor, he continued to think and act like an everyday citizen. Dean, he says, is no different from you and me: Politics makes him angry. "Most Americans, of any political persuasion, get up in the morning and read the newspaper, and they get a little cranky about some of the stuff they read," he says. "I don't consider him any different."
The crash of the Dean presidential campaign was by all accounts emotionally harrowing. Never had a campaign come from so far behind to get so far ahead and then collapse so quickly, Trippi says. It left everyone exhausted, and bitterly disappointed, and with the predictable recriminations that come with a losing campaign. "It was the greatest experience I've ever had in my life, and please, God, don't ever let me do that again," Trippi says. "I would gladly change my name and give every dollar I've ever made in my life not to have done it."
The person who took it best was Dean. He rehabilitated himself by puttering around the house in Burlington, doing chores and attending Paul's hockey games. It helped that the rest of the Dean family treated the whole affair with their usual wryness. Jim Dean's son said, "So, Dad, if Howard's not going to be president, does that mean we don't get our own tour of Area 51?"
In the fallow period, Dean and Jim launched the political action committee Democracy for America, and Dean lectured at Dartmouth College. Within a few weeks, Dean was making new plans. Supporters approached him about forming a third party, and he considered it. "I actually toyed around with whether a third party would make any sense," he says. "I concluded I didn't want to do that for two reasons: First, it would take forever. And there's only been one successful one in the history of the country, and I didn't think I was ready to compete in Abraham Lincoln's league."
When Dean instead decided to run for DNC chair, his brothers were appalled. Jim wrote him a letter urging him to reconsider, worried that his brother would disappear in the Washington "cesspool." He thought too many separate self-interests were pulling the party apart, arguing "over that 6 percent of political turf they have left."
But Dean considered the job doable, and winnable, even if others didn't. It was an act of sheer political will that he got himself elected, despite widespread opposition. Among those who opposed him was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "He wasn't my first choice," Reid says, "but I admire the way he got the job." An example of Dean's determined buoyancy came when he requested a meeting with Reid to make his pitch. After Dean emerged from Reid's office, Ochs recalls asking anxiously, "How did it go?"
Dean said, "Oh, it went great."
"Yeah, he's not for me."
"Okaaaay," Ochs said. "So, why did it go great?"
"Well, I like him," Dean said. "He just told me right off. He was real straight up about it. He doesn't think I'm the right guy. He doesn't think I should do it. But I like that. When I win this, we'll be able to work together."
Dean burrowed deep into the DNC membership with a grass-roots campaign that echoed his presidential bid. He outworked eight other candidates with a one-on-one charm assault on the committee's 447 members, lobbying for votes with phone calls and visits. "He got the job the old-fashioned way," Reid says. Dean won critical endorsements from three Southern state party chairs: Florida, Oklahoma and Mississippi. One chair he won over was Oklahoma's Jay Parmley, who initially opposed him. "The last person I thought should be chairman of this party," Parmley says, "was Howard Dean."
But Parmley was also disillusioned by the attitude at national headquarters and was willing to listen. Though Oklahoma is a so-called red state, it's not as red as all that. Parmley had managed to help elect a Democratic governor, Brad Henry. And yet, Parmley had few resources from the DNC and couldn't direct-dial anyone in Washington. "The DNC didn't even seem interested, except for 16 to 18 states in a presidential cycle," he says.
Dean convinced Parmley that he wasn't afraid to fight in red states. And he was the only candidate with a specific plan, who understood the logistical and financial help needed. "He just made a lot of sense," Parmley says. "He understood that we were out here in the middle of nowhere and oftentimes stranded."
The result was that Dean, once marginalized and scorned after the primaries, outflanked his rivals. In the end, the powers that be of the party acquiesced. He was unanimously elected DNC chair on February 11. "The fact that he is now the DNC chair should tell people who don't understand Howard Dean a lot about him," says Rogan. "Everyone totally underestimates him. But he's a very smart guy, and a hard worker, and he's got a phenomenal political instinct. I realize a lot of Democrats are nervous about him, but they should just relax, and he will reenergize this party."
Early reviews of Dean's performance suggest he gets a good grade for reviving benighted local operations. "I think the job he's doing is remarkably positive," says Reid. Dean already has organizers at work in 16 states. Oklahoma, for instance, has four new ground workers, paid for by the DNC, who will be there for four years, not just for one campaign. "I don't think he's made a big mark on his chairmanship yet," says Scott Reed, Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign manager. "I do credit him for going back to some basics in blocking and tackling, as far as what a party should do in assisting state operations. That's a smart way to build a party instead of spending all of his time inside the Beltway running his mouth. To his credit he's gotten in there."
As for fundraising, the signals are mixed. There are grumbles that some large donors are chilly to Dean or that he is too focused on the Internet-based small donors. May reports showed Republicans had raised $43 million for the year, compared with $19 million for the DNC. But, the DNC says, Dean has raised more in his first few months -- about $1 million a week -- than any other DNC chair during an off-election year, and is ahead of the pace set by McAuliffe in 2001. Dean believes the small-donor base is sustainable, and that it's the best way to keep the party out of the hands of special interests. In two weeks alone online, the DNC raised more than $500,000 to help build state parties. Dean has passed the cash to Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming, Nevada, Nebraska, Mississippi and Kansas, among others.
He acknowledges that he is still getting to know the large donors, many of whom he had never met. He predicts that once he's better acquainted, he can close the gap with Republicans. "I think it's hard to call up somebody and ask them for a big C-note without knowing anything about them," he says. "We're doing the things we have to do."
But message remains a problem. It's one thing to let Republicans poison their own water on Iraq or Social Security. But voters continue to have a soft view of what Democrats stand for. "If the message they have to carry, and messengers they have to support, are repackaging lousy-tasting liberalism, the people still aren't going to swallow it, and that's the issue," says former RNC chair Rich Bond.
The DNC plan is to shape a cogent message around three or four issues party leaders can agree on over the summer. "We're going to get together and find out what they think they ought to run on to win, what is it they really believe," Dean says. "And the list isn't going to be the same in Alabama as it is in Minnesota. But there will be some things in common." Dean at least seems to have an inkling of what the message will sound like: His speeches are a drumbeat of jobs, fiscal conservatism, gas prices, national security, health care and getting lawmakers out of your living rooms. "Common-sense concerns," Reid says.
In the meantime, Democrats are left with Dean's blunt rhetoric. The prevailing view among party leaders seems to have become, Howard is Howard, and this is what he does. "The DNC chair and the RNC chair, part of their position is to stir the pot, to get party faithful running," says Reid. "I'm not going to comment on his statements. I'm going to comment on the positive agenda we're working on. We're looking at what he's accomplished, and it's significant." If Dean comes in for criticism, it's worth pointing out that McAuliffe endured similar criticism at the same point in his tenure, for being a soulless money man, or too much the attack dog.
It's all speculative. Dean's effectiveness can't really be judged until the 2006 elections and the next presidential cycle. Much of his first few months has been spent on transition. And it's important to note that Dean is not a one-man solution, or wrecking crew, either, for Democrats. Nobody is. It will take many people at all levels to make the party healthy again. Some Democrats remain lulled, or star-struck by the Clinton presidency, convinced that all they need is one strong candidate or leader. "They think there's some political Messiah who's going to come back and make everything right, and that's just fantasy," Jim Dean says. "They're hallucinating."
Dean continues to eat at his desk and ignores the Washington "whisper campaigns" about how he is doing or what he's saying. "My sense about those things is that, if you have enough staying power, those all go away," he says. If the chair makes him a target for detractors, it also is an opportunity for him to show, over time, that he can talk straight and still connect the party to the mainstream.
"I know what I want," he says. "I know what my vision of the world looks like, and I'm working to try to get it. Now, to the extent that there are a lot of externalities that you got to deal with every day, that's fine. But I have a pretty strong sense of who I am and what I think is right. And I'm not often put off."
If the presidential run did anything for Dean, it toughened his skin. "I mean, if you've been put on televisions 750 times in a single week, it kind of makes everything else pale by comparison," he says. "The interesting thing about American politics is that notoriety matters a lot, I've discovered." If even the Scream is survivable, surely a few firebrand, off-the-cuff remarks are, too.
"It's survivable -- if that's what you think is important," Dean says. "I mean, if my life was about sculpting some big image for the rest of the country, then it wouldn't be survivable. My life isn't about that. I'm very anchored in things that have nothing to do with politics, which is basically my family. And so I always have that, a set of values to go back to that is much more important than what happens in the political sphere."
Oklahoma City, May 12:
As his flight landed, Dean collected his belongings. Behind him, passengers murmured.
"That's the guy who ran for president."
"A Democrat in Oklahoma," somebody else said, "there's a tough row to hoe."
At party headquarters Dean met up with state chair Parmley and a few of his aides, most of whom wanted their pictures taken with him. The offices were typical fluorescent-lit affairs, with piles of papers and blinking computers. Against one wall was a map of Oklahoma. Dean studied it. He pointed to the panhandle. "What's that area like?" he asked.
"Pretty red," Parmley said ruefully.
From there, Dean went to a union hall, where about 250 loyals awaited him, as did the local press. Dean met in an anteroom with reporters and launched into his sales pitch. "I'm serious about a new message," he said. A reporter named Michael McNutt from the Oklahoman raised his hand. He wanted to know where Dean was taking the party on gay rights and abortion.
"These are not our issues; they're Republican issues," Dean said. "They're the ones who talk about them all the time. We believe a woman has the right to make up her own mind about what kind of health care she needs, and that ought not to be done by Tom DeLay and the boys back in Washington."
McNutt was unmoved.
"So, the Democratic Party is for abortion rights, is that what you're saying?"
You can see the problem.
Dean moved to the main hall. Among the crowd were long-suffering Democrats like Jean Morgan of Norman, Okla., who regularly attends $3.50 beans-and-cornbread fundraisers at Furr's Cafeteria. Also in attendance was Chris Metcalf, a former Republican from Jenks, Okla., who grew disaffected when his party moved too far right. "I know my Bible like other folks," he says. Metcalf is interested in working for the Democrats in Tulsa, but he is appalled by the disrepair he found the party in there. "It's really bad," he says. "In fact, I'd say bad would be good in this instance."
Parmley introduced Dean by saying, "He's a different chairman -- he's better." Dean took the podium and launched into one of his extemporaneous speeches. "I don't think this is such a Republican state. I think it's a state of common-sense values!" [Applause] "We ought never to run away from the values debate. We ought to be in the values debate!" [Applause] In closing, he tried to remind his listeners that he's not the wild liberal they think he is. After all, he said, he won eight endorsements from the NRA.
"See, I can talk about that in Oklahoma," Dean joked. "Maybe I won't talk about that so much in Massachusetts." [Laughter] Pause.
"Actually, I will," he said, grinning widely. "That's the problem."
Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post sports columnist, is a regular contributor to the Magazine. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.