The Cool Passion of Dr. Dean

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The other day 600 people, give or take, showed up in Portsmouth, N.H., to see Dr. Howard Dean III talk about why he wants to be President. True, they were plied with bowls of coffee cake and just-melting ice cream, but it's still something for so many to rally on a hot weekday six months before the New Hampshire primary. At first the former Vermont Governor couldn't talk for all the cheering. Finally he was able to utter just one word before being drowned out: "Zounds!"

Zounds? Zounds is an old word, a fine word, a word with a pedigree. Iago says it in the opening lines of Othello; it was the 17th century's whoa. But it's not the first word one expects to hear from the "maverick" (USA Today), "insurgent" (Los Angeles Times), "fiery" (New York Observer) self-proclaimed leader of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the great repository of hope—and donations—from the antiwar, anti-Bush, pro-gay, Michael Moore left. Even so, the Anglophile locution sounded quite natural coming from Dean's thin Wasp lips.

A year ago, Dean was the outgoing Governor of the 49th largest state, a bewildering new presence on the campaign trail. Today he has a shot at winning his party's nomination. What's unclear is whether he has surged because contributors and poll respondents think he is a new kind of Old Democrat—a candidate who will finally revive the left—or because those contributors and respondents know the truth—he is a rock-ribbed budget hawk, a moderate on gays and guns, and a true lefty on only a few issues, primarily the use of U.S. military power, which Dean seems to regard with a mixture of contempt and suspicion.

At this early stage it's likely that Dean enjoys support from those to his left who don't know the fine points of his proposals as well as they know the fine volleys of his rhetoric. In that sense, it's hard to imagine Dean's glorious season ending without disappointment. Either he will alienate the mainstream by tacking left in order to keep his troops in their combat sandals, or, more likely, they will shed a tear when they learn who he really is. Last week I asked Dean's mother Andree Maitland Dean of East Hampton, N.Y., whether her son is truly a liberal insurgent. "He's not really," she said. A beat passed, and she added with a chuckle, "I hope they don't find that out just yet."

That's a great thing about the Deans: they are funny, they are quick, they are direct. The investigative reporters and opposition-research folks in other campaigns have only just begun their spadework on the Deans, on how the family made its fortune, on what deals Dean cut as Governor of Vermont, on where his straight talk grows crooked. Dean told me his bachelor party was so raucous that it helped persuade him to stop drinking 22 years ago. Quite sensibly, he wouldn't provide details of the night's festivities, but—eventually, ineluctably—someone will. Still, Dean practically squeaks today: he doesn't drink alcohol or even caffeine. The good doctor also doesn't smoke.

Nor does he smolder. Sure, there is a much-remarked-upon bloom of anger in his speeches, but it's petaled with irony. An example: the only person the pro-Dean left seems to hate more than President George W. Bush is Karl Rove, Bush's top handler. Dean knows this, so he mentions Rove in his standard stump speech, delivered dozens of times a week. But he uses Rove not just to inflame the activists but also to poke fun at himself. "The Danes," he says in a part of the speech on energy, "get 20% of all their electricity from the wind." The little-boy smile unfurls. "I can hear Karl Rove right now cackling in the White House, 'Oh, this Birkenstock Governor from Vermont.'" Pause for laughs, then: "The truth is, we've fallen behind technologically."

Dean sometimes seems not so much the angriest man in politics but the most bemused. At a July 15 forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay political group, moderator Sam Donaldson of abc grilled Senator John Kerry, who is favored over Dean by many in the Democratic Party establishment, on why he supports allowing gay couples all the rights that married straight couples enjoy except the right to be called married. Kerry waded in, invoking history and religion to argue that marriage is viewed by "the body of America ... as a contract between a man and a woman." Boos and hisses. Dean, who shares the exact same position, avoided the question by joking with Donaldson about the newsman's pointed interrogation. The crowd giggled, a disarmed Donaldson apologized, and Dean moved on to his support for gays in the military. Cheers. Dean had done something preternaturally political—avoided a question, changed the subject—and got away with it.

There is a model for this kind of intentionally unpolished candidacy, and his name is John McCain. Like McCain's, Dean's "straight" talk can lurch from anger to humor, from conviction to waffle, in quick succession. Consider this flitter and flutter from Meet the Press in June: "I really don't like the idea of a federal balanced-budget amendment, but I am very tempted ... You might just have to do it. (But) I hate to do it because we didn't have to do it in Vermont ..." So which is it? But also consider this rocket he hurled on New Hampshire Public Radio when a caller suggested Dean had initially downplayed his support for gay unions: "With all due respect, what you just said is the silliest thing I've ever heard."

While many other prominent Democrats are angular and reserved in their posture and their positions—Senator Kerry, he of the long, elegant suits and well-modulated speech, comes to mind—Dean cannot be anything but the exuberant, stocky ex-high school wrestling captain, a guy whose neck—what there is of it—strains over his collar. But the portrait of Dean as scrappy outsider is incomplete. Rather, he combines the sense of entitlement afforded by a childhood of extreme wealth with the moral certitude gained by his decision not to merely live off—or, for that matter, maximize—that wealth. Instead, Dean got a medical degree, which gave him confidence, a comfort in his own skin. In that sense—and in some others—Dean, who has been compared so often to George McGovern and Ralph Nader, is far more like ... George W. Bush.

Howard Dean is the firstborn son of the aforementioned Andree (who can trace her family back to Richard Maitland, born in Scotland circa 1234) and Howard Brush Dean Jr. Like his own father and grandfather, Dean's dad made a living—a very, very good living—on Wall Street, retiring as a top executive of Dean Witter Reynolds. His four sons grew up mostly in East Hampton, where in the mid-'50s the family built a house on Hook Pond, among the oldest-money addresses in the nation. The Deans—who were, of course, Republicans—belonged to the superexclusive Maidstone golf club, which for decades had no minority or Jewish members.

Howard III was born in 1948. He and his three younger brothers spent a great deal of time outdoors, which would later help Dean connect to voters in a rural state. (Today Dean's gubernatorial portrait in the Montpelier statehouse shows him clutching a canoe paddle—a rustic pose even for Vermont.) For a while, the boys shuttled among the big house in East Hampton, the Browning School in New York City and an apartment on Park Avenue, where Dean still stays when in New York City. But the parents felt that the boys needed even more time outside, so they sent them to St. George's in Middletown, R.I., a boarding school that today costs $30,000 a year and maintains its own 69-ft. sloop for student boating.

Earlier this year Dean told the Nation that his favorite novel is Sometimes a Great Notion, by countercultural guru Ken Kesey. Dean now has a more politically genial list of favorites, including All the King's Men and Truman, but his fondness for the Kesey book is revealing, since one of its central relationships pits an outsize father against the son trying to live up to him.

Dean calls his father "a Gargantuan figure. As we say in politics, he took all the oxygen out of the room." Because he had had diphtheria, Howard Dean Jr. couldn't serve in World War II when he was in his 20s. But he wasn't content to stay home. So he worked for Pan Am Airways in Africa and then, in 1943, joined the China National Aviation Corp. CNAC flew some of the most crucial supply routes for Chinese and U.S. forces in Asia. Dean, an operations man, didn't fly, but he "was the best manager we ever had," says pilot Fletcher Hanks.

Three decades later, Dean's second-born son Charles also sought adventure in Asia. In 1974 Charlie was traveling with a friend and ended up in Laos. He had worked for the McGovern campaign two years before, and the Laos trip may have been a way for him to connect antiwar politics with the real lives of Southeast Asians. Or he may have been working for the cia. (The agency won't discuss the rumor, and family members say they aren't sure.) Whatever the case, Charlie was killed around December 1974 by members of the Pathet Lao, the communist group that won a long civil war to control Laos. The family was devastated; Andree Dean says her husband "just would never discuss it." But her boys rallied around one another. To this day, Dean wears his brother's belt, a hippie-ish job with large metal eyelets that looks strange against Dean's usual pinstripes.

Charlie's death has been called the "defining crisis" in Dean's life, the impulse that focused him. But it's a little more complicated. Even before his brother's death, Dean had sought a world beyond the moneyed Atlantic coastline. As a senior at St. George's, Dean requested that Yale—where he enrolled in 1967, when Bush was beginning his senior year—pair him with black roommates to give him another view of the world. He got two African-American roommates and one from rural Pennsylvania. "I had known people of different kinds before," Dean says, "but I had never lived with people that were so different, and it was wonderful."

Though he says he "didn't do much protesting," Dean opposed the Vietnam War. So it was fortunate that officials at the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn gave him a deferment because of a minor back problem. Dean has an unfused vertebra that keeps him from running long distances and occasionally leads to discomfort. But after graduating from Yale in 1971, Dean—who didn't want to follow his friends to law school—spent a year skiing and bumming around Aspen, Colo. He hit the slopes, tried pot, washed dishes, poured concrete and drank impressive amounts of beer.

Being a burnout got old after a year, and Dean decided his life could take one of three paths. He could teach, as he had done for three months at a junior high school in inner-city New Haven, Conn., near Yale. He could be a doctor. Or he could take "the path of least resistance" and go to Wall Street. He quickly dismissed teaching as "too hard ... There were a lot of kids with enormous numbers of needs, and I couldn't meet them all." Medical school would require enrolling in difficult premed classes, since he had done little science at Yale. So he became a stockbroker.

"He liked Wall Street," says Andree Dean, "but he wasn't doing anything to help people." Howard had "always had a feeling for—I don't want to say the underdog, but he's always wanted to help people." Still, she was surprised to run into her son one day at Columbia, where she was getting her art degree. "He was secretly going to premed classes without telling us," she says, with a reminiscent smile. Dean was nervous when his parents found out. He describes his father as "a strict disciplinarian," and he was sure the old man would think leaving finance for medical school "was crazy. But he never said one word about it. I would have done it anyway, but it just would have been harder ... In some ways that was the best thing he ever did."

From then on, his life took a different path from what one might expect of a Dean or a Maitland. He chose Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, a school known for its hands-on, community-based approach to teaching medicine. It was at Einstein that Dean met Judith Steinberg, a studious Princeton grad from Roslyn, N.Y., a precinct of Long Island somewhat less tony than the ones Dean knew well. After a long courtship, he and Steinberg were married by a judge at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in Manhattan on a winter night in 1981.

Dean, a family practitioner, had applied to residency programs at highly competitive hospitals in New York and Washington but was rejected by all of them. His fourth choice was the University of Vermont, in Burlington, which has just 40,000 citizens but is the state's largest city. Dean can be defensive about Vermont's tiny size. He likes to point out that Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas when he won the White House. But Arkansas has 2.7 million residents, making it four times the size of Vermont, which has 613,000. Think about it this way: Vermont is about the size of Austin, Texas, or Memphis, Tenn. There are plenty of county commissioners who manage budgets larger than Vermont's.

But the small size offered Dean an opportunity to follow his grandfather (a small-town mayor) and his father (a consultant to a g.o.p. Congressman) into politics. His political life sneaked up on Steinberg, who has little interest in politics (she hopes to practice medicine if she must move to Washington). "Most people assume that if you are prepared to go through four years of medical school and three years of residency, you will practice medicine forever. And that's what I thought when I married Howard. But then, when we came to Burlington, he got involved in a citizens' group to get a bike path at the lake ... But I really didn't consider that politics. It was just community involvement. Then he started helping out Jimmy Carter's campaign"—the failed re-election bid—"but that was really just a neighborhood thing, because Esther Sorrell (later known as "the mother of the Vermont Democratic Party"), who lived down the street, was just stuffing envelopes and asked him to help. "Then he went into the state legislature, and it got a little more serious, and then he ran for Lieutenant Governor—although even then those jobs were part time, and he could still practice medicine. Then of course he became Governor"—after Governor Richard Snelling died of a heart attack while cleaning his pool filter in August 1991. "The whole process was really gradual, and"—Steinberg trails off for a beat, then adds softly—"it went by me."

It didn't go by others. After living in the state only a few years, Dean started asking people whether he should move slowly or run for something big—even Governor. By 1993, just a year after being elected Governor in his own right for the first time, Dean was serving on the executive committee of the National Governors Association. William Sorrell, the current state attorney general and son of Esther, first noticed national aspirations a couple of years later. "I would go home Friday afternoon, and he would get on a plane for Tucson or something, and when he got back, he would say he had been talking to gubernatorial candidates for the (Governors Association) ... I thought to myself, 'He's gotta be getting names in his Rolodex.'"

Dean spent his last year in office initiating a presidential run. He even requested that the state keep his gubernatorial records sealed for 10 years—four years longer than standard and just enough time to cover an eight-year Oval Office stint. Even Vermont Republicans suspect nothing too scandalous lurks in the papers, but they say the move reflects his giant ambitions.

Throughout the '90s, Dean was a close Clinton watcher. Like Clinton, Dean used a political strategy of triangulation. On one hand, Dean alienated progressives by tightening spending and successfully pushing tax cuts. "Howard would start (each budget cycle) by cutting programs for the needy, things like wheelchairs and artificial limbs," says state auditor Elizabeth Ready, who has been both friend and foe to Dean. Horrified liberals would have to claw each benefit back from the tightfisted Governor. But at election time, Dean marginalized Republicans by appealing to socially liberal groups like environmentalists. "Every year, as the first thing in his budget, (Dean) put $10 million aside for conservation," says Don Hooper, a Vermont conservationist.

As President, Dean would ask Congress to repeal all the tax cuts Bush signed, which would have the effect of raising—in some cases dramatically—Americans' tax bills. Dean opposes the tax cuts because he believes they have produced deficits, but his planned tax "hike" is one of the most damning exhibits Republicans will use in making the case that he is an out-of-touch liberal.

So is he a liberal, a conservative or something in between? The answer is, all of the above. Dean is constantly attacking "ideologues in both parties," which allows him to choose what he thinks is the best of all worlds.Take health care. Again, Dean learned from Clinton. In the early '90s, Dean was arguably the Governor most involved in helping shape the huge, doomed Clinton health-care plan. During the 1994 State of the Union address, according to the Burlington Free Press, Dean was sitting just behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, the plan's major architect. Dean claims he doesn't remember the event and even at the time thought the plan was overly ambitious. Today, nine years after HillaryCare imploded, Dean is preaching the virtues of incrementalism.

"My health-care plan is not reform," he said last month in Hampton, N.H., "and if reform is all you care about, I'm not your man. My plan is designed to do two things: cover everyone and get passed." Dean would expand existing programs to make sure those under 25 are insured. He would also give tax credits to businesses that agree to insure 25-and-over workers. "It's a way to cover a lot of the uninsured, but it doesn't have the flavor of a single national plan that people would associate with most liberal Democratic candidates," says Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy.

But Dean says nothing will happen on health care (or any other issue, for that matter) until he works out a plan to balance the budget, his No. 1 priority. And some Vermonters say even if he does tackle health care, his record on that issue has plenty of shortcomings. Critic Michael Abajian, an anesthesiologist at Central Vermont Medical Center, says Dean paid to cover uninsured Vermonters mainly by underreimbursing doctors for care given to Medicaid patients. "It's so hypocritical to say he wants to provide universal coverage and turn around and not even pay the people who would provide the health care," says Abajian.

Still, Dean's health-care plan remains modest by Democratic standards. Where Dean is truly to the left of his party is on just one issue, Iraq. Instead of war, he favored "containing" Saddam's regime the way the West contained the Soviet Union for 50 years. (He doesn't explain why a cold war with an unstable tyrant would have made sense.) Dean sounds hawkish on other issues; he would spend more than Bush to fight al-Qaeda, he says. But his foreign policy proposals often seem either hesitant (we should be "vigilant" with Iran) or shrill: "Because the President has dawdled and been unwilling to engage in serious negotiations, he's the President who has allowed North Korea to become a nuclear power," says Dean. (Didn't the communist regime have something to do with it?)

Dean has tried to seem more conservative than he really is on guns and more liberal than he really is on gays. Though Dean constantly brags about his 2000 "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, N.R.A.. executive director Wayne LaPierre says Dean today is "totally trying to have it both ways." Yes, Vermont has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation. But Dean opposes a federal bill that would grant gunmakers immunity from lawsuits and supports background checks for buyers at gun shows—two positions that put him at odds with the N.R.A..

Many Vermonters agree that Dean arrived at a political crossroads—a point when his luck seemed sure to run out—in 2000, on the issue of gay marriage. A year before, the state supreme court had ruled that gay couples have a right to the same benefits the state provides straight couples—inheritance, hospital visitation and so on. The court told the legislature to decide how best to extend those perks to gays. Dean expressed discomfort with the idea of gay marriage, and he eventually signed a bill establishing a separate-but-equal arrangement: straight couples get marriage licenses; gay couples get civil-union licenses.

It was a moderate compromise attacked from left and right. Instead of staging a public ceremony, Dean signed the bill with only about 15 staff members present. The left didn't like that. And the right didn't like the bill. Thousands of calls poured in every day, according to longtime aide Kate O'Connor. "If you have a couple hundred a day normally, it's a big deal," she says. Dean was running for a fifth term, and he had signed the civil-union bill six months before Election Day. It didn't look good. "We were campaigning, and people would be wearing gas masks, like we were poison," says O'Connor. Protesters screamed that Dean was a "faggot"; so many threats were made that he had to wear a bulletproof vest. (A detail that, to his credit, Dean never offers on the campaign trail, even to gay audiences.)

O'Connor says his staff was bitterly divided over the bill; there were tears and fights throughout this period. "But he was very, very steady," she says. Steinberg says, "I'm not saying it was easy for him; it was hard. But he knew that was the right thing to do." Dean won re-election by less than half a percentage point. He didn't run for a sixth term as Governor because he was planning a race for President. A good thing, since it would have been a difficult campaign. (The Democratic Lieutenant Governor, whom Dean endorsed, lost.) Civil unions hurt Democrats in the 2000 elections in Vermont, but two years later, Dean reaped the benefits: wealthy gays in the Fire Island Pines beach community off the coast of New York City were among the earliest, most generous donors to his unlikely presidential run. Dean doesn't emphasize his discomfort with gay marriage in these circles.

The gay issue will hurt Dean with conservative Democrats, especially the South, which Dean talks about as though it's another planet. He routinely offers skeptics two explanations when they ask how he can compete there. First, he says, he was campaigning in South Carolina a while ago and met an 80-year-old World War II veteran who turned out to be gay. The man thanked him for signing the civil-union bill. The point of the story seems to be that you can't assume anything about Southerners, which is true, but it's more homily than strategy.

Second, he says, he will tell Southern whites, "You have voted Republican for 30 years. Tell me what you have to show for it. In South Carolina, there are 103,000 children without health insurance. Most of those kids are white. Tell me about your public schools. Are you happy that the legislature cut $70 million or $80 million out of the public school system in South Carolina? ... Has your job moved to Indonesia? ... And the answer is, if you don't like the answers to those questions, maybe you should think about voting Democratic." A solid argument but one that failed for Al Gore, himself a nominal Southerner, four years ago. And it may come across as insulting to tell people they are poor—and then tell them their own votes are to blame.

Howard Dean may have a lot to learn, but he has some time. And he has something else: nothing to lose. He has enough cash to keep him competitive for months, enough antiwar volunteers to keep Meeting Up and enough political savvy not to get overconfident. He also has that High Yankee yearning, that great fear of the titled that, as Kesey writes in Sometimes a Great Notion, "a man might struggle and labor his livelong life and make no mark! None! No permanent mark at all!" Dean may not be a maverick, but he may be something better: a real contender. Zounds.