The Magazine

Who Does Howard Dean Think He Is?

From the November 17, 2003 issue: Tall tales and righteous indignation on the campaign trail.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By DAVID TELL
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EARLY ONE EVENING this past March I found myself struggling for balance in the den of a well-appointed, upper-middle-class home in suburban Bedford, New Hampshire, a half-dozen miles or so southwest of Manchester. I was worried about teetering over because not ten feet away from me Howard Dean had just walked in the door from his car outside, and most of the roughly 100 local Democrats who'd come by the house to get a look at him were also in the den, now jostling--very politely, of course--for position. To make matters worse, the crowd had me trapped directly in the hi-my-name-is handshake path Dean was making toward the kitchen. Mine looked to be the next such greeting. Better I should remain upright for it, I figured.

And better, I further figured, that I not introduce myself under false pretenses, though I wasn't wearing a press badge and could easily have passed for just another guest. So when, moments later, the man was indeed right in front of me, sticking out his paw and saying "Howard Dean," I fessed up--in meekish fashion, privately embarrassed that I hadn't any "serious reporter" questions to ask him--about who I was and where I worked.

Whereupon the former five-term governor of the state of Vermont stiffened backwards a step, screwed up his face, and ostentatiously wiped his palm on the thigh of his pants, like he'd just touched a patch of manure by mistake. "THE WEEKLY STANDARD," Dean repeated back to me with a tone of incredulity--and only the faintest hint of irony. "You mean that WEEKLY STANDARD?" I mumbled something and nodded yes. "I actually get THE WEEKLY STANDARD," he went on. "Yeccch."

It's a funny story, in retrospect, a point of pride even, in a reverse sort of way: How many of us, after all, can claim to have received an unprovoked, face-to-face, personal insult from a leading candidate for president of the United States? For that matter, even at the time, I never seriously thought that Dean intended his show of revulsion to be anything other than funny. He was joshing, I sensed, a conclusion I quickly tried my best to confirm, in order to reassure the several bystanders who were listening in, tittering nervously and obviously not getting the joke, fearing instead that they were witnessing an unpleasant scene: Why on earth was Gov. Dean treating a perfect stranger so rudely? I would arrange to have the governor relieved of his burdensome subscription first thing tomorrow, I offered, with an exaggerated smile. "No, no, no," he laughed, "it's all right"--breaking the tension, ending our encounter, and moving on to his destination, the kitchen.

Where Dean soon delivered a nifty, quite gripping 20-minute impromptu stump speech in which he described President Bush, Bush's administration and "right-wingers" generally, and the Republican party and its voters more generally still--all of them together, more or less interchangeably--as the moral equivalent of a patch of manure, people whose hands you'd shudder at shaking for real. This time Dean did not appear to be joshing one bit. And this time no one nervously tittered about it. Quite the contrary, his audience was transfixed. A hundred Bedford, New Hampshire, Democrats went home that night thinking Howard Dean was pretty damned good.

Even then, eight months ago, it was already one of the salient and most striking characteristics of the Dean campaign: The coruscating disdain he habitually expresses, not just for particular ideas he opposes or for the particular people who may fairly be associated with those ideas, but for whole, big chunks of the American population--to which Dean just as habitually ascribes an ill spirit of the deepest and darkest variety. Two months before I met him in New Hampshire, for example, Dean made an attention-grabbing appearance at a Washington, D.C., dinner hosted by the National Abortion Rights Action League, as that group was then still known. There are "many good people" who reject abortion "on moral grounds" and he could "respect them" for it, Dean said that night. "I do not respect the people who defend the throwing of bombs and murders of doctors, however. And some of those exist in our very administration, people who have not stood up against violence" because "they thought it would be better for their political careers if they didn't say too much about it." Otherwise, presumably, the Republican party might lose favor with its important constituency of bomb-throwers and murderers.

Then Dean told the NARAL dinner a little story: