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On the other hand, he is unusually, refreshingly clinical in his willingness to self-assess. “You always wonder, after these things,” he says, following the UCLA environmental forum, “whether it’s better to take advantage of the opportunity and give a lot of detail, or whether that stuff just confuses people and you make more of an impact by generalizing.” During an evening meeting in May, at a prominent agent’s house with a group of about 30 Hollywood-associated women, most of them exceptionally confident, to say the least, about their own political savvy — “A lot of alpha chicks in that room,” sighs the young organizer afterward — Dean admits his discomfort at viewing the tape of himself from the first all-Democratic-candidates debate in South Carolina; actually, he uses the word “appalled.” (This is the debate in which he and Kerry get into a flap about whether an earlier speech of Dean’s on the limits of military power proves that he’s somehow unpatriotic; instead of high-mindedly dismissing the notion, Dean rises to the bait and starts to argue about it.) He says quite frankly that the campaign needs to make more of an effort to reach out to people of color; at an elegant Beverly Hills fund-raiser in June, he exhorts the guests to bring into the fold some voters “who don’t look like you.”
He’s also remarkably generous and supportive in his attitude toward fellow politicians in both parties — save, understandably, for Kerry. “I’m just glad he didn’t do a hatchet job on me,” Dean says about the author of a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, “like the one he did on poor Linc Chafee a couple of months ago . . . did you see that?” Chafee, the Republican junior senator from Rhode Island, was portrayed as something of a hapless kook.) He sympathizes with John Edwards for what he views as the media’s cavalier, build-up-then-take-down treatment of him. Al Sharpton, he says, “always of course has the best lines” in the debates. Backstage at the UCLA environmental forum, he pays a gallant, genial compliment to Carol Moseley Braun: “I always use your great bit, Carol — and I always attribute it to you — y’know, the one that goes, ‘Some of us came over on slave ships and some of us came over on the Mayflower, but we’re all in the same boat now . . .’” And during the forum itself, Dean gives a shout-out, persisting over a chorus of boos from the audience, to Christine Todd Whitman, who has just departed as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency: “No, really, you should applaud her — she had an impossible job, and she gave it her best shot . . .”
Because Dean lacks the innate musicality and voice control that mark the great speakers, from Clinton on back through Reagan and JFK, he’s not a particularly good orator, and when he reaches for the rhetorical flourish, like the one — “I want my country baack!” — with which he ended the speech that caused such a sensation at the California Democratic convention in Sacramento later in March, or “You have the power! You have the power!,” the chant with which he’s been ending speeches since his official kickoff in June, he can come perilously close to a screech, provoking unbidden recollections of Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network, the unhinged television executive who opens his New York apartment window and starts shouting to the streets “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But there are other times when he captures something so eloquently that tears can sting your eyes.
One of these times occurs toward the end of April, in the brown-tweed-and-blond-wood conference room of an affluent Westside law firm that is hosting Dean at a sandwich lunch for the benefit of the California League of Conservation Voters. About 50 people are sitting around a horseshoe formation of long tables, and Dean stands in the central opening, shirtsleeves rolled up and arms crossed, a halogen spotlight making his forehead shiny, while he holds forth, answering questions cogently and effortlessly for close to an hour. He discusses emissions standards and ethanol and wind farms, and he offers up something that’s absolute catnip to anyone with an interest in how politics are actually done — the forthright, ligament-by-ligament anatomy of a deal, this one involving the recent preservation of Vermont’s Champion lands, an area of 133,000 acres; a “huge” piece, he says proudly, the largest land deal east of the Mississippi.
He and his team used the NRA, he says, to neutralize the most ardent property-rights Republicans in the legislature. They then went to the snowmobilers and explained that although there would be a wilderness area off-limits to them, there would be other areas they could utilize. They used that concession, he goes on, to get the snowmobilers’ help in supporting the exclusion of ATVs: “You can’t compromise with ATVers under any circumstances, they just do too much damage to the land . . .” In other words, Dean says, you assemble the broadest coalition possible and then parcel out something for everybody. “Now, it can’t be everybody, because there’s always those on the extreme edge of the right who want to clear-cut everything, that’s their idea of sustainable timbering . . .” But in general, he says, you work with all the stakeholders, and then if one element of the coalition starts to defect, if the snowmobilers, say, try to link up with the ATVers, which they sometimes threaten to do, “you put the leverage on. You say, ‘If it’s a choice between letting the ATVs in or keeping the snowmobile people out — sorry, we’ll see you later.’ And that brings the snowmobilers back to the table . . .”