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The Doctor is In 

Rolling with people-powered Howard Dean from the highs and lows of spring to the triumphs of summer

Thursday, Aug 28 2003

Page 6 of 13

The most compelling, successful American politicians seem to encompass some basic contradictions. Clinton: Oxford, England, and Hope, Arkansas. JFK: Irish clubhouse and Harvard Yard. RFK: ruthless tactician and melancholy existentialist. Lyndon Johnson: master of manipulation and sentimental rube. Reagan: amiable blunderer with a will of iron. Franklin Roosevelt: patrician snob and sympathetic father figure. To the extent that Dean fits into this pattern, he is part Mike Dukakis–like technocrat and part Harry Truman–esque scrapper. His background in some sense prepared him for each aspect: He went to prep school (Andover, in Massachusetts) and Yale (where he was five years behind Kerry and three years behind Bush), but in the summers, while his father (a stockbroker Dean describes as being “totally unpretentious”) played golf at the tony Maidstone Club in Quogue, Long Island, Dean and his three younger brothers were enrolled in “the programs that all the local kids went to — you know, the town summer programs . . .” Additionally, he did a fair amount of bumming around in his early 20s — working, for instance, on a Florida ranch where he was the only English-speaker — although he didn’t roam as far as his brother Charlie, who was killed on a river in Laos in 1975, possibly while on a mission for the CIA. (Dean wears his brother’s belt buckle.) Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where, having decided that the investment life was not for him, Dean got his medical degree, and where he and his wife, Judith Steinberg, met and courted before moving to Vermont to open a joint practice, is in a poverty-dominated Bronx neighborhood, about as far from the ivory tower as you can get.

Playing the Bush blues: fans
in Philadelphia and Dean in Des Moines

Photo by Carol Reiger

Perhaps as a consequence, Dean seems comfortable with an unusually wide range of people, although, particularly with those in the politico-journalist cadre, he can be brusque and defensive, his presumptive Yalie self-assurance undercut by a certain pugnaciousness, as if he weren’t sure of being first in his class and had a corresponding need to show people up. (Or perhaps it’s the competitiveness engendered in a family of four brothers.) In some ways, he’s surprisingly unpolished: He says nonplused when he means nonchalant (“At one of the first events I went to after the Civil Unions Act, I was a little startled when a guy came up and told me, ‘I must say, Governor, you’re a very attractive man.’ By now, of course, I’m completely nonplused about it . . .”); isn’t up on the “Notes and Comment” section of The New Yorker — isn’t even aware of its existence; doesn’t read much of anything, he says, unless it’s directly campaign-related.

He hasn’t learned to disguise his smarts, either, as gracefully as, say, Bill Clinton does; he can often seem arrogant or peevish — especially in his television appearances. He hasn’t learned where to place his eyes on television, and he has a disconcerting habit, onscreen, of looking up and flashing a broad smile immediately after having made a barbed remark. His responses in debates tend to be peppered with statistics and acronyms — this is not necessarily off-putting, as it’s quite evident he knows what he’s talking about, even if the audience may not understand the references.

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.”

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