Published on Sunday, November 9, 2003 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
Luck, Pluck Propelled Dean to National Spotlight
by Dick Polman
BURLINGTON, Vt. - Mention Howard Dean to the folks who know him best, and they shake their heads in awe, marveling at how their very own "Ho-Ho" has muscled his way to the forefront of Democratic presidential politics.
They see him on TV, firing up the liberals, and they're dumbfounded, because they always knew him as a tightwad governor who spent 10 years excoriating liberals. They see him wowing the "flatlanders" (that's everyone outside of Vermont), whipping them into a frenzy, and they can't square that with the little guy who wore frayed shirts and goofy ties and delivered speeches that lulled listeners into a stupor.
As Kurt Wright, a Republican who serves in the part-time legislature and runs a Kwik Stop convenience store, said, "It was always a joke in the hallways about how bad his 'State of the State' speeches were. So wooden and robotic. And I'm not being partisan, because I think President Bush is terrible, too. But these days, whenever I hear Howard, I find myself thinking, 'Is this really Howard, or am I watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers?"
And whatever happened to the Howard Dean who, when asked to render an opinion about the governor of Texas back in 1999, always gave the same answer: "I like George Bush, he's a good guy."
Vermonters are obsessed with their 54-year-old favorite son, trying to fathom how someone in their midst could start his career with a stethoscope and wind up stoking a national movement. Many insist that his hunger was evident during his gubernatorial reign from 1991 to 2002, despite all his humble trappings - driving a Toyota pickup, cheering his son at soccer, pedaling the lakeside bike trail without a police detail, living in a modest house with a yellow mailbox and no cable TV.
"He's an adulation junkie who has always wanted to be famous, the most self-consumed man I've ever met," said Garrison Nelson, a local academic who met Dean more than 20 years ago, when the doctor was new in town, a brash native New Yorker with lots of chutzpah and lots of family money that he never talked about.
But if you quiz folks long enough in this flannel-and-Birkenstocks town, where bike paths cross interstate highway ramps, you find out that Dean - while as anxious for adulation as any politician - governed with a doctor's personality, making crisp diagnoses, moving on with no second thoughts. He was supremely self-confident, and never felt the need to charm the people who didn't like him.
Instead he would often rant at his detractors, calling them "lunatics," or confronting them with "the finger in the face," as Nelson calls it. At times he would get so mad that the skin on his thick wrestler's neck would redden to the color of raw meat. No wonder some folks used to call him "Little Napoleon."
"He ticked off everybody in the state at one time or another," said David Lines, manager of the Oasis Diner, as he munched on a chunk of bacon. "He was very cocky. He had a certain arrogance. It was like, 'I'm the governor of Vermont, and if anybody doesn't like that, well, screw them.' But that's because he's not contrived.
"He's also the savviest politician I've ever seen. He has been radicalized by circumstances [the Iraq war, the anti-Bush fervor] into becoming the great white hope of liberals everywhere. And Howard, being the smart person that he is, recognized those circumstances from the beginning."
Jan Backus, who fought with Dean when she was a liberal state senator, said, "It doesn't matter that he wasn't [liberal] before, because he's there now. That's a quality that the great politicians have - they come to believe in their own sincerity. The whole state, including me, is awed by what he has done."
They weren't awed 25 years ago when Dean was starting out - he was just another New York transplant, practicing medicine with his wife, Judy Steinberg - but they soon noticed that he possessed two elements that are essential for political success: luck and pluck.
"He has had an incredibly charmed career," said Peter Freyne, an ex-Chicago cabbie who writes a local political column in Burlington. Nursing a drink at Finnegan's, a smoky watering hole, he ticked off the lucky incidents on his fingers.
Dean arrived in town in 1978, rented an apartment, and one of his neighbors turned out to be Esther Sorrell, the doyenne of Democratic politics. He started hanging out there on Friday nights, watching "Vermont This Week," a weekly political roundtable - all this when state Democrats were looking for new blood.
With Sorrell's guidance and muscle, he won a state representative's race and soon became a deputy House leader. That's when he got the nickname "Ho-Ho," a teasing paean to all the ambitious energy packed onto his 5-foot-8 frame.
"It was like, 'Look at him, isn't he cute, the way he's chugging all over the chamber,' " said Nelson, who was close to Dean's superiors. "You know how, when you're young and you want to go play baseball, and there's always some tag-along kid that your mother wants you to bring? That was Ho-Ho."
Dean would do something nervy, and people would always say, "Who is this guy, anyway?" Like the time he asked Frank Bryan, a University of Vermont political guru, to meet him at the Wesson Diner over on Shelburne Road, whereupon the rookie state rep pumped Bryan (a total stranger) for advice on how he could quickly become a household name in Vermont.
When the lieutenant governor's job opened up, Dean went for it (doing the "honk-and-wave" routine outside supermarkets) and won. Then in the summer of 1991, his boss, Gov. Richard Snelling, dropped dead while cleaning his pool. Dean got the news while he was putting suction cups on a patient for an electrocardiogram.
After that, he really got plucky - especially with Democrats who wanted to bankroll big programs. Dean, the son and grandson of Wall Street stockbrokers, was obsessed with balancing the budget. As State Auditor Liz Ready recalled, "I was a legislator back then. He was tough, very direct. He'd say things that would make us cringe, like, 'You've got your nuts on the left, Senator Ready, there's no end to what they want.' " (When Dean left office, the budget was balanced, and the state had the highest bond rating in New England.)
Meanwhile, the Republicans liked him just fine, because they were simpatico. Dean was old money (a descendant of whaling captains), with roots on Park Avenue and in the Hamptons. They also liked that he wasn't a "bleeding heart" - as evidenced by the time he publicly berated a single mother on welfare, saying, "You don't think you ought to work for a living?"
He later backed away from that remark. As has happened on the campaign trail over the last six months, his mouth often got him in trouble. Once he was angry at a Republican named Jim Douglas, and railed, "He hasn't done anything in 30 years!" When Wright, the legislator, later chided Dean about this in a private meeting, Dean laughed and said, "I might've gone over the edge on that one." (Douglas is now the governor.)
Everyone has theories about Dean's feistiness. Some say he's just a competitive preppie; Nelson, the academic, says he has a typical doctor's personality.
"Lawyers are used to getting challenged," Nelson said. "Doctors are not. So when Howard gets challenged, he takes it like, 'How dare you impugn me?' And there's a personal dimension: A lot of his drive is about proving himself. He's a short guy who wants a big presence."
And what about wanting the biggest presence of all? When did that start? Late 1997 is a safe guess; that's when Dean sought out Vice President Al Gore and told him that he, Dean, might run for president in 2000. Challenging Gore, in other words. Gore's people were so annoyed - again, "Who is this guy, anyway?" - that within two days the news was all over Vermont. Dean later changed his mind.
Then he faced his greatest challenge; during 2000, he had to finesse the fight over civil unions for gays. The state Supreme Court had virtually required the legislature to write such a law, and Dean received antigay mail from all over the country. He replied in letters saying that he had no role, that it was all up to the legislature. But the heat got so intense that he had to wear a bulletproof vest.
In the end, he signed the law behind closed doors, and some observers thought he had signed his political death warrant. But, in Wright's words, "Howard has the best political instincts of anyone I've ever seen." Dean survived reelection that year - and then he went national with the issue, talking up equal rights at lavish gay-group dinners (where money is raised for national races).
Some folks back home didn't know what he was up to, because he didn't list those visits on his travel schedule. But they noticed he was dressing better (replacing his 10-year-old suits and kiddie-face neckties). And at one point during 2001, his graying hair was brown again; as Wright said, "It looked like shoe polish, and it didn't last. But it was enough for some of us to say, 'Gee, Howard really is running for president!' "
The locals don't know whether he can pull it off, but they know he's loving the fight. Freyne, the political columnist, said, "There ain't no wimp in the man. He'd rather be knocked unconscious than run away. And, look, it's good for a man to have a dream. What else is there to live for?"
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