It was curiosity that made me drive through that millionaire's wonderland of winding dirt roads, spectacular views, large houses, manicured lawns, horses and swimming pools this past Saturday morning to hear Dr. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont and the current front-running Democratic presidential candidate, talk in Walpole, N.H.
Event organizers said they expected 500 or 600 people and were surprised when 1,200 showed up. But they had gone to great lengths to provide gallons of ice water and iced tea, cartons of freshly picked apples and peaches and loads of baked goods - even a loaf cake with "Howard" written on it in white icing. Three port-o-potties sat in the driveway. By the end, a lot of cookies and apples were still left over which implies, if nothing else, great expectations.
A remarkably composed 12-year-old girl introduced Dean by giving him her family's $400 Bush tax rebate check. She said she supported him because she'd researched his record on the environment.
Her comment highlighted one of the two main subtexts of the event for me. For while it is true that as governor of Vermont, Dean added thousands of acres of land to the state's greenway, he also trashed the state's extremely effective environmental law, Act 250, as well as the officials appointed by him to protect it.
The truth is, as a Vermont reporter I disliked many of Dean's policies when he was governor here. Besides fatally wounding Act 250, he pushed hard for deregulation of the electric industry and appeared to be deep in the pockets of the electric industry against the defenseless rate-payers. It was a battle he finally lost, but only after wealthy California began sinking under the weight of its own deregulation experiment, and the Enron sharks had circled and bled it dry. Dean was, and still is, against gay marriage. Throughout his tenure he refused to support universal health care.
As a reporter, my memory is that Dean was arrogant in interviews, shotgun-rattling whatever policy narrative he was pushing at the moment, brooking no questions and declining attempts at conversation. The last two years he was in office, his press secretary never returned my phone calls - and I was writing for a business magazine, not a left-wing periodical. I understand that other reporters had the same problem.
In terms of his policies, Dean is Bill Clinton without the Vaseline on his zipper, a centrist Democrat who would be indistinguishable from a Republican if that party had not been taken over by a group of radical right-wingers. It is mind-boggling that the Democratic Leadership Council is against him, because he's one of their own, a true believer. It is my belief that he would have signed NAFTA and GATT without a second thought and happily sent all those jobs abroad in the name of "free trade."
On the other hand, it is hard to forget that Dean took a courageous stand against our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Even if it is true, as some people are saying, that he watched thousands of people in the streets protesting the war and cynically thought, "Hey, votes," he still spoke out.
"I treasure him for taking that position," a friend said, and I agree.
In Walpole, I found myself in a visceral struggle between my dislike for Dean's anti-liberal, unprogressive, uncreative politics and my loathing for the incompetency and veniality of President George W. Bush and his administration.
Dean took the stage looking polished, tanned, rosy-cheeked and distinguished. His hair is white at the temples now, his clothing casual but preppy, and he looked genuinely happy and determined. He was charming; it was hard not to like him.
His speech astonished me by its progressive nature. America should have universal health care the way every other industrialized nation does. Bush's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic wildlife preserve are the result of his "two-week attention span." We must balance the budget. We should never have gone to war with Iraq, but now that we are there, we must try and repair the tragic mess we've made. We should support our troops, not cut their pay and benefits. We must regain the respect of the other nations in the world, because their friendship is crucial for our safety and survival.
And best of all, "This time, the person with the most votes is going to win."
For a while there I was thinking that Dean's stump speech had been written by Aaron Sorkin for "The West Wing." Dean seemed like a better-looking Jed Bartlett, although he is just as short as Martin Sheen.
In spite of myself, I was impressed. And that brought out the second subtext.
As we can see clearly now, right-wing Republicans are vicious, furious, anti-democratic, power-mad and extremely well-funded. We have already watched three of their brazen attempts to subvert the will of the American voters in order to gain power: the ridiculous Clinton impeachment trial; the stealing of the presidential election; and the current debacle of a gubernatorial recall election in California. These tactics have cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
Clearly, the far right will stop at nothing to gain and retain power. In the upcoming presidential election, how can we not rule out another "Wag the Dog"-style staged war like the one in Iraq, or a series of rigged ballots (the electric voting machines, which leave no paper trail for recounting, are made by a firm owned by a rabid Bush supporter), an attempted or even a successful assassination (see the film "Bulworth"), or the creation of another Sept. 11-style attack on American soil so that martial law can be declared and national elections suspended? For people who have already stolen the presidency of the United States, none of this is outside the realm of possibility.
My guess is that Dean stands a good chance of winning the nomination, and even the election, because his grass-roots campaign is tapping into a vast pool of anger, dismay and frustration caused by Bush and his policies. The real question is whether Dean and his advisors have the forcefulness, courage, intelligence, will and sheer street smarts to fight what will certainly be a dirty campaign designed to deny him the presidency, no matter what the vote.
Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible, and I have no illusions about Dean. But the wider the margins of his victory, the stronger his chances are of actually taking back the country.
So I took home a Dean for America lawn sign, and I'll probably be writing him a check.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.