Opinion » Viewpoint

Dean Agonistes

Like Al Gore, the former Vermont governor is taking unfair hits.

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My record consists of thousands of columns, some that were wise, some that were not, and some that no longer reflect my views. This is the position Howard Dean is in.

The former Vermont governor makes something like one gaffe a day -- or so we are told. The latest, which has come to haunt him in Iowa, was made years ago. He disparaged the caucuses, saying they were "dominated by special interests." As one who has stood in the Iowa cold listening to this or that candidate explain his position on ethanol, industrial hog farming, or -- worse yet -- the plight of the so-called notch babies (Social Security recipients born in any one of just three years), I found his statement unremarkable at best. It is true beyond a reasonable doubt.

Dean has been campaigning hard in Iowa, and so it behooves him to sing the praises of the caucuses. They have their virtues, but they are odd affairs -- and Iowa itself is not your typical state. In traveling with him last week, I heard him answer questions on farming that while not unimportant -- if I were a farmer, I might have paid more attention -- would strike the average American as having nothing to do with his or her life. But the facts don't seem to matter. Dean is being quizzed as if he had impugned the patriotism or sexuality of the average Iowan -- remarks in such bad taste that his very sanity must be questioned.
Something similar happened when Dean said that the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer. You could quibble with that assessment, but the fact remains that since Saddam's capture, additional Americans have been killed in Iraq, the United States went to Code Orange, planes were grounded, and some planes were escorted into various U.S. airports by fighter jets. If we are safer, we sure ain't acting like it.

Nonetheless, Dean's common-sense observation was treated as if the man had left his senses. He could -- and he did -- cite the number of American servicemen killed in Iraq since Saddam crawled out of his spider hole, but it did not matter. It was as if Dean had blurted an obscenity.

In Dean's case, the controversial is being confused with the contemptible. In due course, he will learn his lesson, revert to standard American political pablum, and end each speech with "God Bless America." A clear voice will be muffled because, among other things, too much of the press prefers to take umbrage by surrogate: My God, did you hear what he said about Iowa -- or, earlier, about guys who drive pickups with Confederate flag decals?

In this respect, Dean reminds me of Al Gore, who sometimes went in for self-aggrandizement, a trait not unknown in politics. After a while, it seemed anything he said in the 2000 campaign got vetted by a standard not applied to other politicians -- from his role in exposing the pollution of Love Canal to his role in developing the Internet to his role as being a fictitious character in the book and movie Love Story. Gore adhered to virtual truth in all these matters, but somehow his every claim became a tall story. Much of the time, he was right.

With both Gore and Dean, the caricature is based on some truth. Gore did sometimes tweak the facts. Dean does sometimes talk before he thinks, and he stomps on his own message. But some of the time, he does think and what he says reflects thought -- but of the unorthodox kind. He said something worthwhile about Saddam's capture and something reasonable about the Iowa caucuses. The truth is supposed to make you free. In politics, it will make you unemployed. n

Richard Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.

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