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Giving 'Em Hell

Presidential candidate Howard Dean casts himself in the role of Harry Truman.


The candidate gives his stump speech to the faithful last week.

Last week, Howard Dean of Vermont, a onetime dark-horse presidential candidate who is suddenly -- and to political insiders almost inexplicably -- leading the pack of Democratic candidates, undertook a 10-city, three-day fly-around of America. The "Sleepless Summer Tour," it was called -- in conscious rebuke of President George W. Bush's alleged inaction in the face of America's problems.

Beginning on Saturday in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Dean's campaign plane (the "Grass Roots Express") went to Milwaukee; Boise, Idaho; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, and Spokane, Washington; Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Chicago; and New York. Crowds of unprecedented size and animation for this stage of a challenger's run for the presidency turned out to greet him. The high point, numerically, was a throng of some 10,000 in Seattle, while the most intense stop was probably in San Antonio, the president's own backyard.

The Flyer went along with Dean, listening as he pummeled Bush and mocked his campaign adviser, Karl Rove, watching as the candidate was asked to autograph posters, shirts, arms, and even, occasionally, part of someone's anatomy (no, not those parts), reflecting on the fact that a politician whom virtually no one outside the candidate's own small New England state had heard of a year ago was now pushing the political temperature up beyond what is normal in August or any other season.

Dean's private attitude toward the man he hopes to supplant, George W. Bush, is considerably more complicated than the straw-man bashings of his stump speech would indicate. "George Bush graduated from Yale in '68. I graduated in 1971," Dean said aboard the campaign plane. "There was a total generational shift. The Yale he left was gone by the time I graduated. It was a coat-and-tie era, not particularly innovative. Very much hereditary. I was the only guy in my prep school who got in. The place was full of valedictorians and salutatorians from public schools."

The implication is that Dean got with the program in those quasi-revolutionary times and that Bush remained forever preppy.

But as recently as the late 1990s, when both men were governors -- Dean of remote little Vermont, Bush of big and rowdy Texas -- there was the possibility of real overlap. "I actually liked him," Dean recalled. "I knew him well enough that I thought we could do business. And by Texas standards he was actually moderate. He tried to revise the incredibly archaic Texas tax system. He didn't succeed, but he actually tried. I was shocked at the way we acted when he became president. I really did think he was a compassionate conservative."

Dean, who admired President George H.W. Bush as much as he seems to deplore President George W. Bush, takes an almost Freudian view of what he sees as the son's backward slide into reaction: "Most people think he is still a moderate. They don't realize how far to the right he's gone. He's not interested in being a good president; he's interested in some complicated psychological situation with regard to his father over being accepted, being reelected."

Whatever psychodrama he sees as responsible for Bush's mindset, Dean seems to have a genuine missionary zeal to expose the public consequences of it. As he put it to the crowd of several hundred that turned up for him at the Boise airport, "He [Bush] doesn't want to balance the budget, because he wants to defund the federal government and get rid of Medicare and Social Security. We're not going to allow it."

"He was never truthful about his reasons for going into Iraq. He toughed up the intelligence reports to justify it, but he knew better. If you know what you're saying isn't true, what is the truth? We went in with a reason. What is the reason? I don't know."

Dean met with enthusiastic supporters in 10 cities on his “Sleepless Summer Tour.”

His skepticism and disinclination to grant the president credit for good-faith efforts extends as well to Bush's domestic policies like the recently enacted Medicare-based prescription-drug measure. "He knows it won't work and he doesn't care. It's like 'Leave No Child Behind' and 'Clean Skies,' Dean said, mentioning Bush programs for education and the environment, respectively. "All he wants is something to go before the electorate with, to make the claim that he's tried to do something, when he hasn't."

But there is a self-imposed caveat to his criticism of the president, one which stamps him as almost unique among Bush-bashers. "People make the mistake of discounting George W. Bush," Dean confided in one of the several impromptu interviews he gave reporters aboard the Grass Roots Express. "People like George Bush. I have never made a joke about syntax or spelling or any of that stuff. People who do that have no idea how he connects with people between the coasts. They think he's one of them. My job is to get them to see that he may talk like one of them, but his policies are not in their best interest."

And so he does, working at the task at every stop in a set speech whose applause lines and segues are freely shuffled, appearing not only in a different order -- depending, presumably, on the venue and the vagaries of mood and free association -- but sometimes with dramatically different import.

At all stops, for example, Dean chastised the Bush administration for its emphasis on ex post facto solutions to crime rather than on developing programs to prevent it. Prisons, he would say, are necessary -- "We can't have violent people running around" -- but, as he put it in Seattle, "any competent, qualified kindergarten teacher can tell you who the five kids are in his or her class that are most likely to end up in prison 15 or 20 years from now." The line, stated much the same wherever he said it, sometimes drew laughs and at other times was greeted with utmost solemnity. In whichever case, it was followed by Dean's declaration that prisons are "the least effective social-service intervention that we make in this country" and by a rhetorical question: "Why is it that we're not investing in small children, their families, now, to stop that from happening?"

Whichever way it started, the sequence drew guaranteed applause, as did another, even more pedantic-sounding premise, which Dean stated this way in Seattle: "He [Bush] managed to find $3 trillion of our tax money to give to [Enron's] Ken Lay and all those guys writing the $2,000 checks, but he couldn't find the money to buy the enriched uranium stocks in the former Soviet Union, which we're entitled to buy under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Agreement, and if that stuff gets in terrorists' hands, then we really do have a security problem in America."

Enriched uranium stocks? The Cooperative Threat Reduction Agreement? Not one listener in 50 could have known what he meant, but the crowds -- in what was clearly a concession to the ex-governor's policy-wonkish predilections -- applauded as lustily and on cue at these two recondite matters as they did at the more obvious red-meat lines.

And there were always plenty of the latter, references to tax-cut giveaways for "Ken Lay and the boys", to having been "the only leading" (or "major" or "serious") Democratic presidential candidate to oppose Bush's war in Iraq; to Dean's success in imposing virtually universal health insurance in Vermont and his insistence that "if we can do that in a small rural state, 26th in income in the country, balance our budgets every year, surely the most wealthy and powerful society on the face of the earth can join the British and the Japanese and the Germans and the French, the Israelis, the Canadians, the Italians, the Irish, the Norwegians, the Swedes ... Even Costa Ricans have health insurance." (The list of privileged nations ebbed and flowed but always concluded with mention of lowly little Costa Rica.)

There was the business of "three million lost jobs" under Bush and the inability of Republican presidents to balance the budget and the current president's playing the "race card" by using the word "quota" about affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. There were Bush's refusal to "stand up to the Saudis" and the "unfunded mandate" of the No Child Left Behind program (which Dean might also render as "No School Board Left Standing" or "No Behind Left") and Bush's underfunding of Homeland Security and his "all hat and no cattle" defense policies and his dangerously "petulant" attitude toward North Korea.

Dean noted plenty such derelictions, promising redress or relief. One of the candidate's most popular crescendos would come when he ticked off the administration's purported misrepresentations about Iraq. As he tended to put it: "The president told us that Iraq was buying uranium from Africa. That turned out not to be true. The president told us that they were about to make a deal with al Qaeda. That turned out not to be true. The vice president told us the Iraqis were about to get nuclear weapons. That turned out not to be true. And the secretary of defense told us he knew exactly where those weapons of mass destruction were, right around Tikrit and Baghdad, and that turned out not to be true."

At most venues, members of the crowd would start chanting "lies" or "liars" during this recitation. At New York's Bryant Park, where Dean spoke from a platform decorated by a performance artist, the call-and-response evoked cries of "bullshit" instead. At all locations, Dean would conclude the passage by intoning thunderously, "As the commander in chief of the United States military, I will never hesitate to send our troops to any country in the world to defend the United States of America. But as the commander in chief of the United States military, I will never send our sons and our daughters and our brothers and sisters to a foreign country to die without telling the truth about why they're going there."

Everywhere someone in the crowd, whether a plant or not, would shout, "Give 'em hell, Howard!" and Dean would answer by recalling Harry Truman's reply to similar calls during that president's 1948 miracle reelection campaign: "I just tell the truth, and the Republicans think it's hell."

Howard Dean and his supporters plainly think the ex-Vermont governor's current campaign for the presidency is something of a miracle, too. As the candidate himself observed during last week's "Sleepless Summer Tour" (so-called to counterpoint President Bush's supposed slumber during his annual month-long summer vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch): "We thought we might have 5 percent of the [primary] vote by this point and would be getting ready to make a major effort in Iowa or New Hampshire, after which we'd hope to build on that momentum in primaries down the line."

Instead, Dean already leads the Democratic field in both Iowa and New Hampshire, whose January caucuses and kickoff primary, respectively, are the traditional opening rounds of presidential campaigning. In Iowa, Dean has overcome the expected early lead of former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt from neighboring Missouri. In New Hampshire, a Zogby poll last week showed him soaring past Massachusetts senator John Kerry, once presumed to be the frontrunner, by a whopping margin of 38 to 21.

Observes campaign manager Joe Trippi, a veteran of several prior campaigns (including Gephardt's first bid, in 1988) who will volunteer nonstop dissertations on anything and everything political: "We had to adapt to this early success. What we're doing is unique. This is the first time ever that an insurgent has got this far ahead before an establishment 'frontrunner' could establish himself. We started out running a marathon by doing the first four miles at 100-yard-dash speed. Now we're doing the second four miles at 100-yard-dash speed."

In practical terms, what that means is that the Dean campaign, having already broken new ground with last week's whirlwind cross-country tour -- of the sort customary in the late stages of a general-election campaign -- intends to pile it on, spending $1 million next month to air freshly minted commercials in six states. It can afford to do so on the basis of having raised some $7.5 million, more than any other Democrat, in the previous quarter and is shooting for $10 million in the current quarter, with every expectation of realizing that goal.

The Dean campaign has been able to achieve such heady results by the innovative use of Internet fund-raising through the campaign's Web site (, which also serves as a medium for arranging the "meet ups" of volunteers throughout the country that have given the term "grass roots" new meaning. As it happened, President Bush also visited Portland last week, for a $2,000-a-plate fund-raiser that was due to net him $1 million -- the kind of money that, presumably, only incumbent presidents can raise in so short-term a manner. Dean let it be known that he meant to do as well on his "Sleepless" tour.

Dean can be brusque with the media -- though his new frontrunner status seems to have brought with it an injunction to make nice with reporters at all costs. Not once during last week's tour did the candidate lose his cool -- not even during the post-speech "press avail" in Falls Church, where a local reporter badgered him about whether he would take a "no-new-taxes" pledge. When Dean responded, "Yes, if we can return to the status of things under Bill Clinton," the reporter complained, "That doesn't make sense." Refusing to be baited, Dean calmly repeated his answer, then went on to the next questioner.

Dean plays the harmonica for one of his fans.

The traveling press was not nearly so obstreperous as that Washington-based reporter had been. Indeed, relations between the 30-odd journalists and the candidate could reasonably be described as cozy -- as why shouldn't they be, considering the symbiotic nature of their heady trip through the looking glass. Alexandra Pelosi, the video documentarian whose Journeys With George captured the Bush candidacy of 2000, was on board the Grass Roots Express for a new HBO project whose scope would be the entire 2004 presidential campaign. She had traveled already with most of the Democratic field, including Gephardt, Kerry, Senators John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Bob Graham of Florida. If the Dean campaign were arbitrarily assigned a 10, she was asked, how would the others rate? "Two, two, two, two, and two," she answered without hesitation.

The two reporters aboard Dean's campaign plane who seemed most astounded by it all were, ironically (or appropriately) enough, the most seasoned in matters involving the political cynosure of 2003. Sam Hemingway of the Burlington Free Press and Stew Ledbetter of WPTZ-TV sat aboard the Grass Roots Express on Tuesday morning, still digesting events so far on the trip and especially of the night before, when Dean had made his most impassioned presentation of The Speech and got his most robust crowd reaction of all before a crowd of several thousand at San Antonio.

Dean would vary his exit line, depending on circumstances. Sometimes it was "I promise I'll make you proud again to vote Democratic"; sometimes it was "This time the president will be the one who gets the most votes." Most often it was variations on "You have the power to take this country back." At San Antonio, it was the latter and, aided by the acoustics of the arena as well as the energy of the crowd, a Latino-inflected one which had been the most ethnically diverse of the trip so far, Dean had literally soared, his concluding repetitions of the phrase "You have the power" becoming a mantra, an incantation that was matched syllable for resonant syllable by the crowd. The mood had been, in the truest sense of the term, electric, and every reporter, staff member, and supporter on the plane Tuesday morning was still charged by it.

Hemingway said to Ledbetter as the two sat side by side, "I don't see how he can be denied." And the TV reporter nodded gravely. Hemingway would later recall in some wonder how Dean had nursed presidential ambitions during the runup to the 2000 campaign and seen his balloon deflated by a premature leak of his intentions by a watchful Al Gore. Vermont reporters had teased the governor unmercifully. "How's your poll ratings in Iowa, Howard?" had been a sure rib-tickler among the press corps up thataway.

Recalling all this in Manhattan's Bryant Park on Tuesday night as Dean was wrapping up the tour simultaneously with the announcement on a giant screen that the million-dollar mark in contributions had been reached, thereby tying Bush's proceeds for the weekend, Hemingway tried to put things in perspective, suggesting that Dean might yet come back to earth with the end of the calendar year and the beginning of the presidential year proper. In an effort to capture the loyalty of Democratic traditionalists, Dean might be forced to retract his boldness somewhat within the shell of party cautiousness.

Nah. It looked to be a case of the home-state reporter still pinching himself.

The reality was that Dean's fund-raising was far in excess of what his Democratic opponents could muster -- and was likely to remain so. His crowds were large and spontaneous, their enthusiasm genuine -- not whetted up by campaign operatives. There was no such thing as a Dean rally without chants going up and sometimes interrupting the candidate. Dean, Dean, Dean or We Want Dean, We Want Dean, or any of several permutations on the theme. The excitement of these crowds, their satisfaction at seeing a Democrat on the attack, was palpable. They were believers in search of a redeemer -- literally -- and they believed they had found him. Alexandra Pelosi was visibly frustrated twice on the tour -- once when her handheld camera failed to capture a transvestite activist in a ball gown at Portland and another time, more tellingly, when she didn't get the Young Democrat on the dais at Boise who likened his first experience of Dean to that of encountering Christ.

Dean himself would recall, on the last leg of the plane trip, standing on the platform at Seattle's Westlake Park and looking back at a sea of humanity, some 10,000 strong, that snaked into all the side streets: "That was the most extraordinary moment," said the man who, at that point, had been running for president for a solid year and a half. "That was the first time I realized that a very large number of people were dependent on me to change the course of things in America."

A steady component of the candidate's set speech, close to the end, usually, was his declaration that "the biggest lie told in campaigns by people like me to people like you is that we can solve your problems." The reality, as he would move on to say, was that people could take, first, their party back, then their country, by actions of their own. You have the power.

"It isn't so much what I say. It's how I say it," Dean would conclude. And, in truth, his rhetorical style, which -- he confessed to a reporter -- had once been that of "a bore," had become intense, even at times incandescent. Sometimes he would even try to moderate expectations, as when in Austin, he had warned his listeners that he was "too conservative for you." He later dilated on that: "They know I'm a little more conservative than they are -- on the death penalty, for example, but they tolerate it because they want to win. And they also know I'll stand up for what I believe in. The thing about me is that I'm not timid. I fight back, and I have an articulate vision. I don't just throw bombs and say how terrible things are."

Observant reporters began to notice a peculiarly studied practice of Dean's. When preparing to disembark from the plane to address a throng, he would carefully roll up his shirtsleeves to the elbow. When returning to the plane he would fastidiously rebutton the sleeves.

He could be candid about such calculations of effect. "They come to see the show, and you've got to give them the show," he said enroute to his last stop of the tour, in New York. "People don't want things so 'presidential' anymore." It is the same realization, he believes, that has occurred to George W. Bush and which accounts for the president's continued respectable (if dropping) ratings in the polls.

Conservative, liberal, showman, statesman, or whatever, he ran Vermont's state government for 12 years and oversaw, as he likes to boast, a string of balanced budgets; he opposed gun control and was supported by the NRA in his gubernatorial campaigns; he is a self-professed "non-ideological" executive who happened also to sign a bill legalizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Most importantly, however, the man who regularly gives George Bush hell is very much the man of the hour in Democratic politics.

"This is a political phenomenon the likes of which hasn't been seen before," boasts campaign manager Trippi, and maybe he's right. Maybe indeed it's too late -- at least before the general election itself -- for anyone to stop Dean. The rest of the Democratic field tries to be "too nice" to the president, tries to be "Bush Lite," as Dean likes to say, and that may cost them. It is certainly denying them the kind of momentum he -- so far uniquely -- can boast.

There are many corners to Howard Dean. Before he entered politics, he had careers as a stockbroker and as a general practitioner of medicine. It is the latter profession which he credits for giving him his impressive grasp of facts. As for the origins of the charismatic politician now on display, to the surprise of so many (perhaps even himself), perhaps some clue was offered the night he boarded a bus of supporters headed from his rally in Austin to the one in San Antonio.

A woman from Des Moines who had seen Dean on C-SPAN the month before playing the harmonica, surprised him by handing him no fewer than five harmonicas, each tuned to a different key. "I like to come prepared," she said, and asked him to play. After trying several out, he settled on the one tuned to D and gave a spirited rendition of Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side." He handed the harmonica back and said, "I really wanted to do some blues riffs, but I couldn't find the frets."

So far in this presidential campaign season, it is Dean's political opponents who are experiencing the blues, and the doctor from Vermont seems to have found the right frets to keep doing that.

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