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The Unlikely Rise of Howard Dean

The five-time governor of the Ben & Jerry's state is actually a product of Park Avenue, an outspoken critic of war against Iraq, and suddenly, a Democratic presidential force.

Howard Dean is running for president as Jimmy Stewart. The buttoned-down Democrat begins campaign speeches by conceding to his audience, “You don’t know me,” before describing his transformation from medical doctor to Vermont’s five-term governor. Instead of jetting around the country on chartered planes, Dean flies coach on Southwest Airlines and JetBlue. Known for padding around his governor’s office with holes in his socks and plain, well-worn suits, this frugal contender for the highest office in the free world avoids $450 hotel suites on his travels, preferring to bunk at the homes of supporters, even though it often means being shoehorned into kids’ quarters. When he comes to New York, as he does often these days, he stays at his mom’s place.

It was there, in fact, that Dean, suddenly the hottest comer in the densely bunched Democratic pack, entertained 30 moneyed and influential party stalwarts last week, including superlawyer David Boies and JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson. Still, the crowd wasn’t exactly slumming: The Dean family homestead is a Park Avenue apartment serenely decorated with small African sculptures and modernist paintings and prints.

Let his Democratic rivals hype their only-in-America humble origins-Joe Lieberman is the son of a liquor-store owner; John Edwards’s father worked in the textile mills-Howard Brush Dean III is the proud patrician product of Park Avenue and 85th Street, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of investment bankers. After graduating from Yale, Dean, too, worked on Wall Street before quitting to attend Albert Einstein medical school, where he met his wife, Long Island-born physician Judith Steinberg. Dean didn’t just summer in the Hamptons; his parents belonged to the Maidstone Club, and his family’s Sag Harbor roots trace back to an eighteenth-century whaling captain.

He enjoys watching New Yorkers’ attitudes change when they discover he’s not a hick from the state of Ben & Jerry’s. “New Yorkers are tough; they want to know what you’ve got,” says Dean. “But I’ve never had people open their hearts to me more than when they discover that my wife is Jewish and I’m from New York. They look at you completely differently. It’s flabbergasting.”

What’s even more surprising is Dean’s brashness in setting his sights on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as an unknown without a national base of deep-pocketed supporters. The man’s sole political experience has been governing an aging-hippie and dairy farmers’ theme park of a state with a population-600,000-one third that of Queens. Even Dean’s loyal mother assumed her oldest son couldn’t be serious when he told her a year ago that he was planning to run for president. “I thought it was preposterous, the silliest thing I’d ever heard,” says Andree Maitland Dean, a widow (her husband died in August 2001) who works as an art appraiser. “It seemed like such a quixotic quest.”

But once Al Gore dropped out of the race in December, the contest became the most wide-open Democratic presidential competition in more than two decades, and Dean’s campaign has gained momentum from his outspoken skepticism about war with Iraq. Dean is the most anti-war of the current Democratic contenders, with the exception of Al Sharpton: “I’m the only one of the four elected officials running at this point who did not support the president’s Iraq resolution-and I still don’t.”

That said, the compact 54-year-old with graying black hair and piercing blue-gray eyes is more than a single-issue anti-war candidate. He’s a strict fiscal conservative (he consistently balanced Vermont’s budget); he’s a staunch health-care advocate (he made sure the state provided health insurance for all children); he’s a dedicated environmentalist (he protected thousands of acres of open lands); and he’s a social liberal (he signed the controversial legislation permitting same-sex civil unions). In political style, he’s notably candid, and he’s got executive experience-he just stepped down as Vermont’s governor after eleven years in office-no small thing given that four of our last five presidents have been governors. All of this has suddenly vaulted Dean to the political forefront. “I’m hearing great things,” says Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, while stressing that he has no favorite in the race. “Howard’s got a good message, and people are enthusiastic about him.” Dean has also begun to draw opponents’ attention. The Republican National Committee in January put out a seven-page document snarling that Dean is "an ultra-liberal" and "out of the mainstream." Dean’s response: "I've arrived." Now comes the work. He’s making regular money-hunting forays into Manhattan, and visiting the critical early-primary states. Since it’s less than a two-hour drive from his home in Burlington, Vermont, to New Hampshire, he’s in the first primary state weekly: A recent poll of New Hampshire Democrats by the independent American Research Group showed Dean as the solid second-place finisher, nipping at Kerry’s heels and garnering twice the support of Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards.

An upbeat man with a ready smile, Dean exudes coiled energy and ambition when I meet with him for the first time, at the Regency Hotel, in January. Having reluctantly upgraded to a new Paul Stuart suit, he is wooing major Democratic fund-raisers: breakfast with hotelier Jonathan Tisch this morning, later a meeting with financier Roy Furman, and a dinner in his honor at the home of billionaire George Soros. I ask Dean for a preview of his political sales pitch, and it’s like hitting the fast-forward button. “I’m very direct and very blunt,” he begins. “The pitch is that I’m different from every other candidate in the race, I’m a governor, I’m the only one who’s ever balanced a budget, I’m the only one who doesn’t support the president on Iraq. They can talk about health care; I’ve done it. They can talk about land conservation; I’ve done it. They can talk about early-childhood intervention; I’ve done it.”

Dean isn’t a physically prepossessing guy, he’s not warm and cuddly, yet he has a mesmerizing impact once he speaks. Following up later on Dean’s Manhattan foray, I learn that he’d scored. “Howard Dean impressed me as a serious candidate with a broad vision and a fresh voice,” Soros says via e-mail. “Like Kerry, he is certainly a very attractive alternative to Bush.” Furman, the vice-chairman of Jefferies & Company, was so enthused he agreed to dial for dollars for Dean. “Howard has magnetism. It doesn’t bother me that my friends don’t have the slightest idea who he is,” says Furman, an early supporter of that other small-state governor turned presidential long shot, Bill Clinton. “Dean will be discovered.”

The Left Coast Democratic cabal, too, is flirting with his insurgent candidacy. The West Wing’s Martin Sheen-the fictional New England governor turned president who also has a practicing-doctor wife-has endorsed him. On a recent L.A. swing, Dean had an audience with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening at the Polo Lounge. (Dean’s favorite movie is Bullworth, and he does a hilarious version of Beatty’s money-rap speech.) The Vermonter-New Yorker also pitched his ideas to Rob Reiner, Larry David, Stephen Bing, Norman Lear, and Nora Ephron at a Spago lunch. “I liked him,” Ephron says. “He has a modesty and a lack of razzle-dazzle that’s charming.”

It is bone-chillingly cold, a mere ten degrees out, when I arrive at Dean’s recently leased campaign headquarters in Burlington a week after our Regency Hotel meeting. Furnished with beat-up desks and chairs purchased from the University of Vermont, the offices are located on the fourth floor of a redbrick building that houses a popular restaurant, the Vermont Pub and Brewery.

While some Dean staff members have offices with pretty views of Lake Champlain and the snow-covered Adirondacks, the candidate himself, who today is wearing a blue sweatshirt, corduroys, and boots, has chosen to work out of a cubby-hole overlooking the street. Dean moved to Burlington to do his residency in 1978. “My life isn’t restaurants and theaters,” he says. “It’s skiing and hiking and camping.” While building a medical practice, he lobbied successfully for the development of a bike path instead of condominiums hard on the shores of Lake Champlain. That whetted his appetite for politics, and in 1982, he was elected as a Democratic state representative to the part-time legislature. Four years later, he ran for and won the mostly ceremonial job of lieutenant governor. Dean abruptly became governor in 1991 when Republican incumbent Richard Snelling died of a heart attack. Dean got that news while examining a patient. “It was the ultimate medical emergency,” he recalls. “I actually hyperventilated, and then I caught myself and thought, You’d better stop this, or you’re not going to be much good to anyone.”

Dean looks at his watch; he has to interrupt our interview to meet his 17-year-old son, Paul, at home to help shovel snow off the backyard ice-hockey practice rink. Inviting me along, he jokes that his car is “not very presidential”-a rusted-out 1989 Chevy Blazer-and that his home is not grand, either. “Judy and I don’t care much about material things,” he says. The Deans have a net worth of $4 million, according to tax returns: He says he received $25,000 from his father at age 21 and made the rest through work, prudent investments, and frugal living. Driving along the icy streets, he expresses pride that his wife has maintained her own life as an internist, even doing house calls, opting out of the role of pol’s wife. Unlike the wives of his rivals, “She’s not going to campaign for me,” he says. As we pull up in front of his tan two-story modern home, he casually mentions that since the once-a-week housekeeper comes on Thursday and this is a Monday, the place is a bit of a mess: “None of us is big on housekeeping.”

Sure enough, the place looks like it’s been ransacked. The garage is a jumble of bicycles, camping equipment, old campaign signs, and tools. Following Dean into the ground-floor rec room, I have to step carefully over an army of L.L. Bean boots, boxes of books and papers from the governor’s office, and Dean’s half-filled suitcase, dropped haphazardly the night before on his return from a weekend in Iowa. “I never bother to unpack anymore,” he says.

He leads me up the stairs, covered with ripped ancient green shag carpet, to the sunny living area, with a soaring A-frame ceiling. He makes me a cup of herbal tea and introduces his gray three-legged cat, Katie (she had cancer). Excusing himself to join his son outside, Dean is half out of the room when he turns to say, “Feel free to look around.”

This is such an astonishing offer from a man running for president that I toss it back at him: “You mean, look in the medicine cabinets and open the drawers?” Dean looks startled for a second, then grins and says, “I have no secrets.” And then he leaves.

Ah, the tyranny of being trusted. I wonder for a second what Matt Drudge would do, but limit myself to inspecting things that are easily visible. It’s a much-lived-in house, with an Oriental rug, a white couch and wing chair that need reupholstering, a chess set, and framed pictures on every flat surface showing the athletic Dean foursome (daughter Anne is a freshman at Yale) in outdoorsy activities that would look at home in a Ralph Lauren catalogue. A menorah is perched on a living-room shelf: Dean was baptized Catholic (as was his mother), was raised Episcopalian (his father’s denomination), and became a Congregationalist (“I don’t go to church a lot, but I pray at night”). But because Judaism is important to his wife, the family celebrates Jewish holidays and the kids consider themselves Jewish. The cat rubs my leg, a silent chaperone, as I head downstairs to the ground floor. Dean’s office is filled with mementos, including two beat-up guitars (he serenaded legislators with “On the Road Again” at a party last year, an in-your-face response to complaints he was away too much). A certificate from Yale’s Pierson College hangs on the wall. He was a freshman in 1967, when George W. Bush was a senior, but the two didn’t know each other. Still, there is a family connection: Bush’s grandmother was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Dean’s grandmother.

At Yale, Dean was a political-science major, but his college friend Ralph Dawson, now a Manhattan lawyer, says Dean wasn’t politically ambitious then: “If he wanted to be president, he certainly didn’t tell me.” Dean opposed the war in Vietnam, but he wasn’t an outspoken protester. He was classified 1-Y by his draft board because of an unfused vertebra in his back. Dean’s sixties-era entry in his Yale yearbook lists his future occupation as “living” and quotes a favorite Neil Young song: “Don’t let it bring you down . . . ”

But the most revealing keepsake in this room is a collage of beer coasters, which Dean collected as an exchange student in England at age 17. It’s a memory of another life. Asked about Dean’s student hobbies, Dawson offers an amused reply: “Well, he drank.” Not anymore. “I quit drinking when I got married in 1981,” Dean says later. “I didn’t think I handled liquor well. Actually, I drank beer. I tended to misbehave. I had a hangover the next day.” He won’t elaborate but says he was never arrested for drunk driving, and there is no alcoholism in his family. “What’s funny when you’re 18 isn’t funny when you’re 30, so I just quit.”

Arriving back at his campaign office, Dean-to the dismay of his staff-brings me into a meeting to plot out his schedule. It’s a crash course in the insane logistics of a presidential campaign moving into warp speed: The biggest problem is allocating Dean’s time, so he can get to the big-money Democrats before they pledge allegiance to another candidate. “Goddamn it, we have to meet everyone at once,” he says in a rare moment of frustration. “If those guys go for Kerry before I even get to see them, I’m going to hit the ceiling.”

Judith Steinberg’s medical practice is located in a converted barnlike creamery along a well-traveled road in Shelburne, a short drive from Burlington. With her shoulder-length dark hair, glasses, and shy smile, this petite woman in a berry sweater set and conservative black skirt has the look of the smartest girl in med school; Dean says she was the far better student.

If her husband weren’t running for president, Steinberg (she uses her maiden name professionally) would be perceived as a baby-boomer I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it working mom who’s too busy with a demanding job and a teenage son to pay much attention to her spouse’s career. But in an era when Americans expect to see political wives standing by their men, it will be interesting to watch how voters react to Steinberg’s decision to stay out of the fray. “I’m involved in Howard’s life, but I’m not very involved in his politics,” she says. “He is able to separate it and really respects what I do. I support what he does and we meet in the middle, and it seems to work so far.”

Unlike every other political household in America, the Deans do not have cable TV at home (“We believe the less TV, the better”), so she hasn’t watched his campaign speeches, as televised on C-Span, and is seemingly unaware of his surging wave of support. "I think he’s happy,” she says. “I guess I haven't really felt the groundswell.”

Steinberg, 49, is the daughter of two doctors; she grew up in Roslyn and attended Princeton. Until her husband became governor, they worked side-by-side in these medical offices. When I ask about their styles as doctors, she smiles and says, “I’m a very methodical person; I do all the tests. Howard tends to jump to conclusions. He’s usually right, but he just leaps.”