In live-and-let-live Vermont, Steinberg has been able to maintain her privacy, with only occasional grousing in the press about the state’s invisible First Lady. She’s never campaigned in her husband’s races, she’s avoided reporters (Dean’s veteran press secretary, Susan Allen, who accompanied me, had never been to Steinberg’s office before), and she doesn’t do political entertaining. “I hate to cook,” she admits. What kind of a First Lady would she be? Her radical notion: She wants to practice medicine in Washington. I can’t resist joking about the challenge of the Secret Service screening her patients or the lobbyists eager to claim her as their internist. “I don’t know that people would come to me because of who I was married to,” says Steinberg.
It’s Tuesday, February 11. The clock is ticking inexorably every day toward war, the troops are being airlifted overseas, the networks have staffed up in Qatar and Turkey, and Howard Dean is still loudly proclaiming, at candidate forums in New York and Iowa and New Hampshire, that attacking Iraq is a mistake. “I’m not a dove,” he hastens to add; he just doesn’t believe this particular battle is one that America should take on alone. “I don’t think the president has made his case. He’s got to show Saddam possesses nuclear weapons, and I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence for that.” Dean says he sees biological and chemical weapons as insufficient grounds for a unilateral attack, and he favors the French proposal to triple the inspectors and further pressure Iraq rather than launching missiles in March, adding that he would back an invasion if authorized by the United Nations. “Nobody can run for president without being willing to use the full and maximum power of the United States,” Dean says. “But I’m one president who would be very careful if I had the opportunity.”
If he’s more passionate about restraint than the other Democratic candidates, it’s partly because he has a personal reason for wanting to spare families the agony of body bags and MIA phone calls. Back in 1974, his younger brother Charlie, 24, was traveling through Laos, paddling with a friend down the Mekong River taking pictures, when the two were seized by the Communists and charged with being American spies. Months later, word came back that they had secretly been executed; the bodies have never been recovered.
Dean never mentions this family tragedy in speeches and usually moves through the topic briskly with reporters. Unsure what to say, I tell him that my own brother died-of an asthma attack-and that I am still haunted by his death. Dean gives me a look of recognition-which leads to a running conversation over several days about the agony of losing a sibling, how it changes you, the pain of watching your folks suffer. “It was awful for everyone, but it was worse for my parents,” says Dean, who shared a childhood bedroom-complete with bunk beds-with the irrepressible Charlie. “It just wastes you. Everyone falls apart; they just fall apart in different ways.”
His mother recalls the family’s desperate efforts to save Charlie; the Deans have long believed that their globetrotting son worked for the CIA but have never gotten confirmation. Her husband flew to Laos and knocked on all the diplomatic doors, trying to ascertain at what jungle location Charlie was being held; Andree Dean followed a month later. “I kept going from person to person,” she recalls. “It was so awful.” Thinking back now, she also regrets the family’s stiff-upper-lip reaction afterward, wondering about the impact on her other three sons-Howard; James, now a Fairfield, Connecticut, market researcher; and William, a Boston bond trader. “We could never discuss it at home, because Howard’s father would get so upset,” she says. “That wasn’t the era when you talked about things.”
Dean’s wife tells me he rarely spoke about Charlie for years. Dean’s father died in August 2001, and that event combined with the cataclysm a few weeks later of September 11-Dean came to Manhattan three days after the attacks to see the damage-spurred him to examine his own past. So he went to Laos last February, visiting what’s believed to be his brother’s burial area joining volunteers excavating other sites for American remains. Dean spoke with a witness who claimed he had seen his brother’s body dumped in a foxhole. “It gave me closure,” he says, but his voice grows husky and he says, “It never goes away. It gets better, but it never goes away.” Then he snaps back to the present, linking these feelings to his opposition to invading Iraq: “Most people have no idea, except people who lost their kids in combat. That’s why I think my fellow politicians running for the Democratic nomination are wrong.”
The next morning, dean is driving to the Burlington airport, sweet-talking a prospective donor on the cell phone: “Now that Al Gore and Tom Daschle aren’t running, I was hoping . . . You will? It’s $2,000 a couple. And I want to hear more about that idea . . . ” He’s so caught up in the conversation that he misses the entrance to the parking garage; for the past eleven years, he had state troopers driving him everywhere. At the newsstand, I suggest buying two copies of the New York Times for the flight, and he stares at me disapprovingly. “I’m a fanatic recycler,” he says; we will share and leave the paper later in an airport-lounge seat for other travelers.
This trip to Washington, to appear at a National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League dinner in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of legal abortion, was a last-minute invite that has already screwed up his schedule. So when US Air announces that our Washington plane has been canceled, Dean is not a happy man; we’re hustled onto a flight to Philadelphia.
Changing planes in Philly, Dean decides to race-walk several concourses rather than wait for a shuttle bus. Becuase of confusing signs, we end up going through security again. Unlike in Burlington, where Dean is famous, no one recognizes him here despite his appearances on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. The guard unzips his suitcase and rummages through his stuff. Dean hums under his breath to control his tension; he makes the flight. At the Omni Shoreham a few hours later, it’s controlled pandemonium, with anti-abortion protesters waving placards outside, a heavy police presence, and 1,300 guests milling around. Tonight is the first time that all six candidates have appeared together on a stage. Dean is scheduled fifth on the program, not an auspicious slot, and he looks comically short (he claims 5 feet 8¾ inches) standing next to the craggy Kerry (6 feet 4). John Edwards leads off, warning that a “chill wind blows tonight,” followed by Joe Lieberman, who comes across as well-meaning but sonorous. Reverend Al wins huge cheers as he describes telling an anti-abortion protester: “Young lady, it’s time for the Christian right to meet the right Christian.” Next comes Richard Gephardt, who gets a chilly reception as he apologizes for his early opposition to abortion.
Dean starts off awkwardly, venturing a Taliban joke, proposing that the Bush administration is so regressive that soon girls won’t be allowed to go to school. No one laughs. Uh-oh. But then he starts to build. He talks about why he’s against laws demanding parental consent for minors who want an abortion, how as a doctor he once had a pregnant patient who was 12 and he suspected the father was her father. The crowd applauds-he’s winding up, ad-libbing. People are waving light wands from the tables and jumping to their feet. It’s Dean’s moment. Poor Kerry, with laryngitis, follows and can’t score.
“Dean was electrifying,” a political consultant working for a rival candidate concedes moments later. A TV anchorman shares the same view: “The headline tonight: dean.” The instant verdicts are repeated in newspapers and magazines in the next few days: The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza, for example, writes that Dean’s “style is to grab the political live wire that everyone else is terrified of touching.”
It’s one thing to dazzle the liberals in Manhattan, Los Angeles, or Washington, but winning the hearts and minds of voters in Live-Free-Or-Die New Hampshire is a tougher proposition. Flying to the Granite State the next morning, Dean starts off at the Havenwood-Heritage Heights Retirement Community, in Concord, with a decent turnout of 50 people. Citing his accomplishment in balancing Vermont’s budget, he attacks Bush’s tax cut and soaring deficits, rips the administration for despoiling the environment, and promises to pass universal health insurance, thundering his tag line again and again: “We can do better.”
But what these senior citizens want is to hear Dean’s explanation of the most controversial Vermont legislation passed on his watch: same-sex civil unions. One elderly man asks, “How do you convince people that civil unions aren’t gay marriages?”
“The only people who call civil unions ‘gay marriage’ are poorly informed reporters and the right wing of the Republican Party,” Dean replies. “Civil unions mean gay people get to have the same rights I do. Such as if I get sick, my wife can visit me in the hospital; if I die, my wife gets the estate without probate.”
He’s trying to sell this emotionally loaded topic as a civil-rights issue, neutralizing the stereotype of guys and gals in heavy leather setting up housekeeping: “Marriage is between a man and a woman. I agree with you-most Americans aren’t going to support gay marriage, but most Americans will support equal rights.” And then he closes with the phrase that makes him beloved in the gay community: “If you’re brave enough to go to Afghanistan, and brave enough to rescue people at the World Trade Center, you’re brave enough to have your own rights.”
When the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that gay couples were entitled to the same legal rights as heterosexuals, Dean was thrust reluctantly into an ugly battle. This was not his crusade, but he did the right thing and took the heat, receiving hate mail and death threats as he traveled not-so-quaint Vermont talking up the civil unions legislation. (Many lawmakers who courageously voted in favor were defeated in the next election.) “I marched with Howard in a Fourth of July parade,” says State Attorney General William Sorrell, “and people were throwing things and screaming, ‘You fucking cocksucker.’ ” Dean quips that being called “a child molester” and “queer” was great training for a presidential campaign: “Given some of the things the Republicans do, what the right wing does on a national level, I figured now that I had a taste of it, I was ready to run.” As the lone Democratic contender who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, Dean is also questioned frequently about his position on gun control. He supports existing legislation (the Brady bill, closing the gun-show loophole, banning the sale of assault weapons) but doesn’t favor national gun-control laws, insisting it’s a state issue. Citing Vermont’s low crime rate, he likes to note that his rural hunting state has only two gun laws: “You can’t bring a loaded gun to school, and you can’t have a loaded gun in the car. We don’t want people to shoot deer out of the window of a moving car; we don’t think that’s fair for the deer.” He usually gets a laugh from that line but doesn’t necessarily win converts. “If gun control is your only issue, I’m not going to be your candidate,” he tells a woman who presses him on the topic at a Manhattan gathering. “If you can get over that, I can give you health care, a balanced budget . . . ” She looks skeptical but says, “I’ll try.”
It’s impossible to know whether Dean’s newfound visibility is a blip or represents the first stage of an out-of-nowhere Democratic insurgency. Dean goes into the race as the most underfunded of serious candidates: While his Washington rivals have multi-million-dollar war chests and are aiming to raise $15 million to $20 million this year, Dean, who pulled in a mere $315,000 in January, is already behind on his goal of $10 million. “I think he’s a very attractive guy, and he has bold convictions,” says Harold Ickes, the veteran Clinton strategist, “but I just wonder if he can raise the money.”
Along with momentum, however, he does have the gift of time. Dean’s only job right now is running for the presidency, compared with the three senators and the congressman who must spend several days a week in D.C. A rival-campaign staff member has ruefully calculated that Dean will have four extra months on the road to raise money and woo voters-no minor advantage, since personal contact matters in the vital early states. “Dean has made eighteen trips here and counting,” says Iowa state Democratic chairman Gordon Fischer, noting that the other candidates have logged half that time. “He’s getting good crowds and reactions.”
More outspoken than front-runner Kerry, more liberal than the charming Edwards or the well-known Lieberman, a fresher face than Gephardt, and without the baggage of Sharpton, Howard Dean, at least for the moment, has the attention of the chattering classes. “You can’t move people unless you stand for something,” he said that night in his mother’s living room. “When I get done with this campaign, I don’t know if I’m going to win or lose, but everybody in America will know what I stood for.”