The Unlikely Rise of Howard Dean

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.”

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.”

The Unlikely Rise of Howard Dean