THETFORD, Vermont -- If former Vermont governor Howard Dean continues to bubble up to the higher reaches of the pre-, pre-presidential Democratic primary polls, we'll be hearing a lot of the following phrase: "Well, here's what we did in Vermont ...."
That line prefaced one of Gov. Dean's less contested statements on NBC's "Meet the Press," where the buzz-of-the-day Democrat recently suffered a journalistic grilling at the hands of a pleasantly rigorous Tim Russert -- rigorous, that is, until it came to discussing Howard Dean's 11 years in the Vermont statehouse. Along with the rest of the national media, Russert has so far given the physician-turned-politician a gubernatorial pass, as if there's no political point to examining what anyone did in such a tiny state.
Sound familiar? After looking the other way on the "Massachusetts Miracle" during the Dukakis presidential run, and driving blind through Arkansas during the Clinton campaigns, big media should do a little digging now that another ex-governor has put his small state on a pedestal to use as a national launch pad. And I mentioned this idea to Vermonter Ruth Dwyer, a savvy Republican veteran of the Vermont state legislature who ran two tough gubernatorial campaigns against Dean in 1998 and 2000.
Problem is, the media don't know (or, in the case of the Dean-devoted Vermont media, don't really want to know) the questions to ask.
Where should they begin their background research? On leaving office this year, Howard Dean sealed his gubernatorial papers for 10 years -- almost twice as long as his two predecessors, but considerably less than the 20-year-lock he sought -- determining himself, with his lawyers, what was covered by executive privilege. And so, on a hot, bright June morning, before Dwyer went back to her fields to bring in the hay --among other things, she is also a farmer -- we sat on her screened porch and cobbled together a list of questions the national media doesn't seem to have ever asked presidential candidate Howard Dean.
First, how come Gov. Dean, who is campaigning on his state record, sealed his own archive? "Well, there are future political considerations," the former governor told Vermont Public Radio. "We didn't want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor."
Well, at least he's up-front about things -- or is he? Having supported Vermont's divisive civil union law, which confers the legal rights of husbands and wives onto homosexual couples -- "in many ways," he said, "the most important event in my political life" -- he signed the controversial legislation behind closed doors. Why?