WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Talleyrand assumed room temperature in 1838, his clever adversary Prince Metternich quipped, "What did he mean by that?"
Based on that mordant line alone, surely we could find a place for the old Austrian cynic here in Washington today if he were alive. Here, everyone is thought to be up to something.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., has just written Pennsylvania's seven members of the Democratic National Committee recommending that they support former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as chairman of the Democratic Party. Now what does he mean by that?
Murtha is relatively conservative. He was an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq. In running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Dean was the pre-eminent antiwar candidate. He had cornered the left-liberal elements in his party and seemed poised to turn the party away from the moderately liberal politics of Bill Clinton and towards the left's ideological rigorists.
In fact, observers speculate that Dean's left turn is what cooked his goose with those Democrats intent on maintaining the party's 1990s posture, namely the Clintons. Has Murtha turned to the left?
"I am not with him (Dean) on all the issues, but he understands the party's problems," Murtha told The Hill, Washington's newspaper specializing in congressional coverage, "what we need to do and how to get there." Murtha went on to emphasize that Dean "has executive experience." "What does Murtha's endorsement mean?
It means that Murtha is aware of what those of us who have known Dean knew throughout his run for the presidential nomination. He is no radical. Whereas earlier champions of the left in the Democratic Party were left-wing ideologues -- for instance, Sen. George McGovern -- Dean is simply a party-line Democrat who left the practice of medicine because he relishes the great game of politics.
To be sure, he has since his youth as a counter-culture fellow-traveler in the 1960s picked up some of the sentimental memorabilia of that era, but his record in Vermont was that of a practical politician who very much wanted to be re-elected. He has no grand ideological scheme for America, just re-election in mind.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, I appeared with him regularly on "The Editors," a PBS show taped in Montreal. Through all those shows, he was a centrist. He was also an automaton of the Clinton part -line. Whatever the issue of the hour might be, whatever the Clinton scandal in need of defense, Dean was there.
We taped on Saturday mornings, and it often occurred to me that he had been sent the Clinton "talking points" the night before. He had them down pat. He elucidated them smoothly. He loves politics.
To the surprise of all of us on the panel, this rather ordinary governor from a rural state actually contemplated taking on Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.
Now, he is planning to replace the Clintons' hand-picked chairman of the DNC, Terry McAuliffe. The Democrats could do far worse. Dean is clever and hard-working, and now after traveling the country in quest of his party's nomination, he must know the party very well. What is more, though he has obviously won the hearts of the left-wing ideologues, he is not driven by their obsessions.
There is much hand-wringing going on amongst the Democrats today. They wonder aloud if they should move to the left or to the far left. Not many are heard in public saying what is right -- to wit, the party needs to stay near the center. My guess is that Dean, the "antiwar candidate," would keep the party close to the Clinton paradigm of the 1990s.
An interesting question is: Do the Clintons recognize this? Do they realize that Dean was one of their most fluent defenders? Surely they do. Might that be why seasoned Democrats such as Murtha are lining up for Dean?
The Clintons still control vast reaches of the party. The front-runner for 2008 is certainly Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Possibly they see Dean as a fit replacement for McAuliffe.
That raises another question. Is Dean still yearning for a presidential nomination? Is he peeved about being rejected by the Clintons in 2004? What does he mean by going after the chairmanship of his party? Where is Prince Metternich when I need him?