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.