Dean of the dems

Posted: May 02, 2003 12:00 AM

When Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean was governor of Vermont in 2000, he signed a landmark bill legalizing civil unions for gay couples. For that, he's now the darling of San Francisco politicos. Tuesday night, Dean drew an impressive crowd of leftists, enviros, gays and Bay Area celebs (among them, actor Peter Coyote and diet guru Dr. Dean Ornish) to a fund-raiser at San Francisco's newly renovated Ferry Building.

Dean and company, of course, used the opportunity to bash Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who became the topic of talk-show debates after he told a newspaper reporter that if the courts could legalize consensual gay sex, they could legalize adultery, bigamy and incest. Critics charged Santorum with equating adultery with incest.

"What do you mean, it's just gay people who are upset (by Santorum's comments)?" brassy Board of Equalization member Carole Migden asked the energized crowd as she introduced Dean. Dean criticized the president for not being tougher on Santorum after Bush said he'd be a "uniter, not a divider."

Insert here the sound of Republican throat-clearing: I didn't agree with what Santorum said. For one thing, I thought adultery was legal -- except in my home. And I applaud Dean's signing of Vermont's civil-union bill, even if I'd prefer to see marriage available to gays and lesbians. Still, I must defend Santorum and Bush.

For one thing, it doesn't make sense to hound Santorum for religious convictions he made clear to Pennsylvania voters -- just because he worded his argument differently.

But also, gay-rights supporters have this way of being so intolerant of devout people that they can turn off voters who otherwise might warm to gay-rights arguments. I saw some of that intolerance Tuesday night.

Dean ended his talk with the story of an 80-year-old WWII veteran in Washington who thanked Dean for signing the civil-union bill.

Noting that the veteran, who was gay, had stormed the beaches of Normandy, Dean told the crowd, "If a man is willing to serve his country in the most extraordinarily dangerous military operation in the last century, that is a man who deserves to come home to an America where he can be proud of who he is. " Hear, hear.

That was the good Dean -- moving, moral and appealing to the bedrock American belief that good men shouldn't be treated shabbily.

But before the good Dean, there was the Dean who, in the name of opposing divisiveness, said he was "tired of being told what to do by fundamentalist preachers" -- whose flocks have been known to vote in presidential elections.

So, only the left can tell people what to do, while devout Christians such as Santorum are supposed to keep their mouths shut in Dean's ostensibly united America?

Here you see the Dean Conundrum.

Supporters are convinced that Dean can energize people who don't vote, as well as young voters. I ran into a red-faced GOP Bush donor who came with friends and confided to me that he thinks Dean is the only Democrat "who can give Bush any trouble."

Others say Dean has moved too far to the left to be a threat to the Republican incumbent in a general election.

At the Ferry Building gathering, civil union was a winner, but let it be noted that even in left-leaning Gore-happy California, 61 percent of voters approved a measure three years ago that limited marriage to heterosexuals.

Recently, Dean told CNN that "we don't know yet" if it's a better thing that Saddam Hussein has been ousted. Unlike Dean, I know the world is better off without Hussein in power, but I don't know yet which theory on Dean is true.