Remembering Howard

Posted: Dec 18, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Dr. Howard Dean poses for me an unanticipated moral dilemma. Throughout the 1990s, I debated him on a little-known public affairs show taped in Montreal -- beautiful Montreal, I should add. It is a grand city with much of the elegance of France and the added asset of having almost no native-born French.

But to return to Dean and my moral dilemma. Owing to his combative politics and my impatience with political hokum, we found ourselves going tete-a-tete often to the exclusion of anyone else on the show, which by the way is called "The Editors." I was reminded of the dramatic nature of our confrontations on the show a couple of months back, when a member of Dean's campaign team stopped me in public to introduce himself. He had just spent a week reviewing those tapes of our epic confrontations on "The Editors," and naturally he had become very familiar with my face. Though we never met, he said: "Excuse me. You are R. Emmett Tyrrell, are you not?" And he proceeded to ask me some questions about our debates.

Now of course the political press is viewing those tapes. Just the other day, The Washington Post quoted some of Dean's characteristically ill-conceived quips. Journalists are beginning to call me to ask what Dean was like in those faraway days of his political virginity. "He seemed fiery, but was he genial?" "He seemed very much a conventional mainstream Democrat, but was he really ideologically driven?" One caller asked if the Dr. Howard Dean whom I encountered in the 1990s was a "George McGovern type or a McCarthy type?" I assumed he was referring to Gene, not Joe McCarthy.

Well, how am I to answer the increasing number of inquiries I receive from my brethren in the press corps? I try to observe the discretion of a gentleman. I try to keep confidences. When Dean confronted me, it was a turbulent time. His Democratic colleagues, the Clintons, had created problems of a moral nature that compromised other Democrats. Is it ethical to judge him today for sentiments he impetuously expressed in those days?

Frankly, I feel a protective sense regarding his youthful appearance back then. In terms of his political life, he was a mere pup. He was frisky with the urge to yip and gambol in the sunshine. And he was a loyalist. One could tell he wanted to leap to the defense of his party's standard-bearer despite the squalor that that standard-bearer backed into.

So I am conflicted. Today, Dean aspires to the Oval Office. If he has his way, he will be the first Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the 21st century. He will face our era's Herbert Hoover: a Texas Hoover who has mired the country in economic gloom, who has failed to confront tyrants from afar. Just as a priest must not betray what he hears in a confessional, I have a feeling that I should not betray the raw and primitive Dean that was presented to me in Montreal.

Politics is a rough business. It is a realm bereft of probity or principle. I have come to the position that there is almost no politician who is anything but an intriguer and a cad. Witness the late Al Gore's disregard for the niceties in dealing with his old running mate, Sen. JOe Lieberman. Think of how shamelessly President Saddam Hussein abandoned his pose as a Saladin and became a pacifist whence our troops removed the rug from his rat hole. Shall I betray my views of Dean lo those many years ago and be but another conniver in the political maelstrom of ego?

Possibly I shall. The fact is all these calls from the press are very enticing. Not much first-hand information has been delivered up on the ambitious doctor. Not many members of the press had a chance to meet the great man in battle. I could become his Boswell. I could become a Bernstein wrapped in a Woodward and with a yellow bow tied round.

What course will I follow? Will it be the discretion of a gentleman or the excess of a blabber mouth? I have to decide before the next press inquiry comes in. I am thinking.