Dean's pedicured foot firmly in mouth

Posted: Jan 14, 2004 12:00 AM

No one who's glad that George Bush is president can insist with a straight face that articulateness is a requirement for a successful president. But I'll take Bush's verbal fumbles over the disco-ball of incoherence that is Howard Dean's brain.

Lest you think I'm being unfair, let me first admit that I myself am prone to the occasional embarrassing misstatement. For example, I used to produce a public television series, and one of the conceits of the show was that we invited only serious authors and scholars to participate. In one meeting, a colleague suggested we invite former New York Mayor Ed Koch on the show. I quickly, and I admit haughtily, objected: "He doesn't really have the sort of academic pedicure we're looking for, now does he?"

To this day my friends make fun of me about it. They ask whether I think such-and-such scholar has nice toenails, whether I'm going to get my corns looked at before my book comes out, etc.

In other words, I can sympathize when stupid things inadvertently fly out of your mouth.

But it's one thing for me to blurt "pedicure" instead of "pedigree." It's something else entirely if I were to stand my ground, defend the relevance of foot hygiene in highbrow debate and question the intelligence of those who would second-guess my stance on scholarly feet. That, in effect, is what Howard Dean does.

Sure, he often just flatly denies reality as when he insists, despite a crystal clear record indicating otherwise, that he wasn't a supporter of NAFTA or that he ever said Saddam was a threat.

But what's far more interesting is when Dean's explanations are weirder than the original gaffe, as when he recently explained his statement that we shouldn't "prejudge" Osama bin Laden's guilt. Dean clarified that he was sure Osama would get the death penalty, but a presidential candidate should stand for the "rule of law." In other words, Dean was saying, I have to assume he's innocent but whether he is or not, he's going to fry.

On the issue of religion, Dean is as legible as fistful of spaghetti splattered on the wall. For months Dean said he didn't "think religion should be part of American policy" and that the Democrats must move away from "having our elections in the South based on race, guns, God and gays."

Then, when his secularism became a political liability, particularity in South Carolina, he started talking about God. "I am gradually getting more comfortable to talk about religion in ways I did not talk about before." But, he explained, he would only talk about God in the South.

That's just the beginning of his intellectual and theological loop-d-loop. He said, "I'm a New Englander, so I'm not used to wearing religion on my sleeve and being as open about it." That's funny considering New England's been chock-a-block with religious hotheads since the days of Cotton Mather. Indeed, New England's currently being torn apart by religious disagreements on gay bishops, gay unions, gay marriage and all sorts of other things gay and religious.

Dean was in a good position to know this since, he signed Vermont's civil unions law when he was governor. At the time, Dean was immune to the theological ramifications of such issues. Indeed, he had left the Episcopal Church earlier in his career because it opposed his plan to build a lakeside bike path. He felt that the church's anti-bike-path position was "not very Godlike."

Which brings us to the issue of God and gays. Recall that Dean had said as recently as November that "My religion doesn't inform my public policy." But last week he said, "My view of Christianity . is that the hallmark of being a Christian is to reach out to people who have been left behind. So I think there was a religious aspect to my decision to support civil unions." So I guess imposing civil unions doesn't count as public policy.

Again asked to explain himself, he said in effect that it wouldn't be very godlike for God to make gays and then not want them to get together. "From a religious point of view, if God had thought homosexuality is a sin, he would not have created gay people." OK, I guess. But if that's the case, why is Dean opposed to gay marriage?

When Chris Matthews asked him that question, Dean replied "because marriage is very important to a lot of people who are pretty religious." So God made people gay so they could have civil unions but not marriages? And: religion has no role in public policy, except when either A) it tells Dean to allow civil unions or B) when other "pretty religious" people are really opposed to something?

In his - shall we say godlike - arrogance, Dean thinks anything that leaves his mouth must be wise. But in reality, true wisdom lies in taking his no-doubt well-pedicured foot out of his mouth.