Howard Dean's missing funny bone

Posted: Jun 11, 2005 12:00 AM

(ITALICS) "Look, I'm not a perfect person. I have my warts. I sometimes say things that get me in trouble. I wear suits that are cheap. But I say what I think and I believe what I say, and I'm willing to say things that are not popular but ordinary people know are right."

Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman

Howard Dean, God's gift to the Republican Party, has a point. He says things that get him in trouble, things that are not popular, but things that ordinary people know are true - if not precisely accurate.

I know what you're thinking. He should apply for a job with CBS.

No, what Dean should do is wait tables in a comedy club and try to pick up tips on timing and delivery. The man's got good lines, but his delivery has all the finesse and art of a pizza truck.

People should be slapping their thighs and shaking their heads, saying: "That Howard, what a hoot!"

Instead, it's: "Howard, Howard, Howard."

And those are the Democrats.

"Dean's words draw Democratic rebukes," was the headline in Thursday's Washington Post.

It's worth noting, of course, that those complaining loudly are mostly the Democrats inside the Beltway with presidential aspirations, such as Senators Joe Biden and John Edwards. "Distancing Dean" may be the first unofficial slogan of Campaign 2008.

Democrats beyond the Beltway, on the other hand, are mostly grateful that Dean's bringing the Democratic Party back home. All those states previously believed to be useless in presidential races are suddenly back on the party map.

And, of course, Republicans - though Deeply Offended - invest in champagne futures every time Dean opens his mouth.

The hand-wringing from both sides is touching and gives the media something to talk about besides Michael Jackson's dating habits. But it's strictly made-for-TV schtick - sound and fury signifying nothing.

What did Howard Dean say that was so offensive? His most recent effrontery went like this: "It's pretty much a white, Christian party," referring to the GOP.

Please. Anyone who's attended a Republican convention or sat through a State of the Union address - about the only time elected officials abandon C-SPAN to physically warm their congressional seats - knows that Dean's statement is factually true-ish. (Republican National Committee chairman Ken "I had a bar mitzvah" Mehlman exception noted.)

The Republican Party aspires to diversity - and more minorities and non-Christians probably would find themselves comfortable in the GOP - but a few mariachi bands at elephant-hat parties do not a diverse party make.

Republicans in state legislatures are, in fact, about 99 percent white, according to "The Great Divide," the book that examined America's voting demographics and assigned the names "Metro" and "Retro" to describe America's geographical/socio-economic distribution of political power.

Of that 99 percent, 82.2 percent are male.  By comparison, Democratic state legislators run about 80 percent white, 72.6 percent male, and 20.1 percent minority.

Dean also wasn't precisely wrong about the Christian composition of the GOP, especially if he intended to suggest the party's ideological tilt. In any case, Jews made up only 7 percent of the Republican Party as of 2000, while 37 percent of Republicans identify themselves as white evangelicals.

And, even though blacks and Latinos voted for Bush in increasing numbers in 2004, the party's complexion still needs sunscreen. (Eleven percent of blacks voted for Bush in 2004, up from 9 percent in 2000; and 44 percent of Latinos voted for Bush, up from 35 in 2000.)

Nevertheless, what Dean should have said was, "Not that there's anything wrong with that. Why, I'm a white Christian myself. But ." Badaboom. And made his point. And smiled.

It's not the message, in other words, so much as the messenger. Dean has no feel, no instinct for the light touch. If he has a sense of humor, it must be keeping company with his religion - off the sleeve and out of sight. I can't see him without being reminded of the Lollypop Guild, those tough-guy Munchkins who welcomed Dorothy to Oz with a sneer and a scowl.

Put Dean's same words in the mouth of a Ronald Reagan, and no one would blink. Like Dean, Reagan said what he thought, but he didn't give the impression that he was about to pop his buttons with the sort of earnestness that makes you want to hand over a Valium.

Reagan's deft touch, his sense of humor and natural timing protected him from condemnation when he said far more inflammatory things than Dean has thought of.

Dean's problem, alas, may be the Democratic Party's problem in general. When you take yourself too seriously, no one else will.