Looking closely at Dean

Posted: Nov 13, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The endorsement of Howard Dean for president this week by two major labor unions instantly changed the atmosphere in Democratic ranks. The former governor of Vermont is no longer merely a plucky outsider tweaking the political establishment. More likely than anybody else, he will be nominated for president -- warts and all.

Those warts are talked about by Democratic activists, only after they stress that they cannot be quoted by name in criticizing their party's prospective leader. "The more I see of Howard Dean," a veteran Democratic operative told me, "the less I like him." Deficiency of likability is cited widely inside the party. He is accused of being a poor listener whose words make trouble for himself. Tough and determined though he is, he is stubborn, humorless and often inflexible.

Everybody now is taking a closer look at Dr. Dean. That includes his opponents for the nomination, desperate to stop what has the appearance of a runaway train. It also guarantees that George W. Bush's crack opposition research team will more intensely scrutinize Dean's accumulated mass of public statements. What's more, the news media is bound to dig into and masticate what looks like a political feast.

Morsels that can cause Dean political indigestion are often hidden inside statements that attracted little attention at the time. Last Jan. 21, along with five other announced presidential candidates, Dean was given four minutes to address the NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner. What was reported of his remarks was hardly newsworthy.

What was not reported was Dean's account of a 12-year-old pregnant girl he treated. "After I had talked to her for a while," he said, "I came to the conclusion that the likely father of her child was her own father." That led to Dean's heated promise that "I will veto parental notification," evoking stormy applause.

But as reported in Salon and USA Today weeks later, the father had not impregnated the girl, and Dean knew it. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Dean indicated that he had first thought the father was the guilty party and so parental notification was not appropriate. In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, opinion editor David Tell relates the incident in full and leaves no doubt that Dean misrepresented the situation in addressing the NARAL dinner.

Tell was one of the Republican Party's leading opposition research experts a decade ago before entering journalism and has no peer in digging out the dirt. But a peerless investigator was not needed to uncover Dean's Confederate flag gaffe.

Nobody paid much attention when Dean, addressing the Democratic National Committee in February, sought support of "white folks who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals." The doctor dodged that bullet but brought it up again Nov. 1, reminding everybody: "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." When Dean's opponents pounced on him at the Nov. 4 candidates' debate in Boston, he bristled. It took him until the next morning to back away from the Stars and Bars. One onlooker said Dean has the harsh bedside manner of a surgeon.

Just when it appeared that Dean's prickly behavior might do him in, the two labor union endorsements confirmed him as front-runner. Backing from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had been expected. But support from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was a devastating blow to Gephardt and Teamsters President James Hoffa.

Until the end, Gephardt had hoped AFSCME's Gerald McEntee would follow 20 other unions into his camp, leading to an AFL-CIO endorsement of the veteran congressman. In private conversation, however, McEntee has complained that Gephardt is not "electable." So much for a career of organized labor's most faithful supporter in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party.

AFSCME's organizational muscle in Iowa strengthens Dean's hand in winning the Jan. 19 caucuses there, which stand as a last barricade against his nomination. He would be perhaps the most peculiar nominee of a major party. To prevent that or take advantage of it, his torrent of words is being searched in the greatest detail.