Dean's holiday gaffes

Posted: Jan 01, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Steve Murphy, Rep. Richard Gephardt's campaign manager, this week professed to being baffled. How is it possible, he wondered, that Howard Dean's bizarre comments about Osama bin Laden attracted so little news media attention? The answer is that apart from being obscured by the holiday season, the Democratic presidential front-runner's words got lost in his own stream of unusual remarks.

Dean's post-Christmas comments that he could not suggest a penalty for the terrorist leader and author of the 9/11 catastrophe until he was judged guilty had no time to sink in before he began saying things that stunned his party's faithful. He sniped at Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe for not protecting him from the party's other candidates, and warned of his 1.5 million supporters defecting if any other Democrat is nominated for president.

Dean's holiday performance reflects the yearlong pattern by the former governor of Vermont. To characterize Dean's remarks as leftist tilt that can and will be corrected by a quick pivot to the center is a faulty diagnosis of the doctor's disease. James Carville this week summed up the Dean problem: "He seems to not appreciate the glory of the unspoken thought."

For Carville to make this comment on national television gets the attention of Democrats, including Dean and his campaign staff. Carville, making no pretense at objectivity, is a passionate partisan emotionally committed to George W. Bush's defeat. As architect of Bill Clinton's 1992 election victory, he is in demand for party functions nationwide and a vigorous fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Carville, neutral in the race for the presidential nomination, rarely speaks ill of a fellow Democrat. But he did on CNN's "Crossfire" Monday: "I'm scared to death that this guy just says anything. It feels like he's undergone some kind of a political lobotomy here."

Maria Echaveste, a Dean adviser who was President Clinton's deputy chief of staff, sat across the table from Carville looking like a deer caught in the headlights. "Not every candidate ends up being president from the day he walks out there," she said. "They mature. And this is what this man is doing." Off camera, she suggested Dean needs a little rest.

Being overworked is a poor excuse for Dean's holiday gaffes. They began last Friday when the Concord (N.H.) Monitor published an astonishing interview with Dean. After reiterating that capturing Saddam Hussein did not make America safer, he asserted in regard to Osama bin Laden that "we should do our best not to, in positions of executive power, not to prejudge jury trials." Dean usually will not budge from his bloopers, but his staff was so shaken by this that on Friday he tried backing away. He told the Associated Press he advocated the "death penalty" for bin Laden under "the rule of law."

Two days later in a Sunday meeting with reporters in Iowa, Dean was even more puzzling. Scolding McAuliffe for not protecting him from other candidates, he said: "If Ron Brown were the chairman, this wouldn't be happening." As DNC chairman in 1992, Brown did not lift a finger as other candidates savaged front-runner Bill Clinton.

In the same Sunday session, Dean warned that "if I don't win the nomination," his million and a half supporters are "certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician." Echaveste found it difficult to explain these outbursts.

Yet, the most disturbing of Dean's holiday gaffes came before Christmas. Answering a questionnaire from the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, asking his "closest living relative in the armed services," Dean listed his brother Charles -- actually neither alive nor ever a military veteran. He disappeared at age 23 in 1974 while visiting Laos as an anti-war civilian as part of a world tour, and his body was discovered last month.

I asked Maria Echaveste off camera Monday why the governor would make such a mistake. "That's an old story," she replied. While there is no statute of limitations on gaffes, this one appeared in print only Dec. 14. What bothers James Carville and other loyal Democrats about their prospective nominee is what this pattern portends for the future.