Refried Dean

It’s true that, on a purely biographical plane, Dean and Clinton have little in common. Clinton was a meritocrat who began life as a poor white kid in Arkansas with an alcoholic stepfather and ended it as the first Democrat to win a second term since Harry Truman. Dean is an East Coast brahmin with a privileged upbringing which he doesn’t even bother to attempt to minimize. His story starts in a tony Long Island suburb, and he writes frankly about his family of achievers and his time in prep school and then at Yale, where he loafed around as an unfocused student, conceding that he’s no Horatio Alger, but making up for his lack of childhood poverty by asserting that he was born thrifty. (You’ve probably already heard how cheap he is, and how he still wears a suit he bought at J.C. Penney for $125 in 1987.) We also find a few interesting personal revelations, such as his decision to become a teetotaler after getting married. (He hasn’t had a drink in 22 years.) By far the most compelling is Dean’s description of losing his brother, who was kidnapped and murdered by revolutionaries in Laos in 1974. Dean traveled to Laos in 2002 to visit the site where his brother’s body was thought to have been buried and worked with a bucket brigade that was excavating various sites looking for POW remains. He writes that the experience diffused his longtime anger at his brother, whom he realized had been seduced by a beautiful and beguiling country.

Yet it’s telling how much of the book consists of rebuttals of his critics, many of whom see Clinton as the only possible model for a presidential success in 2004. Dean goes out of his way to hype his college classes in international relations and his travels to 50 countries to shore up his foreign policy bona fides–an inoculation against George W. Bush’s executive experience, of course, but also a reminder that Clinton’s presidency raised the bar for Democratic candidates’ experience and interest in this area. To counter criticism that he can’t personally connect with black voters–one of Clinton’s great strengths–Dean protests, perhaps too much, “I had two African-American roommates my freshman year.”

Then there are Dean’s criticisms of his party, which bring to mind Ralph Nader’s and are often taken by Dean-watchers as a direct criticism of Clinton himself. “With a strategy of always moving to the center, always sounding like Republicans, Democrats have made it possible for George W. Bush to move so far to the right he’s become the most radical president in our lifetime,” Dean argues. “By being afraid to stand up to the Republicans and their radical agenda, the Democrats have actually empowered the radical right. We’ve voted for the Republican agenda half the time in the belief that this somehow allows us to straddle the place where the votes are. But I don’t think the voters want George W. Bush’s policies. I don’t think they want me-tooism, either.”

But once you’ve moved on to the second half of the book–which is almost pure policy paper–Dean’s critique of “me-tooism” begins to feel like a rhetorical sop to the liberal activists who have flocked to his campaign from the start. Here, one becomes reacquainted with the centrist positions that defined Dean’s governorship, from his fierce advocacy of balanced budgets to support for gun rights. The section which discusses how the Bush administration has shifted the tax load from wealth to labor is lifted straight from the playbook of Dean’s rival Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.)–a playbook largely written up by centrist policy experts affiliated with the DLC. (It’s also worth noting that Dean’s book makes no mention of an issue that has been of so much concern to his fellow physicians over this last year, medical malpractice reform. This is perhaps wise, given that Dean has of late been courting the doctors’ nemesis, trial lawyers, as a source of campaign funding.)

Judging from his book, Dean clearly loved being governor of Vermont, and the way he writes at length about his accomplishments there is reminiscent of Clinton’s long-winded and popular State of the Union addresses where he mentioned every possible program and achievement his administration had undertaken. Talking up a program he started to provide all state children with health insurance, Dean recalls the impact of the program in Bennington, where a school set up a dentist’s office that treated 57 eligible kids in its first month. Six kids who’d never been to a dentist before had to go to the emergency room to have rotten teeth pulled. “One sixth-grader later told his principal he never knew what it felt like not to be in pain,” he writes with what seems sincere distress.

Dean also comes off as surprisingly Clintonesque in talking about how much he likes to talk. He clearly relishes getting out of the office and yakking around the kitchen table all night long with constituents and voters on the campaign trail. It’s hard to imagine John Kerry doing the same–but meshing with voters was one of Clinton’s most magical qualities as a candidate and what made him beloved as a president. Dean’s book may not sway too many voters, but the enthusiasm it conveys for connecting with the American people feels genuine. That may be what truly makes him a force to be reckoned with in 2004.

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Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones, an advisory board member at the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. She was a Washington Monthly editor from 2000 to 2002.