The Media’s Favorite Long Shot for President

By: Allan Wolper and Joanna Wolper

Howard Dean is having a fine political time. The national press has anointed him the Freshest Fresh Face of the Democratic Party. He is the Cinderella it loves to discover and elevate every presidential cycle. No longer is he Howard Who? He’s the Burlington, Vt., physician who was elected governor five times and cured government ills in a clean, green state whose most visible image is a Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream cone. He’s a politician who tells journalists what he thinks of them — and gets what he wants.

Dean, who left office in January, says he even changed the way The New York Times routinely refers to him. “I was Gov. Dean and Dr. Dean everywhere except in the Times,” he says in a recent cell-phone interview from New Hampshire, the first presidential-primary state. “I asked them how come they referred to House Speaker Bill Frist [like Dean, a physician] as Dr. Frist and they kept calling me Mr.”

Soon afterward, Mr. Dean became Dr. Dean. But Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the Times, tells the story differently. “We have a stylebook rule and asked him what his preference was,” Nagourney explains. “And he said he wanted to be called Dr. Dean.”

Vermont reporters knew long ago that Dean reads everything written about him, keeps his cell phone at the ready to complain to editorial writers who cross him, and duels with reporters at news conferences. Still, none of them complains because they love how accessible he is.

Call it the “John McCain Syndrome.” When Bill Clinton ran for president, the Arkansas press corps had a file full of scandalous allegations for the national media to examine. There may be nothing to look at in Vermont because reporters in the state say there is nothing to find.

Dean was the Democrat whom Vermont Republicans respected because he cut taxes and balanced the budget. Liberal Democrats tolerated him because he pushed through a health plan covering 91% of the state’s children and signed a civil-union bill that gave gays and lesbians the same rights as married couples.

As governor, he was a straight talker who would comment on anything. If you missed him, you could call him at home. He was listed in the telephone directory — and still is.

He got his adoring national press, in part, because he launched his presidential drive last year while the Beltway Senators sat on their press releases. He kept that media spotlight on himself by attacking President Bush’s income-tax and education plans — and then the war in Iraq. The political journalists in the early primary states he visited didn’t make him accountable for anything because they weren’t convinced he would get anywhere.

Last summer, we sat down with Dean in the Statehouse in Montpelier for a 30-minute interview that wound up lasting 90 minutes. But, these days, to get to Dean — now heralded or derided as The Antiwar Candidate — you often have to squeeze past a phalanx of reporters and TV cameras.

The domestic issues that first caught the media’s attention are largely forgotten for the moment. Now Dean’s attacking fellow Democratic presidential contenders — U.S. Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, as well as Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri — for voting for the resolution that gave Bush the authority to depose Saddam Hussein. And Dean, drawing on support from antiwar activists, has caught Kerry and passed Lieberman in the polls in New Hampshire.

But now, inevitably, the press honeymoon is over. When Dean began his campaign, he would be asked to comment on the issue of the day and reporters would dutifully record his responses. “Now that his popularity is on the rise, he is inviting a higher level of scrutiny,” says Tom Beaumont, a political reporter for The Des Moines Register in the early caucus state of Iowa.

Dean claims he was prepared for, and relieved, when the news media began to turn on him. He sees it as a signal that he finally is being taken seriously as a presidential candidate. “It’s a real campaign now,” he tells us from New Hampshire. “The questions are much tougher. It’s a more aggressive environment. The other candidates are even getting reporters to ask me questions. It means we are making them nervous.”

Bagged by the media

Dean’s house calls in the spring of last year through key states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina somehow managed to catch the attention of the mainline journalists at The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and The American Prospect — all seemingly in a race to discover him.

Still, as Dean drove through Iowa last summer with The Washington Post‘s David S. Broder, the candidate fretted that the article set to be published in the Times Magazine might wind up as a cover story and cost him his standing as loveable underdog. “When the Times called and I found out I wasn’t on the cover, I started laughing,” Dean recalls. “Dave wanted to know what was going on. I told him I’m the only candidate you’ll ever meet who was relieved he was not on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.”

Dean explains why. “It’s the expectation game,” he tells us. “The press builds you up, and then they cut you down right at the knees. It happens to everyone. And it will happen to me.”

He needn’t have worried. The Times Magazine never considered him for anything more than the one-page Q-and-A it eventually published. “We wanted to do a piece on the least-known guy in the race,” explains Megan Liberman, a Times Magazine editor. “And he was the dark, dark, darkest horse of all of them.”

David Wallis, the writer who interviewed Dean for the Times Magazine, says the ex-governor reminds him of Sen. McCain, R-Ariz. “He is as close as you come to a McCain figure,” says Wallis. “The perception is that he is a maverick. But he is more careful than McCain.”

Yet the McCain comparison may only go so far. The Post‘s Broder told us that “Sen. McCain has a more compelling story than Gov. Dean,” a story that includes five years spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Still, all that early copy produced results. Tim Russert, moderator of Meet the Press and Washington bureau chief of NBC News, noticed Dean’s standing in the elite press and invited him on his program. It was Dean’s first test on a Sunday talk-show stage, and Russert says he handled it well. “He was very critical and candid about Bush’s tax cut at a time when many Democrats were not,” says Russert. “He was forthcoming when many politicians try to avoid answering questions.”

It was an important lift for Dean’s Montpelier-based campaign, which until Labor Day was headquartered in two tiny rooms, cooled by an air conditioner and a small fan, above the office of an osteopath. “We got more than 500 e-mails from people who saw the governor,” says Abigail Trebilcock, a University of Vermont intern who handled the phones and ran the office.

Still, Dean was far from a household name. In January, Zip, a character in the “Doonesbury” comic strip, decided to sign on to Dean’s campaign because he was so politically invisible no one knew he was running for president. Of course, when you appear in “Doonesbury,” you are no longer truly obscure.

As it turns out, Dean and Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury,” are longtime friends. They both went to Yale University. “We met at summer camp when we were 13,” Trudeau says via e-mail.

Dean had dinner with Trudeau on one of his campaign trips to New York. “I hadn’t seen him in 20 years,” Dean laughs. “I didn’t even know he was going to do that strip.” When we ask Trudeau for an interview, he tells us that he couldn’t comment because he planned to write about Dean himself.

Getting the dirt

As campaigns intensify, national correspondents scour the home states of the candidates — interviewing the reporters who know them so well.

The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald monitor every phase of John Kerry’s life. For example, the Globe disclosed this year that Kerry’s grandparents on one side were Jewish and named Kohn. Those stories forced the senator to explain why he let the public believe he was Irish — a decided electoral advantage in Massachusetts.

Similarly, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., has recorded every important moment in John Edwards’ career and The Hartford (Conn.) Courant is the best source on Joseph Lieberman.

When the correspondents go to Vermont, they’ll get a notebook full of stories about a smart, secretive, self-righteous, imperial politician with a temper.

“He would just get furious at me,” says Candace Page, a political reporter at The Burlington Free Press who felt Dean’s wrath when she ran its editorial page. “He would just keep calling my boss.”

One of the national media’s favorite sources in Vermont is Tracy Schmaler, Statehouse bureau chief for The Times Argus in Barre and the Rutland Herald. Schmaler is someone who loves to dig, and Dean admits she has gotten under his skin with stories and questions at press conferences.

“He can be very provocative,” says Schmaler. “It’s intellectually challenging for him to have a regular go-around with the media. If you get something wrong, he has no problem saying it. In fact, he’ll say it in front of the whole press corps.” But Schmaler, dig as she might, has not come up with any Statehouse smoking gun that could scar Dean’s run for the White House. “He’s pretty clean,” she says.

But Dean behaves like Vice President Dick Cheney when it comes to sharing the goings-on in his office. He invoked executive privilege when Vermont reporters asked him to include his presidential-campaign trips on his daily schedule. At one point, Ross Sneyd of The Associated Press reported Dean had been out of the state for 63 of the first 128 days of last year. So The Times Argus, the Rutland Herald, and Seven Days, an alternative weekly, filed a lawsuit to force Dean to tell them where he was going.

“It wasn’t only about my presidential trips,” Dean tells us. “They wanted me to identify the union leaders and corporate leaders I was meeting with. I wasn’t about to give them that. No one would meet with me if I did. At one point, they were arguing that if I went to watch my son play hockey, that should be on the schedule. But I didn’t mind the suit. The press properly gets really crazy about anything they can’t get their hands on.”

David Moats, editorial-page editor of the Rutland Herald (and winner of a 2001 Pulitzer Prize), says Dean was being disingenuous. “He said he needed to keep his presidential trips private because of security reasons from 9/11,” Moats recalls. “That really was so far-fetched.”

The state Supreme Court finally ruled Nov. 1 that Dean had to make his presidential trips public. By that time, he was posting his political schedule.

Dean may have problems when national reporters find out why he decided to keep his government records sealed for 10 years, until 2013, rather than the six years negotiated by two other governors. “Well, there are future political considerations,” Dean told Vermont Public Radio. “We didn’t want anything embarrassing appearing in the papers at a critical time in any future endeavor.” If Dean had followed Vermont precedent, his state papers would be unsealed in 2009 — the start of a possible second term in the White House. That political fast-shuffle will only lead reporters, urged on by Dean’s opponents, to demand that he open his files.

Dean insists the great majority of his papers could be acquired via freedom-of-information requests — almost guaranteeing a court case. “There are all kinds of letters in there that are private,” he says. “I don’t even know what is in a lot of those records. Every governor seals them.”

It is Dean’s quick lips more than anything else that get him into trouble. Consider this Dean comment on Jan. 22, 1993, about mothers on welfare: “Those recipients don’t have any esteem. If they did, they would be working.”

After the predictable uproar, he apologized. Reporters say that’s typical Dean: Utter something off the wall, and then say you are sorry the next day. They wonder if he might be done in by the 24-hour-cable-news cycle that rarely gives candidates a second chance.

But it is Dean’s signing of the civil-union bill that may have an even bigger impact on his future in presidential politics. It will play well among liberal, activist Democrats in some primaries, but it will be a tough issue in conservative states.

Chasing Jimmy

It’s Iowa or bust. Dean knows that, and he has courted the Corn State with a passion not seen there since 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer-governor from Georgia, used Iowa’s raucous caucus system as a launching pad to lift his profile and win the presidency.

Dean has been running so hard and so long in Iowa that local reporters are making jokes about it. “He’s been here so much, he qualifies for in-state tuition,” says Kathy Obradovich, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises Inc. “But his candidacy is not a joke.”

Sometimes, though, it has been. Last fall, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, at a major political dinner, misidentified the frequent visitor from Vermont as “John Dean” (of Watergate infamy). “People who were seated around the governor said they saw steam rising,” says O. Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.

Getting known is what drove Dean to make 23 trips to Iowa by mid-March — not remotely close to Carter’s record of 110 but enough to get the attention of AP, one of the most important newsrooms in the state. “Dean spent a lot of time doing retail politicking,” says Mike Glover, an AP Statehouse reporter. “He was campaigning when the political press was ready to write and no one else was ready to run.”

Glover’s pieces were distributed on the regional wire as a rule and often made the national desk — giving Dean the kind of free press candidates kill for. Those wire stories appear in the smaller papers and influence their coverage.

Ed Tibbetts, a political reporter for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, took note of the small-town route that Dean took to connect with voters. “I live six blocks from The Rusty Nail [a local restaurant]. I’ll bet Dean knows the menu better than I do,” says Tibbetts.

“The key to winning in Iowa is making sure that you have enough people working for you who can get out the vote,” says David Yepsen, a legendary columnist for The Des Moines Register. The antiwar faction that Dean has cultivated in Iowa has been very active in the early run-up to the caucus — scheduled for next Jan. 19. However, Iraq as an issue depends on the length of the war and its impact on the economy.

Meanwhile, Democrats are telling reporters it will be difficult to duplicate Carter’s successful cash-poor campaign for the White House. “The primaries are front-loaded this time around,” explains Kandy Stroud, the former Women’s Wear Daily reporter whose book, How Jimmy Won, chronicled Carter’s campaign. “It’s not like 1976 when Carter won and you could take a breath.”

Wire aide

Conventional press wisdom is that a Vermont governor hemmed in on two sides by major candidates — Lieberman in Connecticut and Kerry in Massachusetts — won’t be able to raise enough money to win. But Dean is now a co-front-runner in New Hampshire, due to a confluence of events: the war and a late start by the Green Mountain press. That allowed Christopher Graff, AP bureau chief in Montpelier, working in an office above the Thrush Tavern across the street from Dean’s old Statehouse space, to become something of a presidential kingmaker.

His stories made their way to the AP regional wire that blankets New Hampshire — much as Glover’s did in Iowa. The reasons were the same. “He got attention because he was the only one out there,” says Graff. “And getting attention made him credible.”

The stories are also moneymakers. “Favorable press coverage is a form of fund raising,” says Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire. “One story gets three more: two of them about the candidate, and the third one about the first two. Then all of them are put in the fund-raising envelope.”

The wire stories helped conservative New Hampshire learn that the National Rifle Association loved Dean and that he would rather cut a program than raise taxes. “People all thought that because he was from Vermont he had to be a liberal,” says Kevin Landrigan, Statehouse reporter for The Telegraph in Nashua. “He is not easy to pigeonhole.”

That is a mixed blessing. Senate candidates are celebrities from Washington who are always in headlines or on TV. That sometimes breeds voter contempt. Dean-type long shots have an outsider’s aura. But voters worry whether the candidate is big enough to handle the political kingdom.

“Dean is attractive because he is an insurgent,” says John DiStaso, a reporter for The Union Leader in Manchester. “And he’s been here an awful lot, and he knows legislators. The question in his case is money.”

It is unclear whether the media money will flow to Vermont. “He has run the gauntlet and done well,” says Tad Smith, CEO of the Reed Business Information Media Group, which includes a number of media magazines. “I really liked him. And I can raise money for him. But I haven’t met the other candidates.”

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