By: Joe Strupp
When it comes to insider biographies of political heavyweights, why should the Michael Isikoffs and David Maranisses have all the fun? At the Rutland (Vt.) Herald and its sister paper, The Times-Argus of Montpelier, editors and reporters have collaborated on what they call the real backgrounder on Howard Dean — a new book titled Howard Dean: A Citizens Guide to the Man Who Would Be President, which hits bookstores Nov. 15.
And they ought to know. These papers, despite a combined circulation of less than 35,000, covered the leading Democratic presidential candidate for more than 11 years as governor, and the previous five years as lieutenant governor. During that time, editors say, they saw how he really responds to problems, concerns and political footballs — a far cry, they contend, from what many in the national press have presented.
“Dean is not especially a liberal,” said Dirk Van Susteren, editor of the papers’ Sunday magazine who also edited the book. “That is one of the biggest surprises.” Hamilton Davis, a veteran Vermont journalist and one of nine reporters who contributed chapters to the project, agreed. “Once you read this book, you will realize that what you think you know about him is not true,” he said. “My guess is the general public knows virtually nothing that is in this book.”
Irene Wielawski, a freelancer whose 20 years of newspaper experience include a stint at the Burlington Free Press, covered Dean’s childhood and college years. She writes that his outspoken, blunt personality came out early, citing an incident at Yale University. Dean was playing touch football and confronted a friend, an ROTC scholar, for taking a cheap shot at another player who was the son of outspoken, anti-war Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin. “Dean stopped the game and told his friend to knock it off, accusing him of taking the shot because he didn’t like the guy’s father,” she said. “He didn’t let his friendship get in the way of playing fair.”
Another background highlight in the book, described by veteran political reporter Jon Margolis, acknowledged Dean’s time at the 1980 Democratic National Convention as a Jimmy Carter delegate who also got along well with the rival, insurgent Edward M. Kennedy faction. “He said he voted with the Carter people during the day and partied with the Kennedy people at night,” Margolis recalled. “That showed his ability to get along with both sides.” Margolis credits Dean’s behavior at the convention for helping him to get the chairmanship of the Chittenden County Democratic Party later that year because “he could bring people together.”
Among other surprises readers may find is Dean’s record as a fiscal conservative who cut income taxes and kept spending so low that Vermont regularly produced surpluses through the late 1990s. He also had a mixed record on the environment, purchasing some 470,000 acres of open land during his tenure in order to protect it, but also spearheading several major developments despite their questionable effect on water and natural resources.
“His critics charge that his preference for the interests of large business over environmental protection sapped the vitality from the state’s regulatory apparatus,” Davis wrote in one of two chapters he penned for the book. “The result, they say, was unwise large-scale development and degraded water quality.”
Other chapters detail his pragmatic style on touchy state issues included his push for same-sex civil unions, expanded government health care coverage and a school financing overhaul.
In one case, after signing the controversial same-sex union bill in 2000, Dean embarked on a statewide tour, asking organizers at backyard stops to invite citizens who were angry at what he had just done. After allowing them to vent their opposition, Dean explained why he had signed the bill, mentioning that part of the reason was a reaction to recent court rulings that required equal protection for gays and lesbians. “The truth be told, they very likely saved Howard Dean’s political skin,” the book stated in a chapter on campaigning by David Gram, a longtime Associated Press reporter based in Montpelier. “He went on to win the election of 2000 by the barest of margins.”
The idea for the book came out of a brainstorming session last May, said Van Susteren, brother of FOX News personality Greta Van Susteren. “We had a meeting involving a lot of people from different departments about revenue sources,” he recalled. “Books was on the list and Howard Dean’s name popped up. We jumped on it and explored it, but at the time Dean wasn’t doing that well.”
When Dean’s fundraising and poll numbers began to climb in July, editors revisited the idea and decided to go ahead with it. They chose reporters with extensive Vermont political backgrounds, although only one — Darren Allen — still works for either paper. Each took a different issue and wrote separate chapters without seeing what other writers had done. “I was astounded at how thematically the same things cropped up,” Wielawski said after reading the finished product. “He’s blunt, he’s decisive, he’s action-oriented and he’s extremely pragmatic.”
The book is being published by Steerforth Press of South Royalton, Vt., which gave the paper an undisclosed advance after striking a deal for the book on Aug. 1. The reporting and writing was completed just two months later. “What motivated all of us was the challenge — to tell the country who Howard Dean is,” Van Susteren said. “I think what you see is what you get with him — that is it.”