The Trouble with Howie


We find ourselves on the eroding down slope of empire. The titans have fallen. We are now ruled by minor princelings: Al Gore, George W. Bush, John Forbes Kerry, Howard Dean. These are the days of the dauphins.

A republic in name, we now rigidly follow the laws of political primogeniture. The slushy predictability of our current politics may well be our unraveling. The world awaits a change in fortune, betting on the collapse of the behemoth.

If this arthritic republic falls, it will crumble from within, like so many other over-extended empires of old. The cracks are already showing up, unmaskable fissures in the foundations. The signs are abundant everywhere for those who still know how to read: In our phony politics, in our outsourced economy, in our looted and poisoned environment, in our corporatized culture that offers us bikini-clad women eating worms for entertainment, in our rotting schools, our burgeoning prison industry, our turnstile hospitals, our irredeemable racism, our executioners’ gibbets where the most gruesome of political rituals are still played out in hiding. We are anxious to shed blood, but we can’t stand to see it flow. Yet another birthmark of our perverted puritanism.

Scott Fitzgerald, our most prescient writer, foretold it all in the novel he wanted to title Under the Red White and Blue. The great wheel of fortune has come full swing. The promise of the republic, the green light that lured so many to these forested shores, has been squandered. Worse: pilfered. The financial aristocrats, Jefferson and Franklin warned us against at the very birth of this nation, are more powerful than they have ever been. Jay Gould is a petty crook compared to the likes of Ken Lay and Dick Cheney. The rich are different. They crack things up and not only get away with it, but are glamorized and idolized for the damage they’ve done and the billions they’ve looted. We worship the beasts that devour us. The rest of us are left to scavenge the rubble and our politics offer us false choices and few true champions.

Where is the resistance to this ruination?

Don’t look to the powerbrokers of the Democratic Party. These days the creaky curators of the American left paint its opponents as maniacal demons. Hitler is the reflexive metaphor for any Republican. All the corroded left seems to know is the politics of hysteria. The purpose of this ritualized threat inflation is to make the pallid offerings of the Democratic Party seem credible. But Bush is not a fanged creature out of Bosch. He is stupid and dull, a banal frat boy, more Arendt’s Eichmann than Hitler. In the frank assessment of his former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, the President is blind, apathetic and mute. Just a hearing aid shy of being our political version of Tommy, minus the power chords. He doesn’t or can’t read the morning papers or briefing books. Condi Rice, the gorgon of the NSC, spoon feeds him what she feels he needs to know in small portions that can be easily regurgitated. The real work is done by the coterie of neo-cons that swirl round him: Cheney, Rummy, Rove, Wolfowitz and Card. In medieval times the cretinous sons of the elites were sent packing to the priesthood. These days they run for president and everyone prays for the best.

So now we are presented with Howard Dean, the latest incarnation of a maverick progressive. He is, of course, neither. But you can’t mention that in mixed company. The image of Dean the pugilistic populist has already been manufactured and implanted into the popular consciousness. And everyone plays along, from the press to Dean’s fellow Democrats, who yelp that he is a dangerous outsider bent on smashing the delicate balance of the Clinton years. Even Karl Rove slithers across the screen hissing homilies about the authentic Dean.

To point out the obvious is to risk ridicule. And ours is a society that fears ridicule as a mortal sin. But Howard Dean is not as billed, by his supporters or his detractors. The big trouble with Howard is that beneath the frothy veneer he’s pretty much just like all the rest. Only shorter.

A review of Howard Dean’s career doesn’t reveal a resume of unparalleled mendacity, although Dean is a gifted liar and craven politician untroubled by matters of conscience even when it means betraying friends and allies. No. The fragrance here is something worse. The smell of rot.

Dean is shown to be a run-of-the- mill and mundane governor out of the Democratic mainstream. Beneath the layers of greasepaint, the Dean Minstrelsy Show is a political re-run underwritten by the same old sponsors. Not of George McGovern, god forbid, but of the same neo-liberal troupe that has cloned Gore, Lieberman, Kerry & Kerrey, Edwards, Breaux, Dodd and the Clintons. Of course, Bill Clinton was freighted with a tragic flaw, which at least made his tenure somewhat, if not redeemable, at least diverting, though the play went on much too long. Clinton could be hated. Dean, even in angry man mode, evokes only a dull throbbing of the cortex. This is what entropy feels like.

He is sour and surly; grouchy and privileged. Dean is the Democrats Bob Dole, sans the flinty Kansan’s sense of humor, war record and Viagra-fortified erections. Howard Dean seems about as erotically-charged as Nixon.

Dean is a Yanqui, in the oldest and most disreputable sense of the term–a true scion of Wall Street and old money. It’s one reason is was able to raise so much cash, so quickly on the Internet. He’s the of presidential candidates: a lot of money poured in early for insubstantial returns.

Dean ascended to power in the most self-consciously progressive state in the republic. A word or two about Vermont. I live in Oregon. Vermont could be our little sister state–only more homogenous and more uptight. It is blindingly white, wealthy and snugly cocooned from the fractious rhythms of the republic. Ralph Nader could be elected governor in the Green Mountain state. But Howard Dean is no Ralph Nader. Therein lies part of the truth about Dr. Dean.

* * *

Howard Dean was raised on Park Avenue, as the son of a Wall Street executive at the Dean/Witter securities firm (though, no, his father was not the “Dean” in the firm’s name). As a youth, Dean spent his summers in East Hampton and went to elite private academies, including a stint at a boarding school in England. In 1967, Dean entered Yale. By all accounts, his tenure there was as unremarkable as that of George W. Bush. Unlike, say, Al Gore, then plotting the trajectory of his political career with Martin Peretz at Harvard, neither Dean nor Bush seem to have been particularly ambitious collegians.

Even at Yale in the late 60s Dean was cautious, vaguely anti-war and pro civil rights. But he refused to align himself with an particular movements on campus, saying that he “instinctively distrusted ideologues.” More like, he knew that any kind of radical association might impede the business career he was planning to pursue.

After Yale, Dean joined his father on Wall Street. He tried his hand at stock trading for a couple of years, made a bundle, got bored and then went to medical school. Dean graduated from Albert Einstein Medical School in 1978 and fled to Vermont to undertake his residency. There he met his future wife, Judith Steinberg. They soon married and opened a medical practice together in Shelburne, Vermont.

Soon Dean grew bored with medicine and began to dabble in politics. In 1982, he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. By all accounts, it was a tenure undistinguished by any major accomplishment. Yet, four years later he ran for the position of lieutenant governor and won. He was elected to three consecutive terms of this largely ceremonial position. Then fate intervened. On August 14, 1991, Vermont’s governor, Robert Snelling, was felled by a fatal heart attack. Dean sped to Montpelier upon hearing the news and later that day he was sworn in as the new governor.

Dean’s first major initiative as governor set the tone. The Vermont economy had been hobbled by recession and Democrats in the state legislature were pushing a modest tax increase for social programs. The tax increase seem ready to pass, then Dean intervened, siding with Republicans. Instead of raising taxes, Dean lowered them. It was a sign of things to come.

* * *

Dean governed Vermont from the middle right. He fetishized balance budgets, achieving the holy balance on the backs of the needy and the powerless. He pandered to the police, backing draconian drug laws and even lending support to the death penalty. He sided with Monsanto against environmentalists, organic farmers and consumers. He trumpeted his own welfare reform plan that was as miserly as anything put forward by Tommy Thompson. A friend of nuclear power, Dean conspired with New England’s other nuclear governors to unload the region’s radioactive waste on a small and impoverished Hispanic town in west Texas called Sierra Blanca. And on and on.

Early in his campaign, his own mother ridiculed his presidential aspirations as “preposterous.” Like George W., Dean was never his mother’s favorite child, which may explain his tendency to throw political tantrums. These are the guys you really have to watch like a hawk.

After Dean vaulted to the front of a lethargic and uninspiring pack of competitors, he began making mistakes. It’s so much easier to lope along as the underdog. Dean deadened much of his rustic appeal when he began to court the endorsements of party insiders, and losers at that: Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, Bill Bradley, Tom Harkin.

Then he famously solicited the votes of working class southern rednecks, but he offered them nothing except a kind of thinly-coded race-baiting. Dean lacks even the most basic rhetorical lingo to address the traumatic economic dislocations of the Bush/Clinton/Bush era. His economic agenda is scavenged from the wreckage of Tsongas and Bradley, offering only a kind of stern Yankee paternalism.

Aside from the Iraq war, the Dean schema is fetchingly elitist, gliding silently over the battered preterite of American society. Instead, Dean pushes policies sharply attuned to the appeasement of middle class anxieties, the nervy triangulated center. Hence the familiar concern about crime, drugs, health care costs (as opposed to universal care), education, budget deficits. But with Dean the articulation of these centrist obsessions comes out sounding brittle and vaguely threatening. Clintonism shorn of empathy.

It’s doubt that many of Dean’s former patients lament the fact that he abandoned his medical pratice for politics. He has a stern bedside manner. This is a man, unlike Clinton, who displays little compassion for those in pain. Take medical pot. Despite Dean’s confession of youthful enounters with the divine weed, the doctor opposes giving cancer and AIDS patients the right to smoke marijuana to ease their suffering. His health care plan is almost as miserly, a brand of Hillary-lite.

* * *

Then came Iowa. The more exposure Dean got, the less substance there was to his campaign. He made his mark by opposing the Iraq war (although he supported the remote-control bombing of Aghanistan), but supports the even bloodier occupation. He hawks his plan to balance the budget, but swears that the Pentagon’s share will be sacrosanct. He claimed to be the “most conservative” of the Democrats when it came to economic policy and he was right.

First Dean lost the caucuses; then he lost his mind. I’m not talking about his Dexedrine-infused outburst following his defeat in the caucuses, an election that is rigged by party bigwigs to tilt toward establishment favorites like Kerry and Edwards.

After Iowa, the DNC powerbrokers snickered at the antics of Dizzy Dean. The Dean threat was never ideological. He is a pure neo-liberal. It came from the fact that he didn’t owe the Clinton establishment anything. He raised his own money from the mysterious precincts of the virtual world. He was intemperate, perhaps ungovernable.

Soon the carrion birds were circling, stripping plank after plank of his campaign themes as if he were the corpse of Marsyas. The problem for Kerry and Clark and Edwards is that they are manufactured candidates, as processed as a Monsanto soybean. The vitality of Dean’s campaign pulsed from its very unpredictability. He is an eccentric centrist, given to unscripted outbursts like a Prozac taker gone off his meds.

The plantation masters of the party fear nothing more than unpredictability. That’s one reason why they were so desperate to, as one senior Democratic congressman put it, “McGovern” him.

Yet, the election and its aftermath proved Dean to be a hollow man. Aside from Joe Trippi’s innovative campaign strategy and Dean’s hammering of Bush on the Iraq war, he did not have much to offer. Dean didn’t know how to speak to working people, had little to say to greens and insulted blacks. He wasn’t all that angry and he didn’t know how to fight. Finally, he even surrendered his own signature issue, admitting that the war wasn’t really a paramount concern to Democratic voters. Sad, but true.

Then there was the pitiful spectacle of Dean dragging his wife, Judith, across the snowy cornfields and in the television studios. You could see how uncomfortable she was at each venue. There was a look of disgust on her face as she was pigeonholed into the role of dutiful wife by her own desperate husband and hypocritical news celebrities like the disgusting Dianne Sawyer Nichols, who had a dalliance with Henry Kissinger when she was a debutante in the Nixon White House. Dean lost the election (and his credibility) right there.

Then it went straight downhill. Rarely has a frontrunning campaign, freighted with cash and an army of devoted volunteers, capsized so suddenly with so little provocation and not even the whiff of scandal. The dull demise of Howard Dean makes one long for the salacious pleasures of Gary Hart, Donna Rice and the Monkey Business.

Instead of running against the party bosses who sabotaged his campaign and held his wife up to public obloquy, Dean fired his maverick campaign manager and recruited an arch insider, Roy Neel, to man the helm. Neel is a telecom lobbyist who exploited his cachet with the Clinton White House to maneuver the atrocious Telecommunications Act through congress in 1996, one of the greatest corporate giveaways of the Clinton/Gore era. Neel is the same Beltway savant who advised Gore not to strenuously contest the fraudulent results of the 2000 election, leading some to speculate that Neel’s real function in the Dean camp is to keep the doctor from skewering the party establishment.

Of course, Howard Dean may still win the nomination and the White House. In the course of one week, he betrayed his grassroots backers, humiliated his wife, and surrendered the detritus of his campaign to Beltway puppetmasters. Perhaps now Dean really is presidential material.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, just published by Common Courage Press.

This essay is the forward to Sound and Fury: the Politics of Howard Dean by Josh Frank, forthcoming from Common Courage Press.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3