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Dean's Remarks Give Rivals Talking Points:
His Readiness to Lead is Questioned

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Finer

Washington Post

Thursday, December 18, 2003; Page A01

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Howard Dean's penchant for flippant and sometimes false statements is generating increased criticism from his Democratic presidential rivals and raising new questions about his ability to emerge as a nominee who can withstand intense, sustained scrutiny and defeat President Bush.

Dean, for instance, recently spoke of a "most interesting theory" that Saudi Arabia had "warned" Bush about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although Dean said he does not believe Bush was tipped off about the assaults that killed nearly 3,000, he has made no apologies for raising the rumor.

"How is what I did different from what Dick Cheney or George Bush . . . did during the time of the buildup of the invasion of Iraq?" the former Vermont governor said Tuesday night aboard his campaign plane. "There were all these theories that they mentioned. Many of them turned out not to be true. The difference is that I acknowledged that I did not believe the theory I was putting out."

Bush this week called the theory an "absurd insinuation."

Dean's remarks, his critics say, are in keeping with his history of making statements that are mean-spirited or misleading. He has distorted his past support for raising the retirement age for Social Security and slowing Medicare's growth. He has falsely said he was the only Democratic presidential candidate talking about race before white audiences. And he made allegations -- some during his years as governor -- that turned out to be untrue.

After saying at his last gubernatorial news conference that he was sealing his official records to avoid political embarrassment, Dean now says he was joking and is not sure what is in the files.

When Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) unveiled his health care plan in April, Dean, through his campaign, belittled the lawmaker's record on the subject. Dean later walked away from the statement, saying it did not reflect his views. But this fall, in debates and TV ads, Dean has resurrected the criticism, accusing his congressional rivals, including Gephardt, of producing only rhetoric on health care in comparison to his record in Vermont.

In recent days, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Dean lacks the "credibility" to be president and accused him of misleading voters about past remarks on Iraq. One example cited by Kerry's campaign: Dean recently said, "I never said Saddam was a danger to the United States. Ever." But in September 2002, Dean told CBS's "Face the Nation": "There is no question that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States. The question is: Is he an immediate threat?"

With polls suggesting Dean is pulling away from his rivals, they are stepping up their criticisms on several fronts, including foreign policy, government experience and credibility. Dean spokesman Jay Carson, asked about the challenges to his boss's veracity, said Wednesday: "That's all they do now: attack Howard Dean."

Last week, after Dean denied providing a tax break as governor that benefited Enron Corp. -- which a published report showed he did -- Gephardt said: "Once again, Howard Dean refuses to admit the truth. You can't beat George W. Bush if you can't tell the truth about your own record."

Tricia Enright, a Dean spokeswoman, called the quarrel a difference of "interpretation." Dean, she said, restructured the Vermont tax code for scores of companies and did not provide a specific break to Enron.

To be sure, plenty of presidential candidates have bent facts and stretched figures to sharpen a point or blunt criticism. And interviews this year suggest that many voters give Dean high marks for speaking his mind.

"To a great extent, the public does not give a damn" about the claims against Dean, said former representative Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of Al Gore's 2000 campaign. Voters want straight-talking leaders, he said, and former governors such as Dean have "a tendency to say what they think without having everything checked out before they do things."

On Tuesday, when several rivals criticized him for saying America is not safer after Hussein's capture, Dean did not back away. "You know me; if I think something's true, I say it," he told reporters. But critics note he sometimes says things that are not true.

In January, Dean told an abortion rights audience about a young patient he believed had been impregnated by her father. He was explaining why he opposes parental notification requirements for girls and young women seeking an abortion. But Dean later told Jake Tapper of that he learned several years ago that "her father was not the father of her child; it was more complicated than that."

Carson said Wednesday that Dean's January anecdote "wasn't misleading at all. The story illustrates the downside of [mandatory] parental notification, and is an example from the life experience of the governor."

Some of Dean's opponents in his gubernatorial campaigns say he was prone to misleading statements then.

In a 1998 debate, Dean and GOP candidate Ruth Dwyer argued over new regulations for large farms in Vermont. Dwyer told of Bristol farmer Bob Hill, who struggled to build a barn for his 600 cows while complying with the state's strict permit requirements.

The next day, Dean told the Associated Press he had "done a little research on that farmer. He's in violation of the natural resource conservation service laws." Dean later acknowledged he was wrong and apologized to Hill.

Several Vermont legislators from both parties who served while Dean was governor said they rarely found cause to question his honesty and chalked up his controversial comments to misspeaking. "He could be trusted and knew better than to lie to us," said Cheryl Rivers, a former Democratic state senator who sometimes clashed with Dean. "Yes, he would shoot from the hip, but it was not deliberate or malicious."

But lately, as he courts liberal Democrats nationwide, Dean has distorted portions of his record as governor, when he was generally considered a centrist. He has repeatedly denied siding with Republicans such as then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1995 in calling for slowing Medicare's annual growth from 10 percent to 7 percent, even though he told a Vermont newspaper he "fully subscribed" to the idea.

Vermont Abenaki Indian leaders said they were outraged last month to see Dean onstage at a Native American conference in Albuquerque. For more than a decade, they said, his administration vigorously opposed their quest for state and federal recognition, contending the Indians might make land claims and bring casinos to Vermont.

Dean drew raucous applause from his New Mexico audience when he endorsed the benefits of tribal gambling establishments. "Needless to say, to hear him say onstage in Albuquerque that he was in favor of gaming for federally recognized tribes came as a big shock to a lot of people in Vermont," said Jeff Benay, a Dean appointee who heads the Vermont Governor's Advisory Council on Indian Affairs and who has advised Dean's campaign.

Carson, responding Wednesday to the Abenaki issue, said: "It would be inappropriate for the state to recognize them before the federal government does."

The dust-up over the Saudi question began Dec. 1, on WAMU-FM's nationally syndicated "Diane Rehm Show," when Dean was asked why Bush was suppressing information from a commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The most interesting theory that I've heard so far -- which is nothing more than a theory, it can't be proved -- is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis," Dean replied. "Now who knows what the real situation is? But the trouble is by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kinds of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not, and they get repeated as fact."

When asked a few days later on Fox News why he said it, Dean said, "because there are people who believe it. . . . I don't believe it . . . but it would be nice to know." A campaign aide said Dean heard the rumor from various people on the campaign trail.

Staff writer Dan Balz and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

moment of illumination about Howard Dean came one day in Iowa when I saw him lean into a crowd and begin a sentence with, "Us rural people. . . ."

Dean grew up on Park Avenue and in East Hampton. If he's a rural person, I'm the Queen of Sheba. Yet he said it with conviction. He said it uninhibited by any fear that someone might laugh at or contradict him.

It was then that I saw how Dean had liberated himself from his past, liberated himself from his record and liberated himself from the restraints that bind conventional politicians. He has freed himself to say anything, to be anybody.

Other candidates run on their biographies or their records. They keep policy staff from their former lives, and they try to keep their policy positions reasonably consistent.

But Dean runs less on biography than any other candidate in recent years. When he began running for president, he left his past behind, along with the encumbrances that go with it. As governor of Vermont, he was a centrist Democrat. But the new Dean who appeared on the campaign trail a jarring sight for the Vermonters who knew his previous self is an angry maverick.

The old Dean was a free trader. The new Dean is not. The old Dean was open to Medicare reform. The new Dean says Medicare is off the table. The old Dean courted the N.R.A.; the new Dean has swung in favor of gun control. The old Dean was a pro-business fiscal moderate; the new Dean, sounding like Ralph Nader, declares, "We've allowed our lives to become slaves to the bottom line of multinational corporations all over the world."

The philosopher George Santayana once observed that Americans don't bother to refute ideas they just leave them behind. Dean shed his upper-crust WASP self, then his centrist governor self, bursting onto the national scene as a mysterious stranger who comes out of nowhere to battle corruption.

The newly liberated Dean is uninhibited. A normal person with no defense policy experience would not have the chutzpah to say, "Mr. President, if you'll pardon me, I'll teach you a little about defense." But Dean says it. A normal person, with an eye to past or future relationships, wouldn't compare Congress to "a bunch of cockroaches." Dean did it.

The newly liberated Dean doesn't worry about having a coherent political philosophy. There is a parlor game among Washington pundits called How Liberal Is Howard Dean? One group pores over his speeches, picks out the things no liberal could say and argues that he's actually a centrist. Another group picks out the things no centrist could say and argues that he's quite liberal.

But the liberated Dean is beyond categories like liberal and centrist because he is beyond coherence. He'll make a string of outspoken comments over a period of weeks on "re-regulating" the economy or gay marriage but none of them have any relation to the others. When you actually try to pin him down on a policy, you often find there is nothing there.

For example, asked how we should proceed in Iraq, he says hawkishly, "We can't pull out responsibly." Then on another occasion he says dovishly, "Our troops need to come home," and explains, fantastically, that we need to recruit 110,000 foreign troops to take the place of our reserves. Then he says we should not be spending billions more dollars there. Then he says again that we have to stay and finish the job.

At each moment, he appears outspoken, blunt and honest. But over time he is incoherent and contradictory.

He is, in short, a man unrooted. This gives him an amazing freshness and an exhilarating freedom.

Everybody talks about how the Internet has been key to his fund-raising and organization. Nobody talks about how it has shaped his persona. On the Internet, the long term doesn't matter, as long as you are blunt and forceful at that moment. On the Internet, a new persona is just a click away. On the Internet, everyone is loosely tethered, careless and free. Dean is the Internet man, a string of exhilarating moments and daring accusations.

The only problem is that us rural folk distrust people who reinvent themselves. Many of us rural folk are nervous about putting the power of the presidency in the hands of a man who could be anyone. 

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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