A Crosstown Walk Down Memory Lane With Howard Dean

It’s not too soon to pick your horse in the 2004 election derby-especially if you need a job. I made the mistake of waiting until the last minute to jump aboard the Ed Koch bandwagon back in 1977 and volunteer for his campaign. For my lack of faith, upon his victory-instead of being named deputy mayor, I was banished to the Department of Correction’s public-information office, where I was forced to field questions from pushy WINS reporters at 2 a.m. about what the latest suicide on Rikers Island said about prison conditions. The pay was decent, though.

My candidate this time is Howard Dean, and so far my timing’s better. In fact, I managed to meet him on June 30, the day before he made headlines by confounding expectations and raising more money during the last quarter than any of the other contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Here’s why I think Governor Dean is going to beat Bush and why, come this time next year (or is it the year after?), I’m going to be sitting pretty in the West Wing setting foreign policy: Governor Dean has already shown he’s willing to draw blood, and what Democrats want more than anything else at the moment is a good old-fashioned street brawl. First, we need an outlet for our rage over the way George W. Bush is turning the U.S. into a Death Star. We’ll worry about whether the guy is electable later.

And, by the way, Governor Dean can get elected, despite the cries of his opponents that he’s too far to the left. He doesn’t look like a lefty; he looks like a stolid, WASP-y, take-charge guy. In fact, he looks like a Republican. Come next summer, I wager he won’t have any problem convincing soccer moms, upon whom the next election allegedly pivots, that their kids will be better off with him at the controls than with Wyatt Earp from West Texas. And he’s a doctor, for God’s sake.

Finally-and not least of all-Governor Dean’s a Browning boy. For those unfamiliar with the honorific, Browning is a small private school on East 62nd Street. Its graduates include both the former governor of Vermont and myself, though I stuck it out through high school, while he departed for boarding school after eighth grade.

So when I finagled an interview with the candidate-admittedly, it was little more than a late-morning walk-along on his way to a fund-raising event-I didn’t come out and ask him for a job (Browning boys don’t do that). Instead, I brought along a copy of the 1959 Grytte , the school yearbook, when I was in kindergarten and he was an open-faced fifth grader.

“Oh my God!” Governor Dean exclaimed when I slipped him the book after introducing myself in the elevator on the way down to the street from his campaign headquarters. “Unbelievable. Holy cow-Jean Lamont! My second-grade teacher. What a wonderful person. I got the reading prize in second grade.”

The candidate reeled off the names of his home-room teachers: “Mr. Root in fourth grade; Mr. Kenny in fifth … Mr. Smith, who gave me the only F of my academic career, in penmanship.”

Governor Dean confessed that, like the rest of us, he lived in mortal terror of Charles Cook, our headmaster, even though his father was a long-standing member of the school’s board of trustees. (Charlie Cook’s carpet was said to be colored crimson from the blood of misbehaving boys.)

“In fact,” Governor Dean went on, “when I came back to school to visit after I’d gone to prep school, he got me in his office and he said, ‘You know, your entrance scores really should be a lot better.’ So he was always in character, even when you weren’t a student.”

The governor stays in touch with former classmates-including “Winnie” Rockefeller, the lieutenant governor of Arkansas-though apparently not often. “He’s a Republican,” the candidate explained, as if referring to a member of Al Qaeda.

If Governor Dean was picked for greatness, it wasn’t at Browning. He couldn’t even win the eighth-grade class election. “I ran for vice president of the class with a guy by the name of Steve Moskowitz,” he remembered. “He won; I lost.”

When Governor Dean comes to town these days, he still stays with his mom in the Park Avenue apartment where he and his three brothers grew up. “Fifty-three years, she’s lived in that same apartment,” he noted. “My in-laws are in the city, too. My father in-law is a semi-retired gastroenterologist at Cornell.”

While Governor Dean claims to be a country boy in spirit-”That’s why I ended up living in Vermont”-he shows the true, type-A New Yorker’s aversion to surface transit. He tries to go everywhere by subway or on foot. “Why don’t we just walk across 40th Street?” he shouted to his modest entourage, shunning the van at his disposal and setting off for Times Square across Lexington Avenue. “It’ll be less crowded than 42nd Street.”

I asked Governor Dean whether anyone ever told him he looked like a Republican. Those were fighting words, and for a moment my job in the Dean administration seemed in peril.

“No, but I don’t care,” he said with a flash of anger. “I don’t think about things like that. I’m not going to part my hair differently or put on a different shirt. The Meet the Press interview was really interesting, because the inside, chattering classes thought it was a disaster. But most people ’round the country thought it was terrific.

“What they want is somebody who says what they believe,” he continued. “A carefully crafted candidate cannot beat George Bush, because George Bush is carefully crafted and he doesn’t give the impression of being so.”

That sounded like a backhanded compliment to me. “Nobody should underestimate George Bush,” Governor Dean responded. “I’ve never made that mistake, and I don’t intend to start now.”

I’d once made the mistake of trying to slip a politician my résumé, with unfortunate results. It was Walter Mondale; he’d come to New York to campaign for Ed Koch. In exchange for making sure his luggage got to his hotel safely, I was invited aboard Air Force Two the next morning to meet the Vice President.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity, I reached into my inside jacket pocket and tried to hand him my c.v. Mr. Mondale, thinking I was going for a weapon, staggered backward. Fortunately, the Secret Service didn’t take me to the ground. However, I received a letter a few weeks later informing me that there were no openings on the Vice President’s staff.

Playing it safe, I asked Governor Dean about his stamp collection instead. The Gryttes for both 1961 and 1962, I believe, made reference to his passion for philately. “I put aside interesting stamps,” he reported. “But, of course, I haven’t done any work with my stamp album for many years. My father was a great stamp collector, and his father was, so we’ve got some pretty neat old stuff.

“This was actually a delightful interview,” Governor Dean added as his staff shuffled him into a Times Square tower for his fund-raiser. They seemed relieved when I didn’t try to tag along. But Browning boys don’t do that. When we want jobs, we tap the old Browning-boy network and put our résumés in the mail, along with an error-free cover letter. But I think I’ll wait for that until New Hampshire, when Governor Dean trounces Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt, Edwards and any Democrats yet to announce.