Before Howard Dean was a country doctor, before he was the tight-fisted governor of Vermont or the angry champion of dispossessed Democrats, Howard Brush Dean III was a Madison Avenue baby.
Those were the days when Madison Avenue ran in two directions. Young Howard-no one called him Howie-walked a block east each morning from his home on Park Avenue between 85th and 86th streets, often joined by a classmate, Ricky Lazar, to catch the downtown bus. The boys rode about a mile south to the place where Dr. Dean spent much of his Manhattan youth, the Brown-ing School.
Since 1920, Browning has been housed in an unobtrusive five-story brick building on East 62nd Street. The all-boys school was the sort of place for parents who valued high character more than high college-board scores, a place that turned out “gentlemen.” The school was at the heart of a power establishment that gave birth to Rockefeller Republicanism, and that lineage is embedded in the school’s history. John D. Rockefeller gave the school its first building in 1888. Among Dr. Dean’s classmates at Browning 70 years later was Winthrop (Winnie) Rockefeller Jr., then something of a class punching bag and now the lieutenant governor of Arkansas.
Howard appears in yearbook pictures in a three-button blazer with handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket, beaming. He studied Latin and French, collected stamps and saved his allowance for ice-cream sodas. Classmates say they still recognize his directness, his charm and his short fuse, which they delighted in testing.
“He had that teasability,” recalled a classmate, Christopher Reed. “It was always fun to get a rise out of him.”
The candidate himself doesn’t tell stories about his childhood, an unusual tactic in this age of personal narrative. His rivals for the Democratic Presidential nomination are not as shy. If you know one thing about John Edwards, you know his father worked in a mill. Joe Lieberman has immigrant forbears; John Kerry served in Vietnam; and Wesley Clark turned up a Jewish grandfather. Howard Dean was born in Doctors Hospital on East 88th Street, and he left the city in 1962 for boarding school. But you won’t hear that when he’s on the stump, and you won’t read it in the campaign literature.
It could be that Dr. Dean, whose campaign has been fueled by clever organizing, clear ideas and pure anger, doesn’t need a story. Particularly if the story-of old money and WASP values-doesn’t particularly fit the insurgent image. Still, it’s striking to see how little he makes of his New York roots. At a press conference at Mount Sinai Hospital on Nov. 23, for example, he dropped no hint that he was in his old neighborhood, and that his mother still lives just 15 blocks south. And his quickie campaign autobiography, Winning Back America , is similarly silent on the subject of Manhattan. “My family comes from Sag Harbor,” the book begins, and its brief personal section focuses on the idyllic summers and weekends he and his three brothers spent on Long Island. His years in the city merit just a clause: “Although I was born in the city and went to school in the city until I was 13, I feel I really grew up in East Hampton.” Cut to memories of swimming, fishing, stealing potatoes.
Well, sure. The four Dean boys spent an unusual amount of time at their country house, according to Dr. Dean’s younger brother, James.
But what about those 13 years on Park Avenue?
The Browning School doesn’t merit a mention in Dr. Dean’s autobiography, but the candidate’s classmates say they still see in him the traits he showed as a boy. They also said they see the values he learned from a school which, in its mission statement, avows its aim of shaping a lad who is, “in the best sense of the word, a gentleman.” The school emphasized perseverance and integrity, learning for its own sake and patrician responsibility for society at large. The boys of Browning embraced those values.
“People couldn’t wait to get into the adult male world,” said Michael Miller, a classmate. “One year there was a fad for attaché cases, of all things. Kids were always trying to get the most elegant kind of attaché case they could possibly find.”
There were two classes of families at Browning in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s: old money and new. You could tell them from each other by the size of the boy’s allowance.
“Some kids’ families had just come to money, and they had a huge allowance,” recalled Basil Nikas, another classmate. “They would have cash on them a lot,” and they’d spend it freely on novel gadgets like portable transistor radios, he said.
More of the Browning boys came from old money. They “were raised to appreciate the value of money, and that you had to earn it to deserve it,” Mr. Nikas said.
The Deans came from the latter group. Howard’s father had followed his own father, the original Howard Brush Dean, into the stock-brokerage business, ending his career at the firm known as Dean Witter (no relation).
“Howard had a couple of dollars a week,” said Mr. Nikas, who now runs an e-commerce company in Washington, D.C. “We’d spend it going to Boyd’s,” a pharmacy on Madison Avenue between 60th and 61st streets where the boys chose between ice-cream sodas and banana splits.
The impression that Howard Dean left on his classmates-12 of 21 of them spoke to The Observer about him-was largely pleasant, if not always deep. Howard was not, they agree, the kid who wanted to be President or the most likely to succeed.
“Howard Dean was in my class? He must not have stood out, then,” marveled one classmate, George Caesar.
Lt. Governor Rockefeller “does not have really any substantive memories of Governor Dean and their boyhood,” his spokesman said. But then, an Arkansas Republican probably has as little use for his Upper East Side past as does a Vermont Democrat.
“I remember Dad telling me [Howard] was very shy-he didn’t really grow into his own until he went away for school,” said James Dean, the candidate’s younger brother.
Those who do remember Dr. Dean recall a pleasant, thoughtful boy who was slightly removed from the pack. He did not, for example, have a best friend. He didn’t have a clique. “Boys are horrible to each other, but he was friendly and considerate to all,” recalled Peter Schoeffer.
Howard and the two brothers who attended Browning, Charlie and James, stood a bit apart from the other boys. The Deans were a leading family of the school-their father sat on its board of trustees, and everyone had a crush on their beautiful mother-but, unlike other parents, theirs didn’t send them each year to dancing school at Barclay or De Rham to learn to fox-trot and waltz with the girls from Chapin. Nor were they signed up for the Knickerbocker Greys, a kind of Upper East Side version of the Boy Scouts that involved a lot of marching around the Seventh Regiment Armory.
The Deans were a kind of elite among an elite-smart but not nerdy, socially accepted but not cruel. Not exactly the type you’d expect to be running an angry insurgency from the provinces.
That was the background to Dr. Dean’s earliest political consciousness. The first tentative political memory anyone has of Howard Dean is that of his collection of Eisenhower buttons. Howard was in third grade in the fall of 1956, and he and his classmates collected buttons for the two rival Presidential candidates, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. Boys filled the linings of their blazers with them. The “I Like Ike” buttons were, of course, the most popular at the Republican-leaning school. Eisenhower’s second and final Secretary of State, Christian Herter, was a Browning alumnus, and “he was constantly mentioned to us and held up as a role model,” Mr. Miller said.
Young Howard was, of course, for Eisenhower. “People basically followed the politics of their parents,” recalled Mr. Miller, now a classics professor at New York University.
Later, Dr. Dean suffered what may be his only political defeat thus far: He ran and lost for vice president of the class on a ticket headed by Steve Moskowitz, who professes no memory of the race. His highest political distinction appears to have been a posting, in 1960, as hall monitor.
Dr. Dean may not refer to Browning much, but he hasn’t forgotten it. Browning boys who have bumped into him recently say he remembers them clearly. (He even appointed one, Richard Fischer, to chair his Council of Economic Advisers in Vermont.) He certainly remembered them well enough in 1992, when he returned to Browning to accept an alumni achievement award. The school now devotes an entire wall to magazine articles on Dr. Dean’s bid for the Democratic nomination.
So what kind of an insurgent is this? New York Times columnist David Brooks has been among those pointing out the parallels between Dr. Dean and George W. Bush: Both attended Eastern boarding schools (St. George’s for Dr. Dean, Andover for President Bush) and then Yale, both drank too much, and both possess confidence as a birthright. Mr. Bush’s grandmother was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Dr. Dean’s grandmother.
But while Dr. Dean and Mr. Bush are both children of privilege, not all privilege is identical. Old money and new money have their own codes. The old-money conservatism was, on a political level, about balanced budgets, diplomacy and-as the 20th century progressed-a strong role for the state. The Texas politics of new money, oil and unfettered capitalism that surrounded Mr. Bush in Midland have moved in the opposite direction. So perhaps Dr. Dean’s insurgency isn’t just on behalf of the Democratic left; he also speaks for a wing of the Republican Party that split from its Southwestern counterpart in the 1960’s, returned in an uneasy truce in the person of George H.W. Bush, and seems to have been lopped off entirely by the current President.
Seen in that light, perhaps the legendary anger of Dr. Dean makes a little more sense. He’s not just a grumpy liberal; he’s a party to a nasty feud over who, in the end, are the real elites.
Dr. Dean’s former classmates-all of whom hail from the heart of the old New York establishment-have certainly rallied to his cause. Mr. Lazar switched his registration to the Democratic Party and began handing out Dean literature in Seattle. Mr. Nikas is gathering phone numbers of classmates with plans to organize them. Nearly every Browning alumnus contacted by The Observer says he plans to vote for Dr. Dean. And they expect Dr. Dean to give Mr. Bush a run for his money.
They say they still see in him a certain Browning style, in things as simple as his tendency toward threadbare suits and ties so covered in travel grime that they verge on brown.
“This ethic comes from his upbringing and Browning,” said Mr. Nikas. “We all had our favorite blazer or Harris tweed jackets, penny loafers, mostly white Oxford shirts which we all pretty much wore down.”
Most of all, Dr. Dean’s old classmates see in him the embodiment of the school’s motto: “Grytte.”
The word is an Old English version of an old Protestant virtue: grit. As defined in an 1897 school yearbook, it could serve Dr. Dean well on the campaign trail. Grytte, it appears, combines the qualities of “firmness, courage, determination … which alone win the crown of genuine success in all undertakings.”