MANCHESTER, N.H.—Howard Dean tried, he really did. With the press huddled in the assistant principal's office at Manchester's Central High School, he's responding to charges from John Kerry that he's a "flimflam artist" who will say and do anything—"pander" to the NRA, stand with Newt Gingrich, flip-flop on NAFTA, Social Security, and the Confederate flag—to get elected. Dean's trying to play the front-runner, to not let his temper or his mouth get the better of him.
"We're not going to get down in the mud with Sen. Kerry," he says, then rolls off a Wesley Clark-worthy chestnut: "I want to say that I think this campaign has to be about the future, not the past." As the current president's father might have put it, Message: I'm above the fray. "I think what Sen. Kerry is doing is not helping the Democrats," Dean continues. "Our target has to be not each other, but our target has to be replacing George Bush as president of the United States. So, I would call on Sen. Kerry to try to lift his campaign a little bit higher." I, Howard Dean, have a positive, optimistic vision for America.
This is probably smart politics on Dean's part, but it's awfully disappointing. Just a little more than an hour earlier, he had turned to Jodi Wilgoren of the New York Times and said, "We're going to have a press avail later and blast Kerry." Dean's New Hampshire state director, Karen Hicks, looked surprised. Make sure we have the local press, too, Dean tells her.
What's he going to say? No one but Dean appears to know. Dorie Clark, the New Hampshire communications director, has no idea what I'm talking about when I ask her. Matthew Gardner, the campaign's New Hampshire press secretary, responds with a similar reaction when I tell him Dean said he was going to "blast Kerry." "He did?" Gardner says. "You're getting good insight into our speechwriting process." Later, when Wilgoren asks Gardner about it, he says, "We don't know if it's gonna happen yet."
But at 9:45 a.m., the assembled reporters are shuttled into the assistant principal's office. The press waits in the front section, around the administrative assistant's desk, while Dean and his team huddle in the next room. As the door closes, I see Dean seated at a chair in the center of the room, with his aides standing around him. I feel like Kay at the end of The Godfather, except the door that shut in her face didn't have a Garfield poster on it. Actually, Dean is closer to Sonny, and I think his aides are urging him not to go to war.
One of the best things about covering Dean is that he says things like, "I probably shouldn't say this," and then actually says things that he probably shouldn't. Most politicians use "I probably shouldn't say this" like they use "frankly," to preface either bland statements or red-meat panders in order to make them sound more straight-talking than they are. Sure, Dean employs that tactic, too (he's a master of the straight-talking pander), but he also lets his mouth get the better of him at times. For example, at Thursday night's town-hall meeting in Nashua, Dean said that President Bush "pooh-poohed" the foreign-policy notion of "constructive engagement" only "because he didn't think of it first. Which is probably not a surprise. I probably shouldn't have said that."
But when Dean comes out from behind the Garfield door, he's mouthing these second-rate platitudes. "I'm not going to attack Sen. Kerry in this press conference, other than to ask him to try to keep his focus on the task at hand, which is making sure that George Bush does not have a second term as president." He repeats the forward-not-backward bromide: "This is about the future, not the past." The reporters try to poke something interesting out of him, but he'll have none of it. "All I'm willing to do is to tell you what my positions are today, that's what's important." Give-'em-hell-Howard has gone from fire-and-brimstone to kumbaya.
But just before the availability ends, we get a flash of the old Dean, when he responds to a question about Kerry's criticism of his impending decision to turn down public financing for the campaign. Minutes after criticizing Kerry for personal attacks, Dean decides it's fair game to bring up Kerry's wife. It sounds like an implicit shot at Kerry's manhood for needing his wife's ketchup money in order to compete in New Hampshire:
"I would argue that Sen. Kerry has a very narrow place to stand on this issue, because if we opt out, we will raise money in small donations, which is exactly how campaign finance reform is supposed to work. He clearly does not have that financing capability. If he opts out, he will have a large check from himself, or his wife, to run the campaign. That's very different from what I'm talking about."
"OK, that's it," says one of Dean's aides. Dean talks for a little while longer, then says "Thank you very much," and walks out.