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Howard Dean says his piece; reporters offer theirs

Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President. By a team of reporters for Vermont's Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times -Argus. Edited by Dirk Van Susteren, Steerforth, 245 pp., paperback, illustrated, $12.95

Winning Back America, By Howard Dean, Simon & Schuster, 179 pp., paperback, $11.95

I was a constituent of Howard Dean's when I lived in Vermont and occasionally covered the then governor as a reporter. I voted for him in 2000, partly because of his support for civil unions. His 11-year governorship, in my view, racked up an impressive list of achievements, and he's a decent, intelligent man. Yet his presidential campaign gives me the willies, and two new books reminded me why.

"Winning Back America," Dean's autobiography cum campaign manifesto, details his case against the Bush administration. Lord knows there are legitimate beefs, some of which Dean raises. Should rich-tilted tax cuts really take priority over needs such as homeland security and health insurance for those vulnerable to bankruptcy from medical bills? And the planning for the Iraq occupation looks more like the work of Will Ferrell's George W. Bush, or his elf, than the real president. But Dean, like Bush before him, suffers as much as he profits from his old job description. Being governor equips you to fund school aid and close landfills, but there's not a smidgeon of training in dealing with the rest of the world -- no small matter when the neighbors include Al Qaeda, a chaotic Iraq, and a nuclear North Korea. Too often, Dean's statements suggest a rookie making up his foreign policy on the fly, an impression reinforced when you read his book in conjunction with "Howard Dean: A Citizen's Guide to the Man Who Would Be President," written by a team of Vermont journalists.

Certainly, both books lay out the man's virtues. A leader by accident -- Dean was Vermont's lieutenant governor when the Republican governor died in 1991 -- he gracefully managed the traumatizing transition and won five elections in his own right. He conserved half a million wilderness acres, admirably leashed the spenders in his own party while reinforcing the safety net, and signed civil-unions legislation amid sometimes hateful opposition that led him to campaign for his last term in a bulletproof vest. Demonstrating wisdom, Dean signed the bill privately to avoid public gloating that could inflame opponents.

But a record only tells you so much. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan liberalized abortion laws and raised taxes. The past isn't necessarily presidential prologue, and understandably, Dean's book puts a positive spin on what his presidency would be like, while "A Citizen's Guide" occasionally challenges his statements. But taken together, they reveal a man at the bottom of the learning curve on world affairs.

"I disagree with the whole notion of preemptive war," he says flatly in "Winning Back America." That doesn't square with what he tells the Vermont reporters: "I believe there are times when preemptive force is justified, but there has to be an immediate threat." Missing such contradictions is the occupational hazard of writing quickie books; the authors cranked out "A Citizen's Guide" in eight weeks, after Dean rocketed to the top of presidential preference polls and before his own book debuted. But other omissions in "A Citizen's Guide" are less defensible.

Dean tells the reporters he wants to shift federal farm subsidies away from corporate agribusiness and toward family farms. Yet long ago he endorsed President Bush's abysmal farm bill on "Meet the Press," saying it provided money for family farms in Vermont. It also kept subsidies lopsided on behalf of corporate welfare (and shafted Third World farmers, who can't compete with subsidized corporations -- an odd stance for a candidate who mouths support for social justice). Dean's book is mum on the matter.

Dean, of course, eclipsed his Democratic primary rivals on the strength of his opposition to the war against Saddam Hussein. There were reasonable arguments on both sides of that debate, but Dean's were worrisomely ill considered. "Iraq was not an imminent threat to the security of the United States," he writes in "Winning Back America." Indeed not -- which was the strongest argument for disarming Saddam now. Reading just the recent headlines about North Korea reveals that a president's military options contract, not expand, when the enemy is an imminent threat, i.e., has weapons of mass destruction. Candidate Dean was quoted once as saying that he would have unilaterally attacked Saddam if the dictator had possessed nuclear weapons. It's likely President Dean would do no such thing.

Of course, none of this will trouble Dean's diehard supporters. Dean, like Reagan, inspires hero worship, and hero worshippers dwell in the comforting dark of don't-bother-me-with-the-facts certitude. For others trying to honestly assess the Democratic front-runner, these two books are valuable for the questions they answer about his past -- and for the doubts about his future plans that linger after you've finished reading.

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