YOU CAN say this about Howard Dean. He's no Jerry Ford. Not quite, anyway.
During his second debate with Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford denied that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe. He then took five days to admit his mistake -- five days that stopped his momentum cold.
One day after the Rock the Vote debate turned into a debacle for Dean when he declined to disavow his previous declaration that he wanted to be the candidate of the Confederate flag cohort, the former Vermont governor shifted into damage-control mode.
Speaking at Cooper Union in Manhattan on Wednesday, Dean said he considered the Confederate flag a "reminder of racial injustice and slavery," stressed that he did not condone its use, and expressed regrets for "the pain I may have caused either to African-American or Southern white voters."
So, what changed? When I caught up with Dean by phone that afternoon, he said that after mulling the matter into the wee hours, he realized at "about 3 o'clock in the morning" that he needed to make amends.
"I concluded there were some African-Americans, including the young man who asked the question, who were offended," Dean said. "I thought I needed to apologize. I had no intention of offending them."
Dean says he also decided that North Carolina Senator John Edwards had a point. During the debate, Edwards angrily told Dean that he had stereotyped Southerners. And that the South didn't need "somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do."
At first, Dean said, he thought Edwards was only trying to embarrass him. "But after I thought about it, I realized he really was reacting as a Southerner," Dean said. "I thought Edwards really meant that. He wasn't just doing it to yank my chain." Dean added that "we need to talk about race, but we also have to go about it in a measured way and be careful and thoughtful."
Now, as I've written before, there's no reason to think that Dean is a bigot. And certainly his larger point -- that the Democratic Party needs to attract Southern working-class whites -- is a good one.
Still, several nagging questions linger. The Confederate flag faux pas was the silliest sort of rookie mistake -- which is exactly what makes it a disturbing blunder in a man trying to operate at the apex of American politics.
Once the gaffe was committed, a simple apology early in Tuesday's forum would have spared Dean the televised trouncing he took. And ended a controversy that had already simmered for several days.
So why didn't he defuse the controversy by offering his regrets then? Here the candidate shows some admirable introspection.
"When people come at me hard, I tend to go right back at them, hard," Dean said, describing that pugnacious propensity as "a double-edged sword."
"It has been responsible for the successes we have had," Dean said. "But I realize there is also a downside. When people go right at me, I tend not to give an inch."
The second query: Dean's Cooper Union regrets had a significant aspect of the weasel- word apology about them. Take, for example, this comment: "Many people in the African-American community have supported what I have said in the past few days, because they understand. Some have not, so I say to those, I deeply regret the pain I may have caused."
That is easily interpreted this way: I regret the pain I may have caused anyone who didn't understand what I was saying.
Indeed, some news accounts and some rivals have asserted that Dean refused to apologize in his Cooper Union remarks. "What I said constituted an apology, and it was meant as an apology," Dean said.
Finally, there's the alternative analysis of Dean's disinclination to defuse the issue during the debate itself.
"He has more difficulty apologizing than anybody I have ever seen in politics," says Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont. "Al Sharpton hit it right on the nose. It is Howard Dean's arrogance that continues to manifest itself. He is a doctor. They don't apologize."
Asked about Nelson's comment, Dean said: "I am not going to respond to Gary. He has been in Vermont a long time, and he has made a career of trashing me."
Nelson offers an instructive reply: "He has got to learn to deflect criticism better. Self-deprecation worked wonderfully for John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, while thin skins helped sink the candidacies of Ed Muskie and Bob Dole."
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.