Dean opens up a little about his personal life

Candidate talks to press on naps, medicine, critics

December 18, 2003|By Mark Z. Barabak | Mark Z. Barabak,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BURLINGTON, Vt. - Howard Dean's presidential run has been a rocket ride, a flight that has sent him higher, faster than even he expected. So what was the low point?

It came one night last summer, after the umpteenth campaign road trip, when he dragged himself home at 2 a.m., then turned around and left three hours later without ever seeing his family.

"That was the pits," he said.

Dean shared that domestic disappointment and other thoughts, musing on everything from a balanced budget to the art of napping, in a session this week with reporters packed elbow-to-elbow aboard his campaign charter, flying high over the Southwest desert.

The former governor of Vermont is not a man known for his warmth or fuzziness. As buttoned-down as his blue dress shirts, he recoils almost physically, it seems, from the confessional politics of a Bill Clinton, who gladly shared tales of growing up with a wife-abusing stepfather.

Dean's family is strictly off-limits - his spouse, a fellow physician, shuns the campaign trail, and reporters ask, only half-kidding, whether she's even aware he is seeking the White House.

Still, Americans want to like as much as they respect their presidents, and so Dean has started opening up a bit, offering some interior glimpses to the growing media entourage that shares his travels across the country.

If a bit of plane talk can soften the edges of a man best known for plain talk, so much the better. It certainly worked for George W. Bush, who became the bantering star of a campaign documentary, Journeys With George.

And so Tuesday night, Dean shambled back to the bench seats in his Gulfstream jet and plopped onto the brown leather for a 45-minute turn that was part news conference, part bull session.

How, exactly, does one survive the presidential campaign grind?

"You do it by putting one foot in front of the other and keeping your eye not just on the prize, but keeping your eye on what you have to do every day."

What's the secret to practicing good medicine?

"It's your job to help [patients] heal themselves. Present them with an optimistic plan that they can follow."

Who among his Democratic rivals would he support if he was not running for president?

Nice try.

And about those power naps?

Grab shut-eye wherever and whenever you can. "I don't sleep long, but just sleeping a short time makes a difference."

Dean, a long shot starting out his campaign, admitted being surprised at his rapid ascent in the contest, something he expected a bit later in the process, after the initial voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The same goes for the daily barrage of increasingly harsh attacks he now faces from his opponents. "That's certainly taught me some new perspective about human nature," Dean said, with a sardonic smile.

Being the front-runner has also conferred a certain responsibility, he went on, and he is now more careful to weigh his public statements - though not always that careful.

Asked about his recent reference in a radio interview to "a theory" that President Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, Dean insisted he was simply responding to a question. In fact, Dean brought the matter up, though he immediately disavowed the notion.

He likened his actions to the architects of the war with Iraq: "There were lots of theories that they mentioned, many of which turned out not to be true."

He admitted tweaking the president by appropriating a line from Bush's 2000 campaign - the promise to restore "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office after the scandals of the Clinton years.

Dean's promise is to restore honor and dignity to the nation's foreign policy.

On another topic, Dean suggested a cut-off of oil exports to the United States by Saudi Arabia, the target of frequent criticism in his stump speeches, might not be such a terrible thing. "That certainly would have the effect of rapidly accelerating renewable energy," he said, adding that the technology exists to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, if not the political will.

And, for all his criticism of Bush's deficit-spending, Dean said a balanced budget would be impossible to achieve during the first four years of his administration. That would have to wait until early in his second term, Dean said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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