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A meteoric rise in Vermont politics

Younger sibling's death may have been catalyst

This is the second in a series of profiles of leading candidates in the 2004 presidential race.

Of the four Dean boys, Charlie was supposed to be the politician.

Articulate, outspoken, and rarely cowed, Charlie held forth on issues with vigor like his father, the conservative Wall Street banker. Where his older brother, Howard, shrank from arguments, Charlie reveled in the well-timed jab, particularly those aimed at "Big Howard," as their father was known.

Within the Deans' world of Park Avenue and East Hampton, it was expected that Charlie would buck the family's four-generation lineage on Wall Street, leaving that obligation to quieter, tamer Howard and the two younger boys.

Tragedy upended the calculus. In 1973, Charlie's passionate opposition to the Vietnam War carried him to Southeast Asia. He would never return. For Howard Dean, Charlie's disappearance left a haunting mystery, deepened by government investigations that yielded few answers.

Now, as he bids for the presidency, Dean is loath to talk about his brother, much like the rest of his private life, content to begin his biography with his public career. Yet as Dean pivots his campaign around his criticism of the war in Iraq, the ramifications of his brother's opposition to another conflict help explain the transformation of a man who entered adulthood as a party boy and ski bum into a doctor and politician.

"What happened to Charlie was a catalyst of a lot of things in Howard's life," said his brother, Jim. "It made him think big."

Like Howard, Charlie had escaped military service, in his case by drawing a high draft lottery number. For Charlie, though, the Vietnam War was consuming. He was the most politically engaged of the brood, serving in student government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was known for staking out positions on the left, at times the far-left.

"Not SDS," said fellow student Gerry Cohen, referring to ultra-radical Students for a Democratic Society. "We were one step away from that."

In 1972, after graduation, Charlie deferred a Peace Corps assignment in Nepal and signed on as chair of the UNC campus campaign of Senator George McGovern, the anti-Vietnam War candidate. He was a tireless and enthusiastic worker, each week returning his paycheck, uncashed, to the campaign. He also employed shades of his father's antic humor, masterminding the printing of McGovern buttons reading, "Buck Nixon (I did!)."

"He was extremely creative," said Karen Gray, who worked with Charlie on the McGovern campaign. "And dedicated -- almost pathologically dedicated to the cause."

With McGovern's loss, Charlie came away defeated himself. In a letter to Gray penned at his family's home in East Hampton after the November election, Charlie wrote:

"Well, I think I've finally crashed from a dynamite trip. Not a bad trip except that the crash was a real down, like being hit by a landslide," he wrote on letterhead with McGovern's visage staring out. "I've come to the point where I think it is worth getting back in there and keep fighting."

He signed the letter with two X's and a peace sign.

A short time later, Charlie embarked on his trip to Southeast Asia. It's not clear why he went. His father knew a man in USAID in Laos. Big Howard himself had traveled unenlisted to Africa and Asia during World War II seeking to be a part of the action. Later, some close to the Dean family speculated that Charlie could have been a spy because the Army listed him as POW/MIA, a theory Howard Dean rejects.

Charlie's friends say the answer is simpler: Charlie wanted to see the place from which his most strongly felt convictions sprang. "He had given everything he had to end the war and wanted to see for himself," Gray said.

While Charlie was overseas, Howard was living at home, having finally found a calling after several years adrift and an unhappy stint in the brokerage business. Medicine, he had decided, was to be his profession, with the first order of business taking the science courses needed to gain entry to medical school.

One day in October 1974, when the family had not heard from Charlie for three months, Dean was home alone and answered the phone at 10 a.m. A man from the State Department mistook him for his father. "We have reason to believe that your son has been kidnapped by the Pathet Lao and is being held prisoner," Dean recalls the man saying, referring to a communist guerrilla group.

The news sent his father and then his mother to Laos that year seeking answers, each finding few. In May, word came that Charlie was dead.

"We did not talk about Charlie when he was killed -- too painful to talk about, even more painful for my Dad -- he hardly ever talked about it. Hardly ever," Dean said. "I remember one time we tried to talk about it and it was a disaster. My brother brought it up and my mother left the table crying."

The pain, though, would surface later. In the early 1980s, when he was a Vermont legislator, Dean sought counseling, trying to understand his sense of loss, the mystery of Charlie's death. Six months after his father's death, when he was governor, Dean traveled to Laos himself, finding his brother's grave and confirming a theory of his death, which goes this way:

Charlie and a friend from Australia took a ferry down the Mekong River between Laos and Thailand. They were taken into custody by Laotian communists. After three months at a local camp, Dean thinks, Charlie attempted to make contact with the North Vietnamese to obtain answers about their detention. He and his friend, Dean believes, died at the hands of the North Vietnamese.

In 1974, though, there was no confronting Charlie's death. Dean instead seized on a goal he'd set for himself months earlier, that of becoming a doctor.

Ribbing for prospective doctor At Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which Dean entered in 1975, he was odd man out: A Christian at a largely Jewish school, a Yankee elite in a sea of middle class, a straight arrow in an era of corduroy and bell-bottoms. Dean arrived for classes in khakis, a button-down shirt, and, to good-natured ribbing, with briefcase in hand.

"He was quiet," recalled Dr. Stephen Goldstone, a classmate. "If you engaged him he was great, but he was not the most outgoing person in the class."

In time, a young woman of equal seriousness caught his eye. Judith Steinberg had grown up in the Long Island town of Roslyn. The daughter of doctors, her mother a pediatrician and her father a gastroenterologist, Steinberg had majored in biochemistry at Princeton University.

Steinberg wore her dark hair long and dressed simply. The two came to know each other over shared crossword puzzles in neuroanatomy, which she aced and he barely passed -- evidence, he says now, of Steinberg's superior intellect, which he speaks of in almost reverential terms.

The friendship blossomed into a romance by the end of their first year. The pair were a serious item by the time Dean neared the end of his studies in 1978, a year ahead of Steinberg because he had enrolled in the three-year program rather than the traditional four.

He applied to two residency programs in New York City, making them his first and second choices on the list used to match medical school students with hospitals. His third choice -- where he ultimately matched -- was the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont in Burlington, which offered training in internal medicine focusing on outpatient care, a quick turnaround practice demanding a generalist's knowledge and social worker's calm.

Much as he had at Einstein, Dean impressed with his certitude and overarching purpose at his residency interview in December 1977. He said he wanted to work as a doctor in a medically under-served area, something, as it turned out, he would do only in a volunteer capacity.

"He is an exceptionally perceptive young man," David Babbott, the director of the office of graduate medical education at the medical center, wrote in a post-interview evaluation. "He has thought about the problems of health care delivery in depth."

When Dean arrived in Burlington, the city was in flux. Newcomers were arriving, many of them ex-hippies seeking something beyond urban life. Dean was part of the new landscape, but took little notice, immersed in the world of his internship. He lived in a third-floor walk-up on a quiet street in the working class Old North End neighborhood, not far from the hospital. He often worked 80-hour weeks.

As a resident, Dean was well liked, a frequent dinner guest of other residents and a calming presence in the hospital.

"Howard didn't internalize stress," said Tom Force, a fellow resident. "He was unique for that." Dean's coping mechanism tended to be humor. "He could be painfully sarcastic, but we needed gallows stuff," said Gary Lee, another resident.

Dean, who is a supporter of abortion rights, did a rotation through Planned Parenthood in Burlington, but did not perform abortions there. At the time, they were not performed at the facility, said Janet Patterson, who worked there.

Dean received generally good reviews from his superiors, many noting his command of medical knowledge and caring demeanor. But he was not a star.

"There were residents who really stand out as impressive in their clinical skills," said Dr. John Gennari, an overseeing doctor. "He wasn't one of those. He was just good."

And one doctor noted that Dean was a "solid resident" but worried that he reacted with "impulsive syntheses when problems are approached" and advised that Dean "should take care to be more deliberate in making assessments and deciding upon plans."

In the midst of his residency, Dean was thinking beyond medicine. "He talked about Vermont being a small state," Force recalled. "How it was easier to get plugged into the political life than some other places."

No lightning bolt into politics Dean has trouble pinpointing the moment he became interested in politics. He says it might date to the dinner table, where his father held forth with critiques of Nelson Rockefeller and praise for Barry Goldwater. It might have been observing his father manage the campaigns of Representative Stuyvesant Wainwright II, Dean's godfather. Or perhaps the 1964 Republican Convention, which he attended in California while visiting a prep school friend.

"I wish I could give you a strident answer like, `I was such an admirer of JFK that I committed myself,' " Dean said. "But that didn't happen."

His best explanation is this: "I think what happened is I was interested in politics and when I got to Yale I sort of gave up because I was disillusioned by the combination of Johnson and Nixon and the war, the opposition to civil rights by Nixon, and so I just gave up on the idea that electoral politics was going to change anything."

It seems clear that Dean was always intrigued on some level by politics. He was an elected prefect at St. George's and in 1977, shortly before entering medical school, Dean scouted office space for Ed Koch's first New York City mayoral run, though neither Koch nor his campaign workers remember him.

Yet he could never fully immerse himself. Something, it seems, held him back -- until he left New York. Midway through his second year of residency in Vermont, shortly after Judy joined him in the same program, Dean plunged in, starting with a phone call to Jimmy Carter's local organizer and a neighbor, Esther Sorrell.

Sorrell was the doyenne of Democratic politics in Burlington, credited with helping to revive the Democratic Party in Vermont after more than a century of Republican governorships. Sorrell, who died in 1990, was a state senator with a vast array of supporters, many drawn from the ethnic base of onetime mill workers.

Dean's connection with Sorrell was magnetic. She was taken with the smart young doctor who stuffed envelopes for her political causes and, upon occasion, attended Catholic Mass with her. "It was just like having another son," said Lorraine Graham, a Sorrell friend.

Dean was awed by Sorrell's political instincts and connections. Soon Dean was leaving Judy on her own Friday nights to spend them at Sorrell's salon, camped in her living room in the turreted corner of her modest home. There, Dean and Sorrell, and a handful of party stalwarts, ate cherry pie and watched "Washington Week in Review" and "Vermont This Week," the women offering critiques and sharing war stories while Dean listened.

"He was a sponge for that stuff," said Bill Sorrell, Esther's son, whom Dean would later appoint state attorney general after failing in an effort to have him named to the state Supreme Court.

Dean's time might just as easily have been spent with a different crew. Burlington politics in the late 1970s were undergoing a dramatic shift. The Democrats who had wielded power for generations were under threat from a new force calling themselves progressives. Some were longtime radicalized residents, but many were newcomers, young professionals from urban centers outside Vermont drawn by high-tech industries sprouting around the city.

The progressives considered old Burlington Democrats insular and conservative and focused on ousting the mayor, Gordon Paquette, a five-term Democrat seen as out of touch with the neighborhoods and too cozy with developers. The progressives offered up Bernard Sanders, an avowed Socialist who had run several unsuccessful statewide campaigns.

In a stunning upset, Sanders won the 1981 mayoral election by 10 votes. Some dismissed it as a fluke; Democratic city councilors refused to seat Sanders's appointees. But Sanders was a pragmatist and in a short time won plaudits for efficiently tending to city business. The following year, voters dumped Democrats from the city council and installed Sanders-backed candidates and Republicans in their stead.

Within this upheaval, Dean entered political life. He certainly might have joined with progressives. They were more open, without longtime members dictating candidates and party positions. And Dean had linked up with progressives when he worked to create a bikepath along Burlington's lakefront. But Dean says he was repelled by the burgeoning movement.

"There was a certain doctrinaire attitude among some of the progressives that turned me off," Dean said. "There are a lot of good guys that support the Progressive Party but at the core of the Progressive Party was this group of people who basically said if you were not with us 100 percent, you were not good enough."

With the help of Sorrell, he was elected a delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention and named chair of the Chittenden County Democratic Committee, a post he used to try to tamp down insurgent progressives.

"Sanders created an interest in the city that wasn't there before," Dean told the Burlington Free Press in November 1981. "Many people newly interested in politics because of Sanders's victory are `traditional Democrats' and need to be brought back into the fold."

By 1982, Dean sought elective office himself, bidding for the state legislative seat in his neighborhood. The neighborhood, a longtime Democratic stronghold, had voted heavily for Sanders, and a progressive named Tim McKenzie entered the fray.

From the start, Dean was relentless, circling the neighborhood, visiting some families two or three times, wooing liberals by pointing to his work for a low-income clinic in the neighborhood.

"Extreme energy and focus," McKenzie recalled of his adversary.

Dean also targeted the right voters. McKenzie spent time registering low-income residents, few of whom got to the polls. The day of the election, Dean could greet by name nearly everyone who arrived.

Still, Dean had yet to craft a smooth political persona. Kenneth and Beverly St. Germain, who lived across the street from Dean and Steinberg, remembered Dean as "prickly" during a visit he paid them.

"He was personable, though a bit guarded in his answers," recalled Beverly St. Germain, an Episcopal deacon. "I felt that he wasn't natural and couldn't quite be himself." Nonetheless, she and her husband, a history teacher, appreciated his visit and voted for him.

Dean won in a rout, 596 to 300.

A divergence of interests The win would be the beginning of a rapid political rise, something Judith Steinberg never saw coming -- or perhaps, chose not to.

Dean and Steinberg, who continued to use her maiden name in her professional life, had wed in 1981 in a small ceremony officiated by a judge at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York.

The two lived quietly in Burlington. They shared the family medical practice in picturesque Shelburne. They lived in the third floor walk-up, eventually moving to a split-level ranch, still their home today, not far from Lake Champlain.

The Deans agreed to raise their two children, Anne and Paul, in her religion of Judaism, though Dean himself remained a Congregationalist. The two spent their free time canoeing and biking. Neither golfed, nor made party rounds. Indeed, Dean swore off alcohol shortly after their marriage, a decision he says was prompted by neither his new wife nor any particular incident, allowing only: "I didn't like the way I behaved when I drank."

To Steinberg, all that had come before their life together seemed a footnote. Park Avenue "wasn't Howard. It was where he grew up," she said. "But I know who Howard is, and it wasn't really him."

Where their interests diverged -- and radically, at that -- was politics. Steinberg, an earnest woman unmoved by power, had little stomach for the stuff, staying far from the campaign trail during Dean's run for the House.

Dean's election to the House, she says, seemed like an acquisition of a new hobby. "Politics was just a gradual thing for him," she said.

But as Dean shuttled between Burlington and Montpelier in his pickup truck, he was developing a political identity. With a show of eager-beaver willingness, Dean won tutelage from the best -- most notably Speaker Ralph Wright. "He tended to be under our feet all the time while he was learning the ropes," Wright wrote in his memoir, "All Politics Is Personal."

In 1984, Dean sought and won the House minority whip position, which some say he used to continue currying favor. "The Republicans saw Howard as Ralph's gofer," said Michael Bernhardt, a Republican who ran against Dean later for the governorship. "Whatever the gospel was coming from the speaker's office, that's what Howard would push."

Just two years into his legislative career, Dean was already looking beyond the House chamber. University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan recalls meeting with Dean in 1984 at a local diner and being pressed to offer advice about Dean's next move. "He kept asking what he should run for: Small office and win or run for bigger office and lose but gain name recognition," Bryan recalled.

Dean opted for the lieutenant governorship in 1986, a bid made easier when the incumbent decided to make a run for the governorship. Dean campaigned hard. Steinberg remembers a long summer of her husband away, at a time when Anne and Paul were 2 years old and 6 months old, respectively. Dean won the office, as he would twice more, each time faced with weak Republican challengers and benefited at times by Democratic heavies whose names on the ballot paved the way for him.

The lieutenant governorship in Vermont is a political backwater, largely ceremonial with responsibility for presiding over the Senate. Dean used it as a bully pulpit for teen suicide prevention and day-care services. In 1990 the conservative Free Press endorsed Dean, calling him a "useful" lieutenant governor.

That year, Dean once again scanned the political horizon and set his sights high, this time on the governorship. Dean gathered a circle of advisers to discuss the matter, but ultimately decided against a run, citing his young family, said Stephen Terry, then a Dean adviser.

"One thing about Howard Dean," Terry said. "He makes up his mind and it's made up."

In 1991, though, the decision would be snatched away from him. On an August morning, Governor Richard Snelling was found beside his backyard swimming pool, dead of a heart attack.

Early stewardship wins praise For Dean, at age 42, the capture of Vermont's top political prize meant not just an assumption of power but license to shunt aside all else for politics. After years of casting himself as a doctor who spared time for state politics, dabbling in it at a safe distance, Dean now forfeited medicine and devoted himself full time to elective office.

Much as his temperament might have dictated taking aggressive command, Dean proceeded cautiously. He was beginning his governorship under the cloud of Snelling's death, without public mandate. By many accounts, Dean was a force of calm. "He was sobered," said Stephen Kimball, one of the advisers Dean brought on board to help him through the transition. "It was one of his best moments."

Dean kept many of Snelling's cabinet members and advisers, fiscal conservatives dedicated to shrinking a ballooned deficit, an idea Dean himself had learned from his father. Dean resisted early calls to hike taxes and expand social services, and instead paid down the state's debt, helping Vermont secure a solid bond rating.

The tight-fisted approach to budgeting quickly won him Republican friends, many of whom would later help him keep office. Indeed, the GOP repeatedly fronted weak gubernatorial challengers whom Dean beat handily, winning office with solid margins in 1992, 1994, and 1996.

"The Republicans felt that here was a guy who capped the income tax and balanced the budget," said Harlan Sylvester, a senior investment banker in Burlington who served as Dean's chair of council of economic advisers. "Why would we want change?"

More difficult to tame were progressives.

Dean was dogged for refusing to embrace a single-payer health insurance system, backing instead a program he dubbed Dr. Dynasaur, a political hybrid of tax credits and Medicaid coverage that expanded health care to virtually all children in Vermont. Critics charged his strong stand in favor of curbs on welfare smacked of insensitivity. Even his own normally apolitical wife questioned the policy in a local paper.

Terrill G. Bouricius, a former state representative from Burlington, was so incensed by Dean's modifications to a disabilities benefits program that he sponsored an impeachment resolution, a measure that went nowhere but underscored the depth of progressive anger.

"The notion that he is liberal is ludicrous to those of us who worked with him in Vermont," Bouricius said. "He supports abortion, that's what makes him liberal."

As governor, Dean was a hard-driving and often impatient overseer. At cabinet meetings he was known for demanding results -- ordering that an empty downtown storefront in Montpelier be converted to living space faster than sprinkler regulations could be satisfied.

"He kept his eye on the big picture and did not understand that every one of the agencies had all kinds of things they had to deal with," said Kathy Hoyt, a key aide who would be dubbed his "smoother-in-chief." "He would keep asking a lot of questions, his voice would get a little more leaden and his face a bit more red . . . I was the person who would try to calm him down and calm everyone else down and move wherever we needed to go."

Hoyt was one of dozens of Dean's female staffers. By 1998, 62.5 percent of policy leader positions in Vermont were held by women, higher than in any other state, according to the Center for Women in Politics at the University at Albany. Today, Dean's closest political adviser is the daughter of a Democratic family, Kate O'Connor.

Dean was a restless governor, his ambition seeking outlet beyond Vermont from early in his tenure. He frequently discussed health care on a program called "The Editors," filmed in Montreal. He won election in 1997 as chair of the Democratic Governors' Association, a job that required him to seek out other Democrats to run for office, giving him the national platform that he coveted.

"That was the first inkling I had that he had his eye on the bigger stage," said Bill Sorrell, the state attorney general and son of Dean's mentor, Esther Sorrell.

His travel by 2002 had become so frequent that local media outlets demanded his private schedules, a request he refused. A battle ensued, ending at the state Supreme Court, which ordered Dean to turn over some of the records. (Dean has also refused to make public thousands of documents from his governorship, placing them under a 10-year seal because he says they could produce potentially embarrassing revelations during his presidential bid.)

Dean's springboard to national attention, though, would be one he did not seek.

In 1999, the state Supreme Court decreed that gay couples were due the same legal rights of marriage as heterosexuals. The court told the state legislature to decide how best to extend those benefits to gays.

The issue was a particularly difficult one for Dean, having grown up in a household where his father made known his discomfort with gays and lesbians. Dean almost immediately expressed uneasiness with gay marriage and happily ceded the issue to the Legislature. "This was something the Legislature did," Sylvester, his adviser, said. "Not him."

A year later, the Legislature came back with its answer: the "civil union" concept that provided gay partners benefits, such as inheritance and hospital-visitation rights, but stopped short of recognizing the partnerships as equivalents of heterosexual marriage -- something Dean could live with.

"I told him, `This is the best we're going to get, let's get it done and over with,' " Sylvester said.

Dean signed the bill, in the privacy of his office, away from a crowd of waiting reporters and camera crews. Supporters of civil unions said it suggested shame in signing the measure; Dean said he wanted to avoid inflaming the issue.

The matter divided neighbors and friends. Letters and e-mails flooded the State House. Dean was pilloried by the left and right. Challengers sensed opportunity and pounced. In 2000, a fiery conservative named Ruth Dwyer challenged him for the governorship, as did Progressive Anthony Pollina.

Dean endured a brutal election, with normally placid parade routes turned into corridors of taunts for him. He eked out a win, drawing just 50.5 percent of the vote -- his worst showing ever. Two years later, when Dean chose not to run, a Republican captured the office. Dean, though, was unbowed. In his departing speech, he told legislators, "The job I have had for 11 years will continue to be the greatest job in Vermont."

In need of a friend's counsel Shortly before he announced his candidacy for the White House, Dean traveled to Atlanta, to the home of his old college roommate, Don Roman, a civil rights activist turned financial planner.

The trip was one for reminiscences, but for Dean it was more: He needed a touchstone.

Dean had lost his father less than a year earlier. Big Howard, the biggest influence of his life, had died of respiratory failure at 80, after Dean spent three weeks away from the governorship tending to him. For all their conflict, their disagreements, it was his father's approval Dean needed most. The death helped propel Dean to Laos, where he pieced together details that finally explained his brother's long-ago death. Finally, Dean had said his goodbye to Charlie.

Now, Dean had a momentous decision and he wanted to discuss it with someone who would not spare his feelings. Roman was the man.

"Why put yourself through this, Howard?" Roman pressed. "Running for president is such a difficult thing."

He could help the country, Dean fired back.

Roman pressed on, vetting Dean much as he had in college at Wright Hall when the two argued the momentous issues of the day and, as Roman put it, "We had to win by the strength of our arguments, the logic, the moral persuasiveness."

There in the plush family room, the debate would find closure with Dean saying he had to run -- if he didn't, he "couldn't live with myself."

Roman's mind turned back 35 years: Still the same Howard, Roman recalled thinking. But one thing had changed: The man who graduated from Yale not knowing what he wanted had found a calling. Second of two parts Profiles of candidates in the 2004 presidential race, along with a photo gallery, can be viewed at www.boston.com/politics.

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