September 18, 2003 - The Nation Magazine


A Front-Runner Takes to the Skies

by Matt Taibbi

(Excerpts from a longer article - For the full piece, Click Here.)

It is probably already possible to speak of the existence of a "Howard Dean problem" in liberal America. The outlines of the problem are as follows: Vast numbers of people, horrified by George Bush and desperate for a positive change, have geared up this election season to throw their weight behind anything resembling a human being. Along comes Howard Dean, a well-spoken, obviously intelligent man who opposes the war in Iraq before it is politically expedient to do so, bluntly calls George Bush by all the names he deserves and quickly builds an impressive insurgent candidacy largely on his own, through the strength of a remarkable Internet version of a word-of-mouth campaign. To many, the choice seems obvious.

At other times during the tour Dean seemed to invite the reporters to get into something serious, and nobody in the pool would bite. On the last day, for instance, Dean made his daily plunge accompanied by a friend, the former mayor of Baltimore and an ex-classmate of Dean's from Yale, Kurt Schmoke.

Schmoke's presence on the flight ought to have been a big story among the press corps, for he is something of an anomaly in American politics. One of the country's most visible and outspoken black politicians, Schmoke was perhaps the first major politician in America to openly advocate the decriminalization of drug use. He once famously described the war on drugs as "our domestic Vietnam" and, before he left office in 1999, implemented a series of drug reforms in Baltimore aimed at the "medicalization" of the drug problem.

Considering the sensitivity of the drug issue in America, it was an act of some political bravery on Dean's part to bring Schmoke into the back of the plane with him. He was clearly trying to make a point, but no one among the reporters seemed interested.

"Do you believe nonviolent drug offenders should go to jail?" I asked.

"No," he said bluntly.

"That's it--no?" I said.

"Well," he said, "if you're talking about someone who's selling heroin in a school zone, sure, that's probably something you should go to jail for. But a guy who just has a problem, or gets busted a few times, no, he shouldn't go to jail. It's a medical issue."

"So how would you address the issue as President?" I said. "Most of the drug laws aren't federal laws."

"Well, that's true," he said. "We'd probably try block grants to give states incentives to finding alternatives to prison."

That this was not exactly the answer I was hoping for--the opening of federally sanctioned opium dens--was beside the point. It would be revolutionary for an American President, or even a major-party nominee, just to say that nonviolent drug offenders shouldn't go to jail. The breaking of that public taboo on a nationwide basis would be a major event, a huge step in halting the idiocy of a 2 million-strong prison population. But the press wasn't interested in making it happen, even though Dean was serving up the chance on a silver platter.

Then again, Dean wasn't exactly shouting it from the rooftops, either. He is, after all, a successful politician these days. And as was clear on the tour, a successful politician can only behave in a certain way.

Dean's supporters almost universally declare that they were attracted to the campaign because the governor is "different," "not the same old thing," "not a typical politician." Literally dozens of people I talked to along the way had the same feeling about him, ranging from teen students (Maggie Desmond, 17, of Waukesha, Wisconsin; she was with the Waukesha High School Liberals Club) to lawyers (Judie Rettelle, a volunteer manning the press entrance at the Falls Church, Virginia, event) to smart young filmmakers (Faith Radle, 31, of San Antonio, who produced a cool indie film called Speeder Kills). Even Cecil Andrus, the amiable and charming former governor of Idaho, insisted that Dean was a different kind of political creature.

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