Topic: Government & Politics

The Incorrigible Governor Dean
(8/4/2004)

For those needing any further illumination on the question of why Howard Dean is not the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, it is only necessary to read the remarks of the former Vermont governor on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. When Blitzer asked him what he made of the decision by the Department of Homeland Security, to increase the threat level in Washington, D.C. from, from elevated (yellow) to high (orange), Dean responded:

"It's hard to know what to make. None of us outside the administration have access to the intelligence, which led to this determination. I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush he plays this trump card, which is terrorism. His whole campaign is based on the notion that "I can keep you safe, therefore at times of difficulty for America stick with me," and then out comes Tom Ridge. It's just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of this is politics, and I suspect there's some of both in it."

As anyone who followed his primary campaign will recognize, this is the real Howard Dean, the same eager conspiracy theorist who floated the possibility…completely without supporting evidence or proof of any kind…that President Bush might have known about the Twin Tower attacks in advance, as maintained by former and, sadly, soon to be renegade House member Cynthia McKinney. This time, he baldly asserts that the President has set out to create artificial fears and to manipulate a federal warning system for "politics."

This is illogical, irresponsible, unfair, and, of course, unethical. Let us count the ways:

  1. It presumes bad faith on the part of a public servant of high elected office. Disagreeing with a president's policies does not require, nor should it involve except in extraordinary circumstances, taking the position that he is not doing what he views as the best thing for the country. This was the same despicable attitude displayed by some Republicans, like the shameless Bob Barr, who accused President Clinton of timing his attacks on Osama Bin Laden to distract attention from his Lewinsky problems.

  2. It undermines the faith of citizens in the integrity of their government. This is playing with fire, and Democrats have opened too many matchbooks already. The entire conspiratorial mindset embodied by Dean (who should consider becoming a documentary film-maker, as he appears to have the one quality most essential for success: a willingness to make sensational accusations without proof) arose from the understandable frustration of losing the 2000 presidential election. "They stole the election!" has been the cry of the losers every time the popular vote and Electoral College have been at odds; it has happened four times, and the strategy "worked" the previously three…if you call "working" weakening the ability of a president to govern and dividing the country in order to win the next election. The office of the President of the United States deserves respect and must have respect to function. For any public figure to attempt to erode that respect out of animus only, without any facts, simply to make a political assault is a marker of bad character.

  3. Does Dean have any reason to doubt the integrity of Secretary Ridge, a man whose public record is distinguished and unblemished? He does not. But Dean's statement presumes that Ridge is nothing but a conspiratorial hack, without the courage or the conviction to refuse to deceive the nation he has taken an oath to serve.

  4. Dean's statement is dangerous. He is willing to erode the effectiveness of a national warning system on based on nothing but either (choose one) his own hatred and paranoia or a desire to assail the president irrespective of the truth.

  5. These are ethical considerations, but a word is required on the dim logic of Dean's accusation. Of course the President maintains, as a core aspect of his re-election campaign, that he is the leader who is most able to keep the country safe from terrorism. If he didn't believe that, he would have an obligation not to run. Dean is using a fact that has no sinister implications whatsoever, the centrality of terrorism control to the Bush re-election effort, as his sole proof of activity that, if true, would be criminal and proof of depravity.

Senator Joe Lieberman, who ranks high on the Ethics Scoreboard integrity scale, responded to Dean's outburst thus:

"I don't think anybody who has any fairness or is in their right mind would think the president or the secretary of homeland security would raise an alert level and scare people for political reasons. That's outrageous." 

Exactly.

Now we will see if candidate Kerry, who has used Dean as a so-called "surrogate," will relieve him of this role. A surrogate is supposed to speak for the candidate he represents, and Kerry can ill-afford to have the irresponsible Mr. Dean behaving unethically in his name.

UPDATE: A new controversy is swirling around the elevated terror alert, as it has been revealed that the action was based in part on intelligence that was several years old. Does this change our assessment of Governor Dean's comments?

Absolutely not.

While critics question the weight given to the old intelligence, that is an issue of judgment, not one of good faith. The Department of Homeland Security maintains that combined with recent interceptions, the older information suggested that an ongoing plot might be reaching a critical point. It is their job to make such calls, and impugning the Department's motives based on a general distrust of the Bush administration simply undermines public safety. Not to be cruel, but Howard Dean has about as much background in national intelligence analysis as the Dixie Chicks. When he uses his national prominence to give undue weight to completely self-generated suspicions, he is not being fair or responsible.

Let us also point out at this time that even in the unlikely event that Dean's unfounded accusations eventually coincide with known facts…that is, if facts surface that prove the Bush administration has manipulated the terror warnings for political purposes, the verdict on Dean's ethics would still stand. Why? Because it was an unsubstantiated accusation motivated by ill-will when he made it. In 1979, I was a speaker at an Amway convention whose host made a wildly cheered speech claiming that he "knew" Jimmy Carter was conspiring with the Soviet Union to betray the United States. He had no basis for the accusation at the time, of course, and if it had been discovered later that Jimmy was in fact an agent for the KGB, with daughter Amy his undercover Natasha, the accusation in '79 would still be unethical. Unethical conduct can only be judged at the time it takes place, and events don't retroactively make what was wrong right, or vice-versa.

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