From NYT op-ed: OP-ED COLUMNIST The Mysterious Stranger By DAVID BROOKS Published: December 9, 2003 ARTICLE TOOLS E-Mail This Article Printer-Friendly Format Most E-Mailed Articles TIMES NEWS TRACKER Topics Alerts Presidential Elections (US) Dean, Howard Vermont y moment of illumination about Howard Dean came one day in Iowa when I saw him lean into a crowd and begin a sentence with, "Us rural people. . . ." Dean grew up on Park Avenue and in East Hampton. If he's a rural person, I'm the Queen of Sheba. Yet he said it with conviction. He said it uninhibited by any fear that someone might laugh at or contradict him. It was then that I saw how Dean had liberated himself from his past, liberated himself from his record and liberated himself from the restraints that bind conventional politicians. He has freed himself to say anything, to be anybody. Other candidates run on their biographies or their records. They keep policy staff from their former lives, and they try to keep their policy positions reasonably consistent. But Dean runs less on biography than any other candidate in recent years. When he began running for president, he left his past behind, along with the encumbrances that go with it. As governor of Vermont, he was a centrist Democrat. But the new Dean who appeared on the campaign trail a jarring sight for the Vermonters who knew his previous self is an angry maverick. The old Dean was a free trader. The new Dean is not. The old Dean was open to Medicare reform. The new Dean says Medicare is off the table. The old Dean courted the N.R.A.; the new Dean has swung in favor of gun control. The old Dean was a pro-business fiscal moderate; the new Dean, sounding like Ralph Nader, declares, "We've allowed our lives to become slaves to the bottom line of multinational corporations all over the world." The philosopher George Santayana once observed that Americans don't bother to refute ideas they just leave them behind. Dean shed his upper-crust WASP self, then his centrist governor self, bursting onto the national scene as a mysterious stranger who comes out of nowhere to battle corruption. The newly liberated Dean is uninhibited. A normal person with no defense policy experience would not have the chutzpah to say, "Mr. President, if you'll pardon me, I'll teach you a little about defense." But Dean says it. A normal person, with an eye to past or future relationships, wouldn't compare Congress to "a bunch of cockroaches." Dean did it. The newly liberated Dean doesn't worry about having a coherent political philosophy. There is a parlor game among Washington pundits called How Liberal Is Howard Dean? One group pores over his speeches, picks out the things no liberal could say and argues that he's actually a centrist. Another group picks out the things no centrist could say and argues that he's quite liberal. But the liberated Dean is beyond categories like liberal and centrist because he is beyond coherence. He'll make a string of outspoken comments over a period of weeks on "re-regulating" the economy or gay marriage but none of them have any relation to the others. When you actually try to pin him down on a policy, you often find there is nothing there. For example, asked how we should proceed in Iraq, he says hawkishly, "We can't pull out responsibly." Then on another occasion he says dovishly, "Our troops need to come home," and explains, fantastically, that we need to recruit 110,000 foreign troops to take the place of our reserves. Then he says we should not be spending billions more dollars there. Then he says again that we have to stay and finish the job. At each moment, he appears outspoken, blunt and honest. But over time he is incoherent and contradictory. He is, in short, a man unrooted. This gives him an amazing freshness and an exhilarating freedom. Everybody talks about how the Internet has been key to his fund-raising and organization. Nobody talks about how it has shaped his persona. On the Internet, the long term doesn't matter, as long as you are blunt and forceful at that moment. On the Internet, a new persona is just a click away. On the Internet, everyone is loosely tethered, careless and free. Dean is the Internet man, a string of exhilarating moments and daring accusations. The only problem is that us rural folk distrust people who reinvent themselves. Many of us rural folk are nervous about putting the power of the presidency in the hands of a man who could be anyone.