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Tale of the tape on Howard Dean

Old episodes of an obscure television show might soon become must-see TV for followers of the 2004 presidential race. While governor of Vermont, Howard Dean was a regular guest on the show. NBC's Mark Murray reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Aired in Canada and PBS stations in the United States, “The Editors” is a public affairs TV show that most Americans probably haven’t seen. It features a roundtable panel of politicians, journalists, and policy wonks who discuss American and Canadian politics, foreign affairs, and social issues.

But old episodes of the “The Editors” might soon become must-see TV for followers of the 2004 presidential race. While governor of Vermont, Howard Dean was a regular guest on the show, and the NBC News Investigative Unit has now obtained the videotapes of 90 of his appearances from 1996 to 2002. They help answer one of the race’s biggest questions: Just who is Howard Dean? Is he the angry, liberal, combustible flip-flopper that his opponents and some chattering pundits claim he is? Is he, as other rivals suggest, too conservative when it comes to guns, trade, and balancing the budget? Is he ignorant on foreign policy issues? Or is he the magnetic, straight-talking candidate his admirers say he is?

As reported by Lisa Myers on NBC's “Nightly News,” Dean comes across in these tapes as having a wide-ranging intellect, a sharp tongue, and shifting views on some key issues. 

Yet he also shows that he’s much more consistent on issues — like affirmative action and trade — than some of his opponents give him credit for. And despite the constant complaints that Dean has no foreign policy experience, he demonstrates a good grasp of international affairs.

According to Ann McFeatters, the Washington bureau chief for both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade who has also been a regular guest on the show, the Dean you see on “The Editors” is the same Dean you see on the campaign trail. “He is very smart, likes an argument, likes to claw around and through a problem, and does speak his mind,” she said.

In fact, the most newsworthy revelations from these tapes are more examples of Dean speaking his mind, sometimes making statements that could arguably come back to hurt him. For instance, in a show that aired almost exactly four years ago, Dean made some less-than-flattering comments about caucuses in the presidential nominating process — the very same type of caucuses that will occur in Iowa on Jan. 19, where some polls show him to be leading.

Harsh remarks on caucuses
“If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests in both parties,” he said. “[And] the special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes. And then you get a president who is beholden to either one extreme or the other, and where the average person is in the middle.”

He added, “Here's what happens: Say I'm a guy who's got to work for a living, and I've got kids and so forth. On a Saturday, is it easy for me to go cast a ballot and spend 15 minutes doing it, or do I have to sit in a caucus for eight hours? … I can’t stand there and listen to everyone else’s opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world.”

Regarding Al Gore, the very man who endorsed him in December, Dean said back in a January 1998 show: “He has a lot of attributes, but … there are some things that I am concerned about. One of them is being quick on your feet. He is not.”

In another January 1998 episode, he also speculated that there “will probably be good and bad” if Hamas takes control over the Palestinian leadership. Yasser Arafat, he said, “is going to leave the scene. ... When that happens, I think Hamas will probably take over. There will probably be good and bad out of that. The bad, of course, is that Hamas is a terrorist organization. However, if they have to run a quasi-state they may actually have to be more responsible and start negotiations. So who knows what will happen.”

But then he said this in February 1999 appearance: “The next great tragedy is going to be Arafat’s passing, believe it or not. I’m not a fan of terrorism or Arafat.  But the truth is that what’s happening here is [former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has thrown away the chance of a lifetime to negotiate with people he could negotiate with. Next comes Hamas, comes far more radical government in Jordan ... which may ally itself with Iraq. I think it’s a frightening proposition.”

A Dean spokeswoman points out that these quotes were cut from nearly 100 appearances, but she says Dean does wish he had been "more artful" in some of his comments.

In addition, Dean said some things on “The Editors” that might be considered flip-flops from his current statements on the campaign trail. In an appearance after the 2000 presidential election, Dean made this comment about his former fellow governor, George W. Bush. “George Bush, I believe, is in his soul a moderate.” That’s certainly a contrast from this remark, which he said this November: “I believe that George Bush's philosophy in life is, if you're rich you deserve it and if you're poor you deserve it.”

And Dean seemed to display a sharp tongue a few times on the show. In an April 1998 discussion on welfare policy, one panelist remarked that 80 percent of children who are born to single mothers end up on welfare. Dean lashed out at that statement. “That is absolute crap. This is absolute unmitigated garbage.” (Welfare experts at the Brookings Institution and at the Center for Economic and Policy Research say Dean is most likely correct, certainly according to welfare rolls in the 1990s.)

But other frequent guests on “The Editors” don’t believe that Dean ever demonstrated a temper. William Powers, a media critic at National Journal magazine, notes Dean always relished a good debate on the show. “He was combative and seemed to enjoy the combat.” But Powers, who wrote a 2002 article in National Journal about Dean’s appearances on the program, stresses he was never the angry person that his critics accuse him of being. “You never got a sense of real hostility.”

“I never saw him to have a temper. I saw him shoot from the hip,” added R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the conservative editor in chief of the American Spectator who often sparred with Dean on the show. “That’s a difference.” Tyrrell says, however, that Dean was often prone to “talk down to everyone around him.”

Still, despite the controversial statements, the flip-flops, and occasional heated comments, Dean’s appearances on “The Editors” also show he has been more consistent on some issues than his opponents say he is. Although in 1995 he once said that affirmative action should be based on class rather than race — a statement that rivals like Al Sharpton and Dick Gephardt have pounced on — Dean was extolling the virtues of affirmative action back in a 1997 appearance. “I think that this country needs affirmative action in order to succeed as a diverse society,” he said.

'Nervous about NAFTA'
In addition, while Dean has been critical about free trade on the campaign trail, some of his opponents have blasted his earlier support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Yet in a February 1998 episode of “The Editors,” Dean said he was already having second doubts about that support. “I’m a little nervous about NAFTA. I was a big supporter four years ago. I’m worried about the condition of Mexican workers around the maquiladoras. And I had hoped that NAFTA would boost the Mexican standard of living.” Such a statement seems to contradict Gephardt’s current argument that Dean’s doubts about NAFTA and free trade are an “11th-hour conversion.”

Dean has also been consistent about his opposition to tax cuts, including his desire to roll back the tax rates to their levels during the Clinton Administration. “There is such a thing as a bad tax cut,” he said in an October 1996 appearance. “It took Reagan’s tax cuts, which were irresponsible, to create an enormous deficit, which has finally 12 years later come home to roost and force us to reduce spending.”

“I’m very satisfied with the income tax levels in the United States right now,” he added in a later appearance that year. “I think they are about right.”

And finally, even though his experience in government hasn’t extended beyond Vermont’s borders, his statements on “The Editors” demonstrated a fairly good understanding of international affairs. On one show taped in November 2000, Dean said: “I think cooler heads will eventually prevail in the Middle East — unless, of course Netanayhu makes a return. I actually think Pakistan is a far more dangerous place right now; it is a shell of a country waiting to be taken over, essentially, by radical Islamists and that is going to destabilize all of central Asia.”

Other concerns
There’s more from that appearance. “I also think we have to be very concerned about Venezuela and Colombia,” he said. “Here we have two democracies which are now sliding backwards and being threatened with extinction. … That's in our own hemisphere.”

Impressed by Dean’s performance during this episode, host Keith Morrison said, “I think the governor should be the secretary of state.”  Dean’s reply was certainly diplomatic. “I’ve got plenty of trouble in Vermont.”

Mark Murray is the off-air political reporter for NBC News. NBC’s Jim Popkin, Michelle Jaconi, Huma Zaidi, Katie Buckley, Abigail Wuellner, Adam Radin, Lindsay Breedlove, Julie Grauert, Katie Kennedy, and Aretae Ortiz contributed to this article.