The story behind an unusual collaboration between an independent newspaper group and a small publishing house
BY DAN KENNEDY
FOR VERMONT POLITICIANS, the St. Albans Maple Festival is a natural place to meet and greet potential voters. Thus it was no surprise that then-governor Howard Dean would choose to pass through in June 2000, during his final re-election campaign.
Those were ugly days in Vermont. Two months earlier, Dean had signed the civil-unions bill, giving lesbian and gay couples many of the rights and protections of marriage. Signs emblazoned with TAKE BACK VERMONT were dotting the countryside ó not-so-subtle code for a growing nativist backlash against gay-coddling outsiders such as Dean, who was a physician from New York before he became the governor of his adopted state. Later, Dean would reveal that he wore a bulletproof vest for much of that campaign.
Walking toward St. Albans City Hall, Dean spotted a long-time supporter and moved over to give her a hug. Before he could do so, though, an elderly woman walked up to the governor and said, "You fucking, queer-loving son of a bitch." Without batting an eye, Dean retorted, "You should clean up your mouth, lady. You certainly didnít learn how to talk like that in Franklin County."
The anecdote is revealing about Dean in two ways. On the one hand, he neither apologized for nor attempted to explain his support for civil unions. On the other, his combative response was pitch-perfect: he had managed to go on the offensive while turning his tormentorís personal invective against her.
Dean went on to win re-election by a narrow margin that November, thus setting the stage for his unlikely emergence as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But this isnít a story about Dean. Rather, itís a story about a book that recounts this nasty encounter: Howard Dean: A Citizenís Guide to the Man Who Would Be President.
Written by a team of reporters for the Rutland Herald and its sister paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, and published by Steerforth Press, a highly regarded small publishing house down the road in South Royalton, the book was turned around in three months ó a remarkably fast job for such a deeply researched work. Because the book ó published in paperback ó is available now, it could influence the outcome of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, both of which will be held in January.
"I think this was highly unusual, what we did as a paper," says Dirk Van Susteren, who oversaw the project and who is the editor of Vermont Sunday Magazine, a supplement to the Herald and the Times Argus. "I canít think of a time when thereís been a book out on a candidate even before the convention."
Thatís not quite right. Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, to which Van Susteren pays tribute in his "Editorís Note," was available before the Republican National Convention in 2000. There may be other exceptions as well.
Still, what the Herald/Times Argus and Steerforth have accomplished is unusual enough. And it shows that, even in an era of increasing media concentration, it remains possible for small, independent players to make a real contribution to public discourse.
A CITIZENíS GUIDE has its origins in an earlier Herald/Times Argus project, A Vermont Century, a 1999 collection of photos and essays that Van Susteren describes as "a success, journalistically and financially."
Last spring Van Susteren was casting about for another book project that would make some money for the papers. The idea of a quickie Dean bio came up ó seriously enough for Van Susteren to talk with an agent. But it seemed like a long shot. Dean was a dark-horse candidate, and after the national media disparaged his late-June appearance on NBCís Meet the Press, the idea was abandoned.
Yet Deanís followers, far from being put off by Deanís encounter with Tim Russert, became even more passionate. The money rolled in. The polls showed Dean surging ahead of the early front-runner, Massachusetts senator John Kerry. The project was revived.
Hamilton Davis, a veteran Vermont journalist who would go on to contribute two chapters to A Citizenís Guide, recalls suggesting that he approach Steerforth Press. Van Susteren, he says, was uncomfortable with the idea, since Davis had previously written a long, laudatory piece about Steerforth for Vermont Sunday Magazine. But Davis assured Van Susteren that he simply wanted to seek advice, not pitch a book proposal. After all, Davis told him, Steerforth was a literary house best known for reviving the work of the 1930s novelist Dawn Powell. Publishing quickie political bios was something it just didnít do.
So Davis called Steerforth publisher Chip Fleischer. And got a reaction he hadnít expected. "In a matter of like five minutes," he says, "it became clear to me that Chip was not only being very forthcoming about the business ... but that Chip was interested." Davis called Van Susteren at home on a Saturday. Van Susteren and Fleischer talked over the weekend. That Monday, work on the book began.
Fleischer explains that Davis called at a time when he had begun thinking about how Steerforth might get into the business of quick-turnaround books. He was intrigued by the success of independent, rapid-response projects such as Noam Chomskyís 9/11, which Seven Stories Press released shortly after the terrorist attacks.
The Dean book, Fleischer says, was not only an opportunity for Steerforth to become involved with a similar type of project, but it was also more attractive for aesthetic reasons. "What they were proposing was a real work of journalism," Fleischer says of Van Susteren, Davis, and company. "And that appealed to me more than a polemical book would have."
Thus A Citizenís Guide was born, uniting two of Vermontís most respected independent media organizations.
The Herald and the Times Argus, owned by the Mitchell family (the current publisher of both papers is R. John Mitchell), have long labored in the shadow of the Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Free Press sells more than 48,000 papers Monday through Friday, and nearly 58,000 on Sunday. The combined circulation of the Herald and the Times Argus, by contrast, is less than 32,000 on weekdays and about 34,000 on Sunday.
Yet the Herald/Times Argus papers have long attracted journalists who decide they want to stay in Vermont ó like Van Susteren, a native of Wisconsin who did a stint at the Free Press, moved to the Providence Journal, and has been with the Herald/Times Argus since 1985. His sister Greta Van Susteren is a talk-show host for the Fox News Channel. His wife, Marialisa Calta, also a former Providence Journal reporter, is a cookbook author who helped write River Run Cookbook: Southern Comfort from Vermont with Jimmy and Maya Kennedy, the owners of the River Run restaurant, in Plainville.
In 2001, the Rutland Herald achieved national recognition when editorial-page editor David Moats ó who wrote the introduction to A Citizenís Guide ó won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing, for his commentary on the civil-unions debate.
Eric Davis, a political-science professor at Middlebury College, says the Herald/Times Argus is a more respected voice on Vermont politics than the Free Press, which he argues suffers from high turnover and thin staffing. "Itís my view that the Herald and the Times Argus are the best example of a family-owned newspaper thatís considered to have the role of good citizen in the state," says Davis, who is not related to Hamilton Davis.
Retorts Free Press executive editor Mike Townsend by e-mail: "Eric Davis is entitled to his opinions, whether they are dead right ó or dead wrong. Praise the Lord for the First Amendment, academic freedom and editors with thick skin."
Steerforth Press itself is a fascinating story. According to Ham Davisís account in Vermont Sunday Magazine, the publishing house was begun 10 years ago by four principals: Thomas Powers, a journalist who was the co-winner of a Pulitzer in 1971 for his coverage, while at United Press International, of an anti-war radical killed in a bomb-making factory in Greenwich Village; Alan Lelchuk, a novelist; Michael Moore, a veteran magazine editor; and Chip Fleischer, who was brought in to run the business on a day-to-day basis.
The Dawn Powell series established Steerforthís reputation, but today it is known for much more. Through its Steerforth Italia imprint, it publishes Italian literature and cookbooks. Through its Zoland Books imprint ó acquired within the past year ó it publishes the works of writers such as the National Book AwardĖwinning novelist Ha Jin and the poet Patricia Smith, a former columnist for the Boston Globe.
Lately Steerforth has been moving away from new fiction and classic literature in favor of more-timely nonfiction. The paradigmatic example would be Street Soldier: My Life As an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob, by Edward MacKenzie and Phyllis Karas. And, now, the Dean bio.
"I think of them as a really discriminating publisher of thoughtful, interesting books," says Benjamin Schwarz, literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly. "They obviously pick their books with great care, and they really seem to nurture their books."
SO WHAT KIND of a book is Howard Dean: A Citizenís Guide? The encounter in St. Albans aside, it is a serious, somewhat dry read. Above all, it focuses on Deanís record as governor. And it may contain a few surprises for newly minted liberal Dean supporters enamored of his opposition to the war in Iraq.
For instance, when Lieutenant Governor Dean succeeded Republican governor Richard Snelling, who died of a heart attack in 1991, his approach to closing the stateís deficit was, if anything, even more conservative than that of his budget-cutting predecessor.
Deanís record on the environment is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he was progressive on issues such as acquiring and setting aside open space. On the other, he ran roughshod over the stateís regulatory officials in easing environmental rules in order to court business development. "He was a great conservationist as opposed to an environmentalist," is how Ham Davis describes Deanís legacy.
Perhaps the bookís most fascinating section is on Deanís approach to civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Like many casual Dean-watchers, I had been skeptical of Deanís sincerity, since ó as has been widely reported ó he went out of his way to sign the bill out of view of news photographers, as though it were something of which he was ashamed. Yet he comes across in A Citizenís Guide as masterful in his handling of the issue, knowing exactly how far he could go without provoking a backlash that would have overwhelmed both him and the cause of gay and lesbian rights.
It will be interesting to see how ó or if ó the Dean campaign reacts. Dorie Clark, the communications director for Deanís New Hampshire campaign, told me by e-mail, "We have not seen the book yet, but in general prefer to let works about Governor Dean speak for themselves." She notes, too, that Deanís autobiography will be released on December 1.
Says Ham Davis: "This book is journalistic. People ask us all the time, is this book pro-Dean? Is it anti-Dean? What we hope is that itís a Dean book, that it has Deanís pluses as well as his minuses. Dean as a personality is very combative. I would not be shocked at all if he objected to some of the characterizations of his performance that are negative."
As Van Susteren argues in his "Editorís Note," channeling Molly Ivins on Bush, the best way to determine what kind of president Dean would make is to take a close look at what kind of governor he was.
In that light, Howard Dean: A Citizenís Guide is a worthwhile read for anyone trying to decide whom to support in the 2004 Democratic primaries.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.