TCS Daily

Dean's Distortions

By Sydney Smith - November 14, 2003 12:00 AM

In one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories the solution to the crime hinges on subtle inconsistencies in the criminal's public persona. The perpetrator, presumably an Anglican pastor, goes unnoticed among his neighbors until he's unmasked by another cleric. Father Brown explains how he got away with his deception:

"You would be astonished at how little the average public grasps about the Anglican controversies; lots of them don't really know what is meant by a High Churchman or a Low Churchman, even on the particular points of practice, let alone the two theories of history and philosophy behind them. You can see this ignorance in any newspaper; in any merely popular novel or play."


Substitute "primary care specialties" for "Anglican controversies," and "internist" and "family physician" for "High Churchman" and "Low Churchman," and you have a tidy description of the means used by Howard Dean to parlay his career as a physician into a neater political advantage than it normally confers.

At every opportunity Dean reminds voters that his life as a doctor has made him privy to insights that his opponents with other - understood to be lesser -- callings lack. He's often described in the media and by his supporters as a family physician. He's been photographed examining babies. He holds his stethoscope aloft during speeches. And he says things like this:


"As many of you know, I'm a doctor. I'm an internist, and I take care of all ages, pretty much five to 105. And one time I was sitting in my office -- and it was not unusual for young kids to come and talk to me because I knew the whole family -- and one time a young lady came into my office who was twelve years old and she thought she might be pregnant. And we did the tests and did the exam and she was pregnant. She didn't know what to do. And after I had talked to her for a while I came to the conclusion that the likely father of her child was her own father."


The message is clear -- trust him, he's a doctor. And not just any doctor. He's everyman's doctor. For Howard Dean has made the Norman-Rockwell-Marcus-Welby-all-American-no-nonsense-old-fashioned country doctor the archetype of his political narrative.


Now, there's nothing wrong with using an archetype to sell yourself. Politicians do it all the time. Some use the soldier-statesman archetype. Others use the common man. But, over-reliance on an archetype has its risks, chief among them the temptation to exaggerate the personal to better fit the political. And any exaggeration, once it's discovered, undermines credibility. Remember Al Gore's attempt to spin himself as a down home Tennessee man-of-the-people? They all laughed.

Dr. Dean is guilty of just as much exaggeration, but he isn't getting any of the scrutiny he deserves. As Dean himself acknowledges, he's an internist. And internists -- despite his touching story of teen pregnancy and photo-ops with babies -- don't treat children. They treat adults. Dean's claim to have treated patients ages five to 105 is dubious at best, and it calls into question the rest of his story.

Why would Dean indulge in such a glaring misrepresentation of his chosen specialty? Other doctors-turned-politicians have used their medical careers to further their political aims without distorting the truth. Surely, his experiences as an internist are just as valid as those of a pediatrician or a family physician or a general practitioner. But Dean isn't just a doctor who happens to be a politician. He is first and foremost, a politician. Which means his political narrative, no matter how inaccurate, is much more important to him than his personal one. The archetype rules.

At the moment, Dr. Dean enjoys the reputation of being a "straight talker." But if he can't talk straight about who he is, how can he talk straight about anything else?


Sydney Smith is a family physician who has been in private practice since 1991. She is board certified by the American Board of Family Practice, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. She is the publisher of MedPundit.


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