"Look around," Mrs. Dean said in a recent interview, gesturing at the quarters where her boys grew up. "Howard didn't have the least bit of a glamorous upbringing."
Explaining that every time she had a baby, the dining room would serve as a bedroom for the newborn and his nurse, she concluded, "I don't think we could even keep up with the Bushes."
All told, for instance, Dr. Dean's parents have given him and his family nearly $1 million in cash gifts over the last two decades, including a single gift of $200,000 in the early 1980's. And his wife's parents gave the couple $60,000 in 1985 to help them pay $161,700 in cash for the family's house on Burlington's south side, freeing the couple from monthly mortgage payments.
The Deans have amassed a nest egg of about $4 million, not including the value of their house, despite an annual income that has never exceeded $170,000. Some of it is in land — nearly $700,000 worth, plus the Burlington residence — but the remaining $3.24 million is in cash, bonds and a handful of conservative stocks.
And yet, the erstwhile populist was no stranger to social inequity.
While his parents were active in the exclusive Maidstone Club, an East Hampton institution that for decades refused to admit blacks or Jews, the Dean boys shunned that life. "I had plenty of friends at Maidstone, and they were people I liked," Dr. Dean said. "But it wasn't what I wanted to do. It wasn't that interesting."
Stirring stuff. Indeed, the reactions of the young Howard Dean to the societal upheavals of the 1960s were about what one would expect from a self-styled firebrand who regularly evokes the 'spirit of the 1960s' with such fondness:
During this period, Dean had no apparent involvement in the emerging causes and issues of the day. After entering Yale University in 1967, he was a popular but unremarkable student who took no role in campus protests against the war, or in a local issue, the trials of members of the Black Panther party in New Haven in early 1970, friends have said. After avoiding military service with a student deferment, he was eligible to serve by 1971, but presented evidence of a bad back and was rejected. He subsequently spent nine months in Aspen, Colo., skiing and working odd jobs, such as washing dishes and pouring concrete. He then became a stockbroker, following his father, a prominent figure on Wall Street, before entering medical school.
To all who knew him, it was apparent that this was a time of soul-searching and deep introspection on the part of the budding young progressive.
After Yale, having received a medical deferment from the Vietnam draft because of a long-standing back condition, Mr. Dean meandered and resisted Wall Street's pull. He spent 10 months skiing and working odd jobs in Aspen, Colo. When the spring snows melted in 1972, he returned to New York.
"People used to follow their fathers onto Wall Street," Mrs. Dean said. "That's the way it was done."
He began as a stockbroker's assistant and, two years later, was helping manage a small mutual fund. "He was damn good at it," Mrs. Dean said. "But I don't think it ever gave him any satisfaction."
Mr. Dean decided to become a doctor after working at a Denver hospital and then volunteering in the emergency room at St. Vincent's in New York. His disappointed father took the news well.
Shunning tradition and risking censure, the young Howard Dean was willing to make personal sacrifices in order to marry the woman he loved:
Years later, he remembers, his parents were immediately accepting of his decision to marry Judith Steinberg, even though it was highly unusual for someone from his family background to marry a Jew.
In fact, his mother said, she and his father discussed Ms. Steinberg's heritage, but decided they really liked her and felt she would have a calming effect on their determined but sometimes scattered son.
"We decided, well, he was never going to belong to the Maidstone Club, anyway."
Of course, one can't be held accountable for the outmoded and reactionary attitudes of one's parents - unless one becomes tacitly complicit in the perpetuation of those attitudes by one's unwillingness to repudiate them.
Told later of his mother's comment, Dr. Dean took a moment to soak it in. "She said that?" he finally asked, barking out a hearty laugh. "She's like me. She says whatever comes into her head."
Dean's mother has obviously been a major influence on him over the years.
Mrs. Dean sees her son's unpretentiousness as something he learned at home, pointing out that her own parents taught her to treat people in an egalitarian way.
"When I was growing up," she said, "we didn't even treat the servants like servants."
When one combines such worthy sentiments with his strong views concerning privacy and accountability, it stands to reason that Dean's background leaves him steadfast in his insistence on his empathy for the common man.
"I don't hide who I am," Dr. Dean said. "I am not in the least bit embarrassed about how I grew up. But, now, it wasn't quite as opulent as everybody might think."
Not quite, Gov. Dean. But, as we all know, opulence is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?