If enthusiasm is the measure of a man's skiing, Vermont's governor, Howard Dean, might be the best skier on the planet. His technique might at times fall short of the highest standard, but the governor skis with the dizzy glee of a 14-year-old kid who has just discovered the joys of kissing.
That was my assessment after watching Dean launch down Birch Run at Sugarbush on a snowy day in February. I had heard that the governor was a skier; that's why I wanted to go skiing with him. Still, I was surprised by the way he skied, as such a free spirit. I had assumed that with the importance of his office would come a certain amount of restraint. Put another way, I assumed that we'd be taking it easy.
But then the governor's skis tilted into the fall line. A wacky, pre-adolescent smile smeared across his face, and he was off. If we stopped momentarily, he'd insist on continuing-sometimes into the trees, where he'd bash around among the saplings. No waiting around for this guy.
It went on like that all morning -- full speed ahead, bombs away. On one run, at the bottom of Birch Run, I spotted the governor of the great state of Vermont catching air. A gubernatorial projectile!
There's no question that Howard Dean loves to ski, but whether he is the most accomplished skier among America's governors is another matter. New Hampshire's current governor, Jeanne Shaheen, is apparently not much of a skier. Maine's governor, Angus King Jr., however, has at least some idea about which end of a ski points downhill. And as for the governors from Western skiing states, Dean considers his most likely challenger to be Oregon's John Kitzhaber, reportedly a multitalented jock. A head-to-head slalom at some neutral site? My impression was that Dean would relish the opportunity.
Skiing is a vital part of Vermont's economy and culture. Tourism, generating $3.7 billion in revenue, is the state's most important economic entity, with skiing, responsible for 33,000 jobs, its most important component. In an economic environment like that, you'd think any governor would make a point of being able to ski. But Dean's skiing has nothing to do with political duty; the guy flat out loves to ski.
Here, after all, is perhaps the only governor in America who was once a ski bum in Aspen. In the '70s, Dean spent a winter washing dishes at the Golden Horn restaurant in order to scrape together enough change to allow him to ski about 80 days.
But even back then, he figured Aspen was "too glitzy." His skiing roots were in Vermont, and he was eager to return. The impression was powerful enough, in fact, to encourage Dean to move to Vermont in 1978 as a young doctor and establish a medical practice. Gradually, a political career unfolded, leading to the governorship in 1991.
Dean is not quite logging 80 days a year anymore, but hey, the guy's not washing dishes anymore, either. He now goes skiing as often as he can, perhaps 10 to 20 days a year-more often than your average person, certainly more than your average governor.
As we sat over lunch in the cafeteria, I was impressed with the way the governor blended in effortlessly with the crowd. In his decidedly unflashy parka (with Ski Vermont emblazoned on the back) and sporting a head of hat hair, there was little of the aura that might be associated with someone who, from time to time, is touted as presidential or vice-presidential material. Here was just another contented skier playing hooky from his job, dipping cafeteria french fries in ketchup, and burning to get back out for a few more runs.
Still, when you're a politician, politics always lurks, and you must be on guard. I was curious about his views on more pertinent matters such as the state and future of Vermont skiing, and his response revealed a deft political finesse. "We need barns, we need a rural Vermont, but we need the condo dwellers, too," he said. He emphasized that his personal fondness tilted toward a pastoral Vermont landscape, butt he also recognized modern ski resorts as the economic nodes that sustain the state.
Balance, he said, was of the essence. Ski resorts need to be developed with taste and proportion, avoiding tackiness and sprawl, and the integrity of rural Vermont must simultaneously persevere. This is the sort of position a governor ought to take, I suppose-balanced, sensible, appeasing both rural and developmental interests. At the same time, beneath the politician's polish, he seemed genuine and sincere. I sensed an abiding, personal interest.
On steep, slick, wide-open Ripcord, the governor was flying. "I finally figured out how to ski ice," he had said earlier. "You ski like Jean-Claude Killy, feet set wide apart, digging in both edges." On Ripcord, it didn't seem as if much digging in was going on at all. The governor of the great state of Vermont seemed, for the most part, simply to be pointing 'em. I hustled to keep up, as did Denny, Dean's faithful bodyguard, who goes wherever the governor goes in public, no matter the occasion.
Denny proceeded to dig in a bit too aggressively, and went down in an explosion of equipment. As I helped Denny reassemble himself, we both realized that the governor was long gone, already on the lift again, heading up for another run.
Such is the enthusiasm of the most ski-happy governor in America. He'd skied away from his bodyguard, his last line of protection against those phantom thugs of the forest. He had escaped the safety net, and I assumed that on his face was that wacky grin of irrepressible youth.