In the past six months the very success of Dean's campaign has become, for some, an indictment against him. Anything this popular has to be phony. Iconoclasts of all stripes have lined up to attack him, including voices of the left like Alexander Cockburn and Norman Solomon. On the liberal side critics have pointed to his refusal to support cuts in military spending, some seeming inconsistencies in his campaign finance positions, his support of the death penalty in some cases, his refusal to energetically disavow the corporate economy.
These criticisms have provoked a discussion over just how much may be overlooked in the effort to unseat George Bush. This debate--the Howard Dean problem--has gathered such redundant steam in recent months that one now sees on the Internet articles with such extraordinary titles as, "A Case Against the Case Against the Case for Howard Dean."
Six months ago, when I first started investigating the Democratic candidates for 2004, Dean seemed to me the only one whom I would trust not to steal my silverware. Now I'm not so sure--but that might not be Dean's fault. As I found out on the Sleepless Summer Tour, no candidate with "momentum" looks good up close; and the realities of modern campaigning make it hard to spot a mirage, even at close range.
The first axiom of campaign journalism, one that should be memorized by any reporter who tries it, goes as follows: Substance is impossible.
Here's an example. After listening to Dean's stump speech a half-dozen times I decided to focus on some of his bread-and-butter themes, and make my central task in interviewing the candidate the turning over of just a few of the bigger stones in his public presentation. For instance: Dean, like every other candidate who has ever run for President in this country, presents himself in his speech as a strong supporter of small business. His twist on the subject is that while large corporations pay more, small businesses employ more people, and they don't (you have to imagine raucous applause and the doctor's fist pounding on the podium here) "take their jobs to China!"
Dean's idea for bringing about the growth of small businesses seemed to me suspiciously feeble and inadequate: He favors creating Sallie Mae-type government loans to help small businesses secure startup capital. But as a former owner of a small business (a newspaper in Buffalo), I knew that startup capital was not exactly the problem most small businesses face. The problem isn't buying the farm; the problem is keeping a Death Star like Cargill from blasting it into asteroid pieces. If you don't do something to rein in predatory corporations, any little loan program is nothing more than a cruel dog-and-pony show.
I wanted to ask Dean about this, but getting to him was problematic. Not that Dean didn't make himself accessible. He did: On every day of the trip, in fact sometimes twice or three times a day, Dean would make a kind of rugby plunge into the press section of the plane, opening himself up to questions. The geography of the 737 and the temperament of the reporters made this an extremely dicey task. At times the scrums turned comical. In one memorable exchange, Dean was forced to take a seat with us during turbulence and found himself sandwiched in a three-seat row between Rolling Stone reporter John Colapinto and Modern Physician's Elizabeth Beckley. It was an extraordinary scene: a candidate for the exalted office of the presidency, staring directly at an in-the-upright-position tray table, trying to field utterly opposite questions from both sides of his head at the same time.
"Who are your top five bands?" Colapinto asked.
"Uh, well, there's Buffalo Springfield..." Dean began.
"How are you going to pay for your health insurance plan?" Beckley asked.
"Well..." Dean began.
"What about guitarists?" Colapinto asked. "Which guitarists do you like?"
"Well, there's Clapton..." Dean said.
This was the kind of atmosphere your question had to conquer on its way to the candidate's brain. I was no good at this dynamic for about the first thirty-six hours of the trip. But finally, on my third day, I managed to fight past New York Times reporter Jodi Wilgoren for a spot in Dean's face.