But it was hard not to notice that all the people surrounding Dean were veterans of the same-old, same-old Democratic Party. Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi is a longtime Democratic political consultant who has worked on the campaigns of Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, and in 1988 he even worked for current Dean opponent Dick Gephardt. (In the latter campaign, Trippi was one of a group of "killer" consultants, along with people like David Doak, Bill Carrick and Robert Shrum, whose attack-dog political strategizing was immortalized in Richard Ben Cramer's book on the 1988 campaign, What It Takes.) Trip coordinator Matt Vogel worked for Gore, as did Kelly McMahon, Dana Singiser, Aram Kailian, Patricia Enright (who was Gore's deputy director of communications) and numerous other Dean operatives appearing at one time or another on the Sleepless Summer Tour.
The footprints of some schlock Democratic Party Svengali--probably Trippi--were visible at every turn in the Dean voyage. There was the Grassroots Express itself, of course. This was one of the details that I found hardest to reconcile with the widespread belief that Dean is "different" and "not a typical politician." When you name your campaign vehicle the Grassroots Express, while one of your opponents (John Edwards) has a bus named the Real Solutions Express and a candidate from a rival party (John McCain) four years ago had one called the Straight Talk Express...well, you haven't worked very hard to be different.
Then there was the Imageering 101 political staging, a subject of much snickering in the press pool. At most every stop Dean had a statistically accurate multicultural microcosm await his arrival on stage, usually against a background of a giant American flag. Milwaukee, the second stop on the tour, was the most painful: seventeen supporters of various races (in proper proportions: three blacks, two Hispanics, etc.), frozen and seemingly afraid to move or make a face against the backdrop of a mammoth Old Glory. Watching them wait for Dean gave me shivers; they looked like sausages nailed to a giant red, white and blue crucifix.
There were other details: the plastic grass, the strange fact (compelling to several reporters) that Dean rolled up his sleeves in public but rolled them down and buttoned them when relaxing on the plane, the odd fuzziness and vacuity of certain parts of Dean's stump speech... It was not lost on some of us, for instance, that his wooden campaign slogan, "Take America Back," was also used by two other former Trippi candidates: Gephardt in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992. Much of Dean's public presentation, in fact, is a rehash of other Democratic campaigns. He makes a joke about Bush being "all hat and no cattle," which was a laugh line in Gephardt's campaign speech earlier this year. And his closer line, "You have the power! You have the power! You have the power!" (delivered in the style of Jesse Jackson's "Keep Hope Alive!" bit) was a Gore line in 2000.
The funny thing about this was that when I pointed out these behaviors to Dean supporters, they rarely failed to admit to being turned off by them. At best they were indifferent, distantly aware that these gags were being staged for some other mystical personage "out there" who would be convinced by them.
"Does that do anything for you, you know, seeing an ethnically mixed bunch of people standing in front of a big flag?" I asked 18-year-old Megan Colvin in Milwaukee.
She shrugged. "Well, no," she said. "But I think he's trying to say something about diversity."
"But," I said, "he's trying to say it to you, isn't he?"
"I guess," she said.