Michael Hurwitz was a Dean staffer at the rally in Falls Church. I found him tending the back entrance to the stage, where, before the speech, the multicultural poster group was milling about, waiting to go on.
"Let me ask you a question," I said, pointing. "How does this work? Does someone on the staff say, 'I need two wheelchairs, three blacks and a cheerleader? Who does that job? And how do they pitch it to the actual people?"
He shrugged. "I think it's more like, they come forward on their own."
Dean followers didn't need the trimmings; most were there because they were antiwar and repulsed by the other Democrats who voted for the war. The glitz was for someone else, and that someone else, I soon realized, was on the plane with me.
As much as the reporters snickered about the campaign fakery, and occasionally cracked about it in print, there is no question that they were attracted to the big-campaign symbolism like moths to a lamp. To be full of shit in American politics is a signal to our political press that you are serious, and it was quite obvious that the most transparently meaningless or calculating aspects of Dean's behavior were what most impressed the Sleepless Summer press corps.
To wit: Most of the reports filed during the trip focused on the size of the crowds, the amount of money Dean has raised, the "feel of a general election campaign" surrounding his appearances and the sudden departure of his legendary "brusque, angry tone," which incidentally I never saw in the first place. A great many of the conversations among reporters on the plane centered around whether or not Dean had a chance to beat Bush, and these speculations--called horse-racing in the business--dominated the narratives of most of the articles, many of which wondered aloud whether Dean was "too far left" or would "moderate" his rhetoric in time for the real race.
When I asked the reporters on the plane what the value of this kind of reporting was, I got an interesting answer. No fewer than four journalists replied to the effect that unless the electability issue was addressed, "someone like Kucinich" might get the nomination.
"Hell, if it came down to a battle of position papers, Dennis Kucinich might win," laughed Jackson Baker of the Memphis Flyer, incidentally not a horse-racer and one of the true good guys on the plane.
"I think its value is that it helps to explain to the reader why I'm spending so much time with one candidate," said Mark Silva of the Orlando Sentinel. "He needs to know why I'm reporting so much on Howard Dean, as opposed to, say, Dennis Kucinich."
The next day, Silva ran a piece containing a quote from former Washington Governor Booth Gardner, comparing Howard Dean to Seabiscuit.
I was never much impressed by the "Howard Dean problem." To me personally, the whole issue seems ridiculous: I would vote for Count Dracula over George Bush. But it is a deflating thing to vote for a horse instead of a man. And "momentum" makes horses of them all.