It is the second day of Howard Dean's nine-city "Sleepless Summer Tour," and I'm standing on the tarmac at the airport in Portland, Oregon. I'm at the back of a long line of reporters to get onto the Dean campaign plane, nauseatingly dubbed the "Grassroots Express" by the candidate's staff. Waiting for me in my seat in the plane is a tuft of plastic grass; Dean's two bubbly communications aides, Patricia Enright and Courtney O'Donnell, thusly decorated the press section before the start of the trip.
It has been a long day already. The Dean rally at Portland State University earlier that afternoon drew about 5,000 people, an enormous number for a presidential campaign at this stage. Everywhere Howard Dean goes these days, he draws huge crowds. In Milwaukee the night before, nearly 1,000 people showed up at an airplane hangar late at night during a Packers game just to hear the candidate give a fifteen-minute speech. One local reporter in the crowd commented that Jesus Christ probably would have drawn 850. Everywhere you go, the buzz is unmistakable: Dean is the new liberal Elvis.
But right now, I'm not thinking about Elvis. I'm thinking about Crazy Eddie. That's because Dean at this very moment is standing apart from the crowd of reporters in front of the nose of the plane, doing what appeared to be his best impersonation of the famously manic New York home-electronics salesman. He's posing in front of campaign photographer John Pettitt, making a series of grotesque contortions--pointing variously at the camera and off to the side, making a rapid-fire series of painful-looking grins, puffing out his chest, giving an energetic dual thumbs-up.
"Check that out," I say to the other reporters in line. "I don't want to sell anything--I'm just CRAZZEEE!"
Blank stares; no response. The other reporters must not be from New York--or else they just don't think I'm funny. Only Sandeep Kaushik of the Seattle paper The Stranger smiles. We decide to go over and see what the governor is doing.
It turned out that Dean was having photos taken for the cover of a book he has coming out soon. Pettitt later told me that campaign finance rules prohibited Dean from having the picture taken at an actual campaign event like the Portland rally. "That would be a use of campaign money for a private venture," Pettitt explained. "We had to do it after one of the events."
Which made sense--but the sight of the governor up close in mid-pose is an image I won't likely forget soon. Without any prompting from Pettitt, he was feverishly muttering snippets from his stump speech in the middle of the frantic gesturing. "We're going to have some fun at the President's expense today...heh heh... We're going to take America back..."
Pettitt snapped away. The governor looked deranged. It didn't seem to bother him that Sandeep and I were standing there, taking notes. By the time we got back to the line, most of the reporters were on the plane.
It is probably already possible to speak of the existence of a "Howard Dean problem" in liberal America. The outlines of the problem are as follows: Vast numbers of people, horrified by George Bush and desperate for a positive change, have geared up this election season to throw their weight behind anything resembling a human being. Along comes Howard Dean, a well-spoken, obviously intelligent man who opposes the war in Iraq before it is politically expedient to do so, bluntly calls George Bush by all the names he deserves and quickly builds an impressive insurgent candidacy largely on his own, through the strength of a remarkable Internet version of a word-of-mouth campaign. To many, the choice seems obvious.
But thirsty people can have faulty vision, and when your eyes have burned you enough times, you begin to fear the mirage more than the thirst. And therein, for Howard Dean, lies the problem.