Politics as usual on the front-runner’s tour.


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.

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.

“Governor!” I said. “You talk in your speech about investing in small businesses, and creating Sallie Mae-type loans to help them out…”

“That’s right,” he said.

“But how do Sallie Mae loans help small businesses fight off the Cargills and the Wal-Marts of the world? Isn’t the problem of small businesses rooted in their inability to compete economically with massive companies? Isn’t this more of a fundamental problem in our economy that will take more than a few loan programs to fix?”

Dean paused, then nodded. “Well,” he said, “there’s not a whole lot the federal government can do about that.”

What the hell kind of answer is that? I thought. I was about to press the matter, when suddenly Miami Herald reporter Peter Wallsten pushed me aside and lunged at the candidate.

“Governor, getting back to substance,” he said. “Is it true that you paint your own house?”

I turned to Wallsten in shock. Getting back to substance? Fuck you! I thought.

Dean laughed. “Um, yes, it is,” he said.

“Why do you paint your own house?” Wallsten asked.

Dean shrugged. “To save money, I suppose,” he said. “I’m kind of a tightwad.”

A dozen hands at once scrambled to write the word “tightwad.”

“Do you paint the inside, or the outside?” said Wilgoren, jumping in.

“Um, both,” Dean said.

“Do you use a brush, or a…”

She made a gesture. “Or a roller?” Wallsten helped out.

“Uh, again, both,” Dean said.

Suddenly I heard the voice of Colapinto yelling out behind me. “Governor!” he said. “Did you bring your harmonica on this trip?”

At other times during the tour Dean seemed to invite the reporters to get into something serious, and nobody in the pool would bite. On the last day, for instance, Dean made his daily plunge accompanied by a friend, the former mayor of Baltimore and an ex-classmate of Dean’s from Yale, Kurt Schmoke.

Schmoke’s presence on the flight ought to have been a big story among the press corps, for he is something of an anomaly in American politics. One of the country’s most visible and outspoken black politicians, Schmoke was perhaps the first major politician in America to openly advocate the decriminalization of drug use. He once famously described the war on drugs as “our domestic Vietnam” and, before he left office in 1999, implemented a series of drug reforms in Baltimore aimed at the “medicalization” of the drug problem.

Considering the sensitivity of the drug issue in America, it was an act of some political bravery on Dean’s part to bring Schmoke into the back of the plane with him. He was clearly trying to make a point, but no one among the reporters seemed interested.

“Do you believe nonviolent drug offenders should go to jail?” I asked.

“No,” he said bluntly.

“That’s it–no?” I said.

“Well,” he said, “if you’re talking about someone who’s selling heroin in a school zone, sure, that’s probably something you should go to jail for. But a guy who just has a problem, or gets busted a few times, no, he shouldn’t go to jail. It’s a medical issue.”

“So how would you address the issue as President?” I said. “Most of the drug laws aren’t federal laws.”

“Well, that’s true,” he said. “We’d probably try block grants to give states incentives to finding alternatives to prison.”

That this was not exactly the answer I was hoping for–the opening of federally sanctioned opium dens–was beside the point. It would be revolutionary for an American President, or even a major-party nominee, just to say that nonviolent drug offenders shouldn’t go to jail. The breaking of that public taboo on a nationwide basis would be a major event, a huge step in halting the idiocy of a 2 million-strong prison population. But the press wasn’t interested in making it happen, even though Dean was serving up the chance on a silver platter.

Then again, Dean wasn’t exactly shouting it from the rooftops, either. He is, after all, a successful politician these days. And as was clear on the tour, a successful politician can only behave in a certain way.

Dean’s supporters almost universally declare that they were attracted to the campaign because the governor is “different,” “not the same old thing,” “not a typical politician.” Literally dozens of people I talked to along the way had the same feeling about him, ranging from teen students (Maggie Desmond, 17, of Waukesha, Wisconsin; she was with the Waukesha High School Liberals Club) to lawyers (Judie Rettelle, a volunteer manning the press entrance at the Falls Church, Virginia, event) to smart young filmmakers (Faith Radle, 31, of San Antonio, who produced a cool indie film called Speeder Kills). Even Cecil Andrus, the amiable and charming former governor of Idaho, insisted that Dean was a different kind of political creature.

“I just don’t go for those stereotypical politicians, the kind in the Senate,” he told me, on the tarmac in Boise. “You know, with the…”

He made a gesture. “With the hairdos?” I asked.

Andrus, who’s bald, laughed. “Well, if they’ve got hair at all, they’re suspect,” he said.

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.

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.

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