In forty years of observing presidential contests, I cannot remember another major candidate brutalized so intensely by the media, with the possible exception of George Wallace. Howard Dean contributed some fatal errors of his own, to be sure, but he also brought fresh air and new ideas, a crisp call to revitalize the Democratic Party and at least the outlines of deeper political and economic reforms. The reporters, as surrogate agents for Washington’s insider sensibilities, blew him off. Dean’s big mistake was in not recognizing, up front, that the media are very much part of the existing order and were bound to be hostile to his provocative kind of politics. To be heard, clearly and accurately, he would have had to find another channel.
For the record, reporters and editors deny that this occurred. Privately, they chortle over their accomplishment. At the Washington airport I ran into a bunch of them, including some old friends from long-ago campaigns, on their way to the next contest after Iowa. So, I remarked, you guys saved the Republic from the doctor. Yes, they assented with giggly pleasure, Dean was finished–though one newsmagazine correspondent confided the coverage would become more balanced once they went after Senator Kerry. Only Paul Begala of CNN demurred. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Begala said, blank-faced. Nobody here but us gunslingers.
The party establishment, limp as it is, was correct to target Dean with tribal vengeance. From their narrow perspective, he represented a political Antichrist. The unvarnished way he talked. The glint of unfamiliar, breakthrough ideas in his speeches. His lack of customary deference to party elders (and to the media’s own cockeyed definition of reality). What the insiders loathed are the same qualities many of us found exhilarating. I already feel nostalgia for his distinctive one-liners:
“Too many of our leaders have made a devil’s bargain with corporate and wealthy interests, saying ‘I’ll keep you in power if you keep me in power.'”
“As long as half the world’s population subsists on less than two dollars a day, the US will not be secure…. A world populated by ‘hostile have-nots’ is not one in which US leadership can be sustained without coercion.”
“Over the last thirty years, we have allowed multinational corporations and other special interests to use our nation’s government to undermine our nation’s promise.”
“There is something about human beings that corporations can’t deal with and that’s our soul, our spirituality, who we are. We need to find a way in this country to understand–and to help each other understand–that there is a tremendous price to be paid for the supposed efficiency of big corporations. The price is losing the sense of who we are as human beings.”
“In our nation, the people are sovereign, not the government. It is the people, not the media or the financial system or mega-corporations or the two political parties, who have the power to create change.”
Do you not remember those remarks? Dean’s best lines–evocative suggestions rather than explicit policy pronouncements–were not widely reported. In his brisk, scattered manner, he was talking about power, inviting people to contemplate the deteriorated condition of our democracy, expressing his solidarity with their skepticism and alienation. Audiences responded, but this sort of talk was too soft and allusive to constitute “news.” Dean’s style was indeed “hot”–“angry,” the reporters said–but they simply couldn’t deal with his reflective side; it didn’t fit the caricature.