The Doctor is In 

Rolling with people-powered Howard Dean from the highs and lows of spring to the triumphs of summer

Thursday, Aug 28 2003
Photo by John Pettitt

On a misty March evening in Santa Monica, on one of those residential streets with pine trees that could pass for Anywhere, USA, lined with the relatively modest houses that in Anywhere would be a great deal more reasonably priced, there is for several blocks a solid row of parked cars. Couples, mostly middle-aged, are hurrying along the sidewalks in the twilight, calling up, somehow, a feeling of Halloween.

In the driveway of the most luxurious house on the street — its courtyard planted with lavender and sage beneath a trickling fountain — the candidate is climbing down from the passenger side of a black Jeep. He’s short and stocky, with closely cropped graying hair and a gray suit that looks as if it had been bought at Brooks Brothers about 20 years ago. He has a distinctly New England air — he could be the president of a small, sub–Ivy League college. His manner is unusual for a candidate in that it’s particularly untheatrical and low-key: When he says, “Thanks, pleased to be here,” to the people clustered around him, he gives the impression of being on his way to the same event they are, not of constituting the event itself.

Inside the house, people continue to gather until positions taken against the wall of the living room have become outposts of a sweaty, tangled crowd, and the food has run out. Only 60 people have RSVP’d, but close to 300 have shown up. A determined effort is required to maneuver into the dining room, which is where you need to go to shake the candidate’s hand; an older couple who look as if they might have voted for Adlai Stevenson embark on the journey and return 15 minutes later. (“Very pleasant,” reports the wife; “Too short to be president,” her husband says.) Although on an earlier trip to L.A. the candidate was rumored to be staying overnight with Warren-and-Annette, the recognizable celebrities in this crowd, aside from Rob Reiner and Tom Hayden, are mostly minor. More impressive are the one-rank-down-from-the-top producers, writers, directors, agents — people whose names are familiar rather than celebrated; whose enthusiasm, if it develops after this evening, can quickly become a critical mass of support in Hollywood.

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After about 45 minutes, Reiner gives the promised introduction, and then Howard Dean, who by now has his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, climbs onto the coffee table and, indicating the packed room, calls out jovially, “The parents’ nightmare!” Which is the perfect thing to say, because most of us in the room are old enough to have teenagers of our own, yet at the same time we’re baby boomers so famously and thoroughly attached to the gestalt of our youth that we half-expect our parents to come walking into the room and shut things down.

This is the point in the year when Howard Dean is still being . . . not dismissed, exactly, but discussed as a mere asterisk, a straight-talking former governor from a tiny state (. . . I mean, Vermont — what kind of base is that? . . .) whose one issue has been his opposition to the pending war with Iraq. People acknowledge, when pressed, that John McCain did pretty well among progressives on the straight-talk basis alone, and they concede that having been re-elected governor four terms in a row might indicate about Dean a certain level of sheer political skill. Everyone loves the idea of his being a physician — it’s novel for a presidential candidate, it lends itself to good slogans — and when more information about him begins to work itself into availability, that’s intriguing, too. Grew up on Park Avenue? Hmmm. Jewish wife, a practicing internist — great, maybe an inroad into the Lieberman vote. Former investment banker? Hey, authority about numbers. And didn’t he pass some important gay-rights bill? (Although this cuts two ways early in the campaign: He didn’t really pass it, you know, the Civil Unions Act, he had to sign it, it was a Vermont Supreme Court decision; and That’ll finish him in Middle America.) Now he’s got this elaborate Internet operation, The New York Times did a piece on it last week . . .

All the same, back in the middle of March — on the verge, as we are this evening, of the start of the bombing campaign — a kind of pervasive, despairing pessimism prevails. It’s cynically assumed that the war will make George W. Bush completely invincible (. . . My God, look at those poll numbers! . . .), despite the outcome of Bush I’s nearly identical situation in 1992. Although it’s clear that the administration is about to enter the war without the faintest idea of how to handle the aftermath of victory, as though none of the sobering lessons about military occupation apparent from Vietnam or Somalia or the West Bank intifada have made the slightest dent in its planning process, the conventional wisdom is that Americans are so panicked by the events of September 11 that they can no longer think straight; that they will forgo any doubts about the necessity for a pre-emptive strike, or about the priorities and influence of Bush’s advisers. It’s assumed, too, that the Achilles’ heel represented by the economy — along with the shortsighted policies contributing to its downturn since long before September 11 — will be overlooked in a flood of jingoistic fervor.

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