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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
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Page 8 of 13

Then, somewhere in the middle of this entirely pragmatic discussion, Dean pauses, and he puts his finger on a kind of abstract longing involving a belief that there exist two strands in American politics, the one preoccupied with self-interest and the other a genuine concern for fellow citizens, and a desire for these strands to combine. He says slowly and thoughtfully, “The biggest damage we’ve suffered in the last two years hasn’t been economic, and it hasn’t even been our loss of respect in the eyes of the world. The biggest loss we’ve sustained in this country has been our loss of community . . . It’s not enough for me just to have good schools for my kid, or good health care for my kid. It’s really important for us to provide these things for everybody. That’s been the premise of America. That’s what we have to get back again.”

When he repeats a more polished version of these words later the same evening, it’s at a glitzy and somewhat bizarre event: a celebration marking the third anniversary of the Civil Unions Act that consists in part of a cocktail reception and chance-to-chat-with-Dean for top-level donors, held alongside the rooftop pool of the Renaissance Hotel at Hollywood and Highland. This is followed by a buffet for lesser donors in a banquet room one flight down (higher noise levels and handshake-only), and then a rally in the adjoining Kodak Theater — a rally featuring an auditorium-sized audience, loud recorded music (Carly Simon singing “Let the River Run), and a pre-speech up-tempo video (by Swingers director Doug Liman and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, director of Legally Blonde II), punctuated by some incredibly touching testimony from a lesbian couple in their late 20s who moved from L.A. to Vermont last year specifically to obtain the full rights afforded by the status of civil union.

But despite the surreal atmosphere, in this theater surrounded by giant plaster elephants, and the fact that Dean is pumping hands and giving big-eyed, surprised-to-encounter-you hugs in a way that’s unnervingly generic to every candidate you’ve ever seen (one prominent Westside activist who’s the recipient of an especially hearty embrace is relieved to find out that it’s because Dean has just spent an evening with relatives of hers ‰ in another state: “Thank God,” she says, “I was afraid I’d slept with him at Yale and didn’t remember . . .”); despite all these things, it’s still easy to find him inspiring, to feel, in the words of a young guy who’s been one of the pre-speech introducers, “excited as hell at the solution that’s come along.”

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Beginning in May, it gets harder. This is when Dean starts making his somewhat dismal showings in events like the televised debates and the Iowa Democratic Candidates’ Picnic, and in interviews with people like Charlie Rose. Neither is a good format for him. The time compression of the mass events makes for problematic performance by all the candidates, actually, except for Sharpton, who gets to zing one-liners with impunity, and Braun, whose sunny demeanor adds a visual sparkle. And in the tête-à-tête with Rose, despite the more leisurely time allowance, Dean seems to have trouble summoning the confident, unflustered straightforwardness that’s so compelling when he talks to a group: His presentation is choppy, questions that are even mildly confrontational appear to make him defensive, and he allows himself to be diverted into more than a few small, pointless squabbles. He is utterly convincing about the necessity for replacing Bush; what comes across less clearly is why it’s he who should be the Democrats’ standard-bearer. Almost entirely absent are his invigorating displays of how one set of things relates to another, or his vision of mutual interdependence among disparate groups of Americans, the understanding he’s demonstrated previously of the yearning for this kind of politics — call it the Bobby Kennedy “we-can-do-better” mode — still percolating across the country. Even when he talks about his ever-growing grassroots army, the references seem almost

bellicose, more like boasts of strength than anything conveying the watershed, transformative nature of his electoral strategy and how radically distinct it is from that of any of the other candidates.

And in Los Angeles, where he’s been coming every couple of weeks or so, there’s a weird sort of disconnect. The events he’s doing here seem to consist primarily of glossy, standard-issue, steep-ticket Westside fund-raisers — guests milling about on a manicured lawn for 45 minutes, awaiting the arrival of the candidate, who is then steered through for a half-hour of meet-and-greet; then a 20-minute speech from the candidate; then 15 minutes of questions; then the candidate being whisked off to the next appearance, while the guests compare notes as they wait for the valets to bring their cars. There is nothing wrong with this kind of function; it’s time-honored, and even effective in raising large dollar amounts. And to be fair, the deluge of money that will come flooding in over the Internet late in June has not yet materialized: The campaign needs to accumulate funds not only to maintain itself, but — what is even more important — in order to be taken seriously.

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