The Doctor is In | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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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 9 of 13

It’s just that these events don’t seem particularly Dean-like, as evidenced by the tendency of people to leave them feeling pleasantly impressed or lukewarm, rather than fired up. He’s not inadequate at appearances like this, but they don’t play to his strengths, which have to do with a freer flow of ideas than they allow. Also, there’s something about them that doesn’t jibe with the ethos of the e-mail messages from DeanforAmerica.com arriving in one’s mailbox every few days, full of updates and links, and fostering the impression of excitement and intimacy among a single happy Internet family. It’s as if you’d originally responded to someone whose virtues are a kind of seat-of-his-pants inventiveness, a conviction about what works and what doesn’t — a Sam Arkoff, say, in the movie business, or a Roger Corman — only to be stuck watching him in a burnished, corporate performance, as if he’d turned into Michael Eisner.

In addition, around this time, the staff in Los Angeles, perhaps out of pure overload — there are still just two principals, and only one is full-time — has developed a bit of an attitude impasse with a number of the high-end, already-on-board supporters. They have been concentrating, it seems, on rebuffing various offers to host events and other suggestions, failing to recognize that making donors feel superfluous is the surest recipe for diluted enthusiasm. Other than those with highly visible profiles, people who have already given the maximum $2,000 for the primary season are discouraged from attending additional fund-raisers, instead of encouraged to come and serve as a cheering section, which would be easily enough accomplished, and a far smarter idea.

Prompt attention to communication also doesn’t seem a staff strong point: At the rally on the plaza following the UCLA forum, a local big donor lights into poor Kate O’Connor, the Vermont staffer who’s in charge of tracking things, castigating her for phone calls he says have gone unreturned. At the next stop, she rummages through the nylon portfolio of paperwork she’s stuck in the car trunk next to Dean’s laundry, and there she discovers four unanswered letters from the same donor. (Dean sends his laundry home to Judith, who doesn’t travel with him, presumably to help maintain the connection to grounded, normal life that emanates — “Hello, my dear . . . We’ve just finished up a very nice rally . . . Did the hose get repaired? . . . Either of the kiddies at home?” — from their cell phone conversations.) Paradoxically, it’s Dean’s lower-level supporters, the ones going to the monthly meet-ups and contributing blog entries, who are probably getting more satisfaction from the campaign, as a result of their continued participation — in contrast to the discovery, as a high-end contributor, that once you’ve written a large check, there’s pretty much nothing else for you to do.

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To be adequately confessional, it’s possible that my own grievances with the campaign staff at this point are affecting my mood. As it happens, I’ve made contact with them at the worst possible moment for a journalist covering an insurgent campaign, after the first genuine unguardedness and enthusiasm about press attention is over, and before the more sophisticated version, the one involving pseudo-unguardedness and streamlined cooperation, have taken hold. As a result, achieving the most conventional sort of access — the standard ride-along interview, in which you travel for a couple of hours with the candidate, getting a chance to ask questions and observe for a bit close-in — is a project that, when raised with the L.A. staff, becomes more and more irritatingly distant and difficult, as if what I were asking for were eight hours alone with Bob Dylan or the pope.

Needless to say, this makes me fairly cranky. I gripe to friends about it and fume about it privately, and then for weeks, taking my notes at various events, I don’t deal with it at all. And then, when I do get around to dealing with it, and talk to the new person in charge of press at Vermont headquarters, and discover that at least professionalism has begun to kick in (“No, no, no, no, no, we’ll make it happen — your deadline is when? — we’ll work something out, I promise you,” I hear Trish Enright saying to someone on the other line, and she tells me this is her “fourth presidential”), and I begin at least to make inroads into some arrangements, I notice I’m still carrying a grudge. I notice this especially one Sunday in early June when Wesley Clark, in the course of being interviewed on Meet the Press, makes an almost lyrical statement about why we have a progressive tax system in this country, how the rich have an obligation to pay for the ‰ luxury of democracy, thereby impressing me no end, and then, in answer to Tim Russert’s question about whether he’s going to run for president, says, “I may have to” — which strikes me with the force of a lightning bolt . . . Isn’t that an implicit “yes”? What will that mean for the Dean campaign? The guy’s a general, after all . . . isn’t this how it started with Eisenhower?, and then I realize that mixed in with my objective, evaluative reaction is the small, retaliatory thought: Well, so much for Howard Dean.

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