The crowd in the Southern New Hampshire University gym was still waiting for Howard Dean when John Kerry’s victory speech came on TV. With half the precincts counted, it was clear that Kerry had a bigger lead over Dean than the exit polls suggested it would be. Kerry was at a much smaller but better-appointed room over at the Holiday Inn (he always books the central locations). He looked a little tired, but the room kept him going, breaking into a chant of when, when, when, when after Kerry started a point in the speech by saying, “If I become president.”
A half-hour later, Dean appeared at his party. He had learned his lesson in Iowa. His fans greeted their leader with a five-minute roar before he gave a speech that hit all the right notes. Dean thanked the voters. He said soberly that they were going to win the nomination. And then he invoked elements of his stump speech: restoring a sense of community, Bush playing the race card, and health care. I’d heard it all before, but somehow it sounded fresher this time, earnest again. At the mention of health care, a supporter next to me yelled, “Go Howard, Sweden, Costa Rica, Go Baby!”
His best points touched not on specifics but on appeals to optimism that undergird his campaign message, the idea of making politics meaningful, giving people a reason to vote again. Sure, they are slogans, and all the candidates (except Lieberman) say similar things, but with Dean they ring truer, and not only because the other campaigns stole those pages out of Dean’s notebook. They all mean it, but Dean meant it first.
And Dean seems to be thinking about the legacy of that message. Before Dean arrived onstage, he gave an interview to Larry King that riveted the throng gathered in the gym. When asked what’s next, Dean replied, “We have to keep the enormous support of the grassroots,” which got a stomping cheer. To his supporters, Dean has started a movement. It may have a softer crescendo than they had envisioned, but it still represents something new, something they hope will outlast the primary season even if Dean doesn’t win. And that’s a seed Dean may be planting. A few minutes later, Dean told King that his campaign is not about changing the officeholder of the presidency; it’s really about changing the country. And that got the loudest cheer of all.
Chasing the Dragon
Seeing John Edwards is like crack: You’re always trying to recapture the supreme high of the first time. My initiation came during the homestretch of Iowa, when Edwards’ “under-the-surface” campaign was shooting straight out of the water like a goddamn submarine. The hall at Drake University was mobbed. I wound my way up close, poked my head up from behind a big Old Glory lining the Senator’s riser, and bore witness to a man who knew how to light a room on fire. The audience hollered in a boisterous call and response. They went into a frenzy at each of Edwards’ stop lines. Two people fainted. Edwards was shooting sparks and his hair was still perfect.
Since then, I’ve seen Edwards half a dozen times, hoping to get showered with sparks again. It’s just not the same.
Last Sunday, Edwards was at Fairfield Junior High in Nashua. It was an afternoon rally in the school’s gym. There he was, sharp suit and lavaliere. Perfect hair. Incredible smile. Then, the speech — unchanged since the last time. But these people hadn’t heard it before, so they got excited in most of the right places: “We need to put a stop to these predatory lenders, fleecing American’s families”; “You know what we’re gonna do with these lobbyists? We’re gonna cut ’em off at the knees”; “And you know what else? We’re gonna put a stop to all this war profiteering that’s going on in Iraq”; “This democracy does not belong to the insiders in Washington; it belongs to you, and us.”
But it doesn’t quite have the same ring on the third or fourth listen. I am still convinced by his politics of optimism, but when he talks about his time with the Senate Intelligence Committee to show that he has foreign-policy experience, it makes me second-guess him even more for voting for the Patriot Act. And over time, I developed the feeling that Edwards looks almost too good, like a televangelist. He always knows exactly where the lenses are pointed, when to wave, how to look fatherly when children are hoisted up to say hello or ask a question. Which is crucial in today’s invidious Möbius strip of media and politics — look what happened to Dean when he forgot where the cameras were — but I can’t shake the idea that it feels funny for a candidate to be so slick. And, to top it off, I’ve started noticing that Edwards always wears running shoes with his suits, which is kinda weird, right?