|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.
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.
In the same way that the wide availability of opening-weekend grosses has turned a whole segment of the public into quasi-informed movie handicappers, the thinking classes have begun to sound like Sunday-morning Washington news-show hosts, full of confident, contorted prognostications about what demographics and attributes a Democrat will need to get the nomination — despite the simultaneous conviction that the nomination will be next to worthless. I mean, Kerry has the name and the money — never mind the hilarious prospect of Kerry, in full plums-in-the-mouth lockjaw mode, attempting to fire up a group of Southern factory workers. Lieberman’s got a lock on the Jewish vote, and he’s hawkish, we gotta have someone who can seem strong on defense — never mind the improbability of Lieberman arousing passion and commitment among younger voters. Dick Gephardt has the unions — though, admittedly, no eyebrows and little you can repeat back after hearing him speak. John Edwards is so telegenic, and the South is the key base . . . In any case, the near-unanimous consensus is that the nominee will not be Howard Dean.
Still shrouded in the future, of course, are the disenchantments that will start to accumulate — and start to depress Bush’s poll numbers — after the toppling of the Saddam statue: the daily ambushes and deaths of American soldiers; the inability of the U.S. to restore services; the restive dissatisfaction of the Iraqis; the ever-increasing monthly costs of the war and estimated length of our required presence. All at a time while back home unemployment continues to rise, more schools are forced to cut programs (including not just arts but sports, for God’s sake), health clinics nationwide are being closed down, and people in Brooklyn with sons deployed as Marines in Baghdad begin to wonder what the hell we’re really doing there at all.
Still to come, also, are the events that in a few months’ time will end up altering Dean’s status to an astonishing, unforeseeable degree. There are the sizable crowds that start to show up at his appearances across the country, uncoordinated by any campaign staff (which in most states doesn’t exist yet) — demonstrating the usefulness of the campaign’s Internet operation not only as an innovative fund-raising tool, but as a radically effective device for organizing and increasing the pool of supporters and, through links to meet-ups and all sorts of personal blogs, bringing them into contact with one another. There’s the $7.6 million, the highest take of any Democrat in the quarter, that Dean is able to raise by the end of June, some of it arriving over the Internet during the very minutes of a Meet the Press interview in which to the jaded eye he appears to be getting positively mauled by Tim Russert in his most bullying interrogational mode.
There’s the evolution of Dean’s portrayal in the media from the barely mentioned to the suddenly much-remarked-upon, and on through a phase of alarm at his perceived McGovern potential — i.e., “Is he too liberal for the country?” This is followed, for the most part, by more accurate appraisals of his considerably less easily categorized ideology, although there are still various denunciations of his “far left” proclivities that are difficult to square with his consistent record of balanced budgets in Vermont, the one state in the country that doesn’t mandate them; his 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association; and his support of a limited death penalty.
By mid-July, there’s the admission by The Wall Street Journal’s Al Hunt that “The conventional wisdom of only a month ago . . . that Mr. Dean was a Bruce Babbitt, or at best a Gary Hart–type anti-establishment candidate and certainly not a prospective nominee is, to put it charitably, outdated.” And finally, there’s the galvanizing news that Dean, in addition to seesawing it out with Gephardt and Kerry in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, sites of the two first key primary contests next year, has come in first in the July 21 California Field Poll. By the first week in August, he has pulled ahead of Kerry in New Hampshire; by the following week, he leads Gephardt in Iowa and appears simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
Even on this spring night in Santa Monica, though, it wouldn’t have been hard to discredit the single-issue label. Dean, despite an audience perfectly eager to have him talk about it, doesn’t so much as mention the war until someone asks him a question about it an hour into his presentation. Instead, he talks about a whole range of issues: He starts off with the line he’s been using a lot at this point, “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party” — this time gracefully attributing it to the late senator Paul Wellstone, who can be accurately said to have coined it — and he spends a fair number of minutes cogently arguing why “agreeing with George Bush 85 percent of the time isn’t going to get you elected — why wouldn’t someone just vote for George Bush?” He cites examples of the failure of this strategy in the midterm House elections, and he quotes Bill Clinton’s view that wrong and strong will always beat weak and right.
The most impressive thing about Howard Dean, and what seems genuinely to distinguish him from his fellow candidates, is his ability to think in three dimensions, to connect disparate ideas and concepts and problems in a remarkably intelligent and compelling way. It’s a doctor’s way of thinking: puzzling things out. “That’s what the job is,” he explains a few months later, “that’s what physicians are inherently required to do in the course of their work . . . to accurately assess and analyze data, in order to reach a diagnosis and a plan of treatment.” To the extent that this process involves evaluating the reliability of information, the history of past outcomes and the availability of resources, it’s fair to say that doctors can acquire a certain amount of expertise in crucial elements of government during the regular course of their practice. (Dean was still a practicing physician, and was, in fact, in the middle of examining a patient, when he received word in August of 1991 that Vermont governor Richard Snelling had died suddenly, catapulting Dean, the part-time lieutenant governor, into the full-time post.)
To listen to someone passionately and clearly delineate the connections between social justice and fiscal soundness, say, or between the growth of middle-class populations with more to lose and reduced tolerance for violence and terrorism, is a downright exhilarating experience. It’s part of his appeal, the stimulating mental workout that Dean, when he’s at the top of his form, provides. And he is at the top of his form this evening, weaving seamlessly from topic to topic, and ‰ describing programs already in place in Vermont that apply these concepts to experiences of everyday life.
On the subject of crime and prisons, for instance, he points out that any competent kindergarten teacher can pretty much tell you the five kids in the class who are going to be in trouble later in life; early intervention, therefore, seems like a no-brainer. But how to do it? Vermont, in addition to its very sensible provision of free health coverage for everyone 18 and under, has a program in which every baby born in a Vermont hospital is paid a home visit by a social worker within two weeks of birth. In most cases, this is the end of it. In circumstances that seem to call for it, however, families are directed to child care, parenting classes, job training and the like.
Obviously, after only five years it’s too soon to gauge the results in terms of reducing crime or prison populations. But there is one statistic available: At an average annual cost of only $100 per child, Vermont has reduced reported child abuse by 43 percent since the program began. “And when you visit prisons,” says Dean, “you find the one thing almost everybody incarcerated has in common is that they were physically or mentally abused as children.”
Compared to the $27,000 a year it takes to maintain someone in prison, this seems like a promising way to approach a problem. And in fact, it’s not all that different from the way Dean and his strategists have approached a similarly intractable problem in the political realm. That is to say, given an incumbent president with unlimited campaign dollars, and competing Democratic candidates with more resources and greater name recognition than yours, you need to alter the conventional formulas for money and organization and troops on the ground, and to do it without spending too much cash up front. The major change Dean hopes to make in the political environment is to enlarge the electorate, and to do so by drawing from the vast, untapped reservoir of eligible voters (50 percent by some estimates) who either have never participated in politics or who are discouraged dropouts from the system.
This in itself is a fairly profound connection to have perceived — no other Democratic candidate has advanced any ideas at all, really, on ways to counter the enormous imbalance of resources that otherwise threatens to dominate the general election — and the interesting thing, even so far in advance of the election, is the possibility that this approach might actually succeed. In late June, at a rally for him at UCLA following his appearance at an environmental forum there — a rally that has been put together in two days by Bruins for Dean and, even with a last-minute time change, has managed to produce a gathering of 600 — Dean asks how many people in the crowd are newcomers to political participation, and about half the group, by no means all of them students, raise their hands.
The great majority of contributions that have come in over the Dean Web site are in amounts of $100 or less, indicating — and many of the voluminous blogs linked to the site confirm it — that they come from people who aren’t in the habit of giving to political campaigns. “I am black,” reads an entry accompanied by a thermometer graphic showing the progress of the blogger’s commitment to contribute $25 per pay period. “I am 28 years old. I am a college graduate and a single mother in Washington, D.C. According to stereotypes, statistics and polls I am not supposed to be interested in politics or our nation’s future [the Field Poll, for example, has identified the typical Dean supporter as a white, liberal man] . . . But I made a determination to get involved when I heard Bush refer to the millions of American citizens who protested the war as a ‘focus group’ and said he would not listen to them. Well, I intend to make sure he hears me loud and clear on Election Day . . . ”
Sleepless Summer Tour in Seattle,
August 24: Forty Thousand people in
six cities and more
than $1 million raised
Photo by John Pettit
Back at the Santa Monica house party, Dean brings up the matter — which is, needless to say, more than a little controversial in this crowd — of his stance on gun control. “I’m not a member of the NRA,” he says, “but I’ve got a 100 percent rating from them, and here’s why . . .” He explains that during his years in hunting-and-fishing Vermont, he’s come to believe that aside from the three national laws that ought to be allowed to stand — the Brady Bill, the assault-weapons ban, and mandatory gun-show checks — further gun regulation is an area best left to state and local governments. His reasoning is that there are such different cultures for and problems with weapons in different areas of the country that a one-size-fits-all policy isn’t practical.
Unspoken is the likelihood that this view will make several of his other positions — the need for greatly expanded national health insurance, his solidity on affirmative action — more palatable, even persuasive, in parts of the country and among voters who might otherwise be less receptive to them. Dean likes to say he feels perfectly comfortable talking to middle-aged white guys with gun racks and Confederate decals on their trucks, because their kids don’t have health insurance either. But the truth is, once a commonality has been established, other opinions, even when they widely differ from your own, tend to seem more legitimate. (In Vermont, Dean explains on another occasion, he’s been able to rope the NRA into helping with land preservation: “They understand that if there’s no habitat, they can’t hunt.”) And that reasoning, which is not exactly unknown to the business dealings of many of the people in the room, seems to resonate quietly, and to calm them.
Another area in which Dean’s regular-guy persona has proved useful — and he does have a true knack for presenting radical ideas as if they were just plain common sense — has been the fallout from Vermont’s Civil Unions Act, the legislation required by the state Supreme Court’s 1999ruling that gay couples are entitled to the same benefits as married heterosexuals. As governor, Dean signed the law in April of 2000 (although with insufficient ceremony in the view of some of its advocates), and he talks with a certain obligatory piousness about his decision to do so, given the fact that the measure could have gone into effect without his signature — how, knowing it was a risk, he went ahead anyway: What is the point of politics if you can’t occasionally take a chance on something worthwhile? But in reality, what probably turned the tide of public opinion was the matter-of-fact emphasis on garden-variety civil rights with which he continues to discuss the need for the legislation, pointing out the discrimination imposed by tax codes and inheritance laws, the absurdity of hospital regulations permitting decisions about care from one’s sister or aunt but not one’s partner, and so on, until he has made the conditions that prevailed before its passage seem virtually un-American.
For all the misgivings about his credibility on national security, a similarly brisk, no-nonsense skepticism is what has marked Dean’s comments about the war. Despite repeated portrayals of him as an obstreperous, angry peacenik, his opposition from the start was specific and sober, expressed as distrust of the hasty rush to military action and a call for a more measured weighing of factors. His discussions of domestic security feature a similar flinty exasperation at the inefficiency of its implementation: the still essentially unfunded Homeland Security mandate, the vulnerability of the ports, the shortage of emergency personnel produced by the combination of military reserve duty and state budget deficits. His on-the-ground experience as a governor, he maintains, not only in designing programs but in putting them into effect, and evaluating them later for fiscal realities and unintended consequences, makes him better qualified than most of the other Democratic candidates for that aspect of the presidency composed essentially of mammoth administrative endeavor.
Dean has spoken without notes, on this evening in March, for nearly an hour, and before taking questions, which he does genially for another 45 minutes, he tells a story, apropos the subject of affirmative action, that illustrates a key moment in his own personal connecting of the dots. (The lead-up to the Supreme Court decision on the University of Michigan’s admissions policies is still under way; Dean, with more vehemence than he’s brought to almost any subject tonight, has called Bush’s use of the word “quota” in reference to the case “revolting.”) Vermont’s judiciary is now almost 50 percent women, but when he first took office, Dean tells the group, the number was much lower. Although he was theoretically disposed toward appointing women judges, he discovered that, as recommendation cycles came and went, there were very few women on the lists of potential appointees. His chief of staff, on the other hand, is a woman; under Vermont law, she was in charge of all the hiring and firing of personnel for the governor’s office, and by the time a couple of years had passed, Dean says, the office had become “pretty much the definition of a matriarchy.” When the next vacancy occurred, he suggested that for the sake of diversity it might be a good idea to hire a ‰ man. His chief of staff agreed, then came in to talk to him about it a few days later, looking troubled. “‘Governor,’ she said, ‘there are just so few qualified men out there . . .’”
Dean laughs along with the crowd. “That’s when I realized,” he says, “that she’d been talking to her friends, the way you do when you’re looking to hire someone, and they’d been talking to their friends, and not surprisingly, they were mostly coming up with the names of other women. And that’s why we need affirmative action in this country. Human beings tend to be most comfortable with people like ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to jobs and education, if there isn’t affirmative action, people will keep on choosing people just like themselves, and that cuts off a lot of opportunity — for society and for the people who don’t get picked.” What this situation makes necessary, he goes on, is a structured, compensatory effort at widening the pool — in Vermont it meant actively recruiting women to augment the submissions from largely white, male bar associations — until, over time, the other elements of “like us,” professional and educational and so forth, begin to click in.
By the time the question period is over — Iraq, Israel, energy conservation (Dean’s responses have in common a balanced, intermittently humor-laced realism, with an emphasis on taking human nature into account) — it is nearly 11 o’clock, but even in this early-to-bed town, people seem reluctant to leave. Rick Jacobs, the tall, owlishly bespectacled investment adviser, an out gay man who’s co-chair of Dean’s L.A. finance committee, trundles the candidate off while people stand around near the door, comparing notes and swapping cards. “He grew a lot in the last couple of hours,” says the height-preoccupied husband. “What he says, he backs up,” says a young woman. Even in the bright light of the hallway, faces seem more relaxed than they did when entering. This guy could be the one . . .
The most compelling, successful American politicians seem to encompass some basic contradictions. Clinton: Oxford, England, and Hope, Arkansas. JFK: Irish clubhouse and Harvard Yard. RFK: ruthless tactician and melancholy existentialist. Lyndon Johnson: master of manipulation and sentimental rube. Reagan: amiable blunderer with a will of iron. Franklin Roosevelt: patrician snob and sympathetic father figure. To the extent that Dean fits into this pattern, he is part Mike Dukakis–like technocrat and part Harry Truman–esque scrapper. His background in some sense prepared him for each aspect: He went to prep school (Andover, in Massachusetts) and Yale (where he was five years behind Kerry and three years behind Bush), but in the summers, while his father (a stockbroker Dean describes as being “totally unpretentious”) played golf at the tony Maidstone Club in Quogue, Long Island, Dean and his three younger brothers were enrolled in “the programs that all the local kids went to — you know, the town summer programs . . .” Additionally, he did a fair amount of bumming around in his early 20s — working, for instance, on a Florida ranch where he was the only English-speaker — although he didn’t roam as far as his brother Charlie, who was killed on a river in Laos in 1975, possibly while on a mission for the CIA. (Dean wears his brother’s belt buckle.) Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where, having decided that the investment life was not for him, Dean got his medical degree, and where he and his wife, Judith Steinberg, met and courted before moving to Vermont to open a joint practice, is in a poverty-dominated Bronx neighborhood, about as far from the ivory tower as you can get.
Playing the Bush blues: fans
in Philadelphia and Dean in Des Moines
Photo by Carol Reiger
Perhaps as a consequence, Dean seems comfortable with an unusually wide range of people, although, particularly with those in the politico-journalist cadre, he can be brusque and defensive, his presumptive Yalie self-assurance undercut by a certain pugnaciousness, as if he weren’t sure of being first in his class and had a corresponding need to show people up. (Or perhaps it’s the competitiveness engendered in a family of four brothers.) In some ways, he’s surprisingly unpolished: He says nonplused when he means nonchalant (“At one of the first events I went to after the Civil Unions Act, I was a little startled when a guy came up and told me, ‘I must say, Governor, you’re a very attractive man.’ By now, of course, I’m completely nonplused about it . . .”); isn’t up on the “Notes and Comment” section of The New Yorker — isn’t even aware of its existence; doesn’t read much of anything, he says, unless it’s directly campaign-related.
He hasn’t learned to disguise his smarts, either, as gracefully as, say, Bill Clinton does; he can often seem arrogant or peevish — especially in his television appearances. He hasn’t learned where to place his eyes on television, and he has a disconcerting habit, onscreen, of looking up and flashing a broad smile immediately after having made a barbed remark. His responses in debates tend to be peppered with statistics and acronyms — this is not necessarily off-putting, as it’s quite evident he knows what he’s talking about, even if the audience may not understand the references.
On the other hand, he is unusually, refreshingly clinical in his willingness to self-assess. “You always wonder, after these things,” he says, following the UCLA environmental forum, “whether it’s better to take advantage of the opportunity and give a lot of detail, or whether that stuff just confuses people and you make more of an impact by generalizing.” During an evening meeting in May, at a prominent agent’s house with a group of about 30 Hollywood-associated women, most of them exceptionally confident, to say the least, about their own political savvy — “A lot of alpha chicks in that room,” sighs the young organizer afterward — Dean admits his discomfort at viewing the tape of himself from the first all-Democratic-candidates debate in South Carolina; actually, he uses the word “appalled.” (This is the debate in which he and Kerry get into a flap about whether an earlier speech of Dean’s on the limits of military power proves that he’s somehow unpatriotic; instead of high-mindedly dismissing the notion, Dean rises to the bait and starts to argue about it.) He says quite frankly that the campaign needs to make more of an effort to reach out to people of color; at an elegant Beverly Hills fund-raiser in June, he exhorts the guests to bring into the fold some voters “who don’t look like you.”
He’s also remarkably generous and supportive in his attitude toward fellow politicians in both parties — save, understandably, for Kerry. “I’m just glad he didn’t do a hatchet job on me,” Dean says about the author of a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, “like the one he did on poor Linc Chafee a couple of months ago . . . did you see that?” Chafee, the Republican junior senator from Rhode Island, was portrayed as something of a hapless kook.) He sympathizes with John Edwards for what he views as the media’s cavalier, build-up-then-take-down treatment of him. Al Sharpton, he says, “always of course has the best lines” in the debates. Backstage at the UCLA environmental forum, he pays a gallant, genial compliment to Carol Moseley Braun: “I always use your great bit, Carol — and I always attribute it to you — y’know, the one that goes, ‘Some of us came over on slave ships and some of us came over on the Mayflower, but we’re all in the same boat now . . .’” And during the forum itself, Dean gives a shout-out, persisting over a chorus of boos from the audience, to Christine Todd Whitman, who has just departed as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency: “No, really, you should applaud her — she had an impossible job, and she gave it her best shot . . .”
Because Dean lacks the innate musicality and voice control that mark the great speakers, from Clinton on back through Reagan and JFK, he’s not a particularly good orator, and when he reaches for the rhetorical flourish, like the one — “I want my country baack!” — with which he ended the speech that caused such a sensation at the California Democratic convention in Sacramento later in March, or “You have the power! You have the power!,” the chant with which he’s been ending speeches since his official kickoff in June, he can come perilously close to a screech, provoking unbidden recollections of Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network, the unhinged television executive who opens his New York apartment window and starts shouting to the streets “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But there are other times when he captures something so eloquently that tears can sting your eyes.
One of these times occurs toward the end of April, in the brown-tweed-and-blond-wood conference room of an affluent Westside law firm that is hosting Dean at a sandwich lunch for the benefit of the California League of Conservation Voters. About 50 people are sitting around a horseshoe formation of long tables, and Dean stands in the central opening, shirtsleeves rolled up and arms crossed, a halogen spotlight making his forehead shiny, while he holds forth, answering questions cogently and effortlessly for close to an hour. He discusses emissions standards and ethanol and wind farms, and he offers up something that’s absolute catnip to anyone with an interest in how politics are actually done — the forthright, ligament-by-ligament anatomy of a deal, this one involving the recent preservation of Vermont’s Champion lands, an area of 133,000 acres; a “huge” piece, he says proudly, the largest land deal east of the Mississippi.
He and his team used the NRA, he says, to neutralize the most ardent property-rights Republicans in the legislature. They then went to the snowmobilers and explained that although there would be a wilderness area off-limits to them, there would be other areas they could utilize. They used that concession, he goes on, to get the snowmobilers’ help in supporting the exclusion of ATVs: “You can’t compromise with ATVers under any circumstances, they just do too much damage to the land . . .” In other words, Dean says, you assemble the broadest coalition possible and then parcel out something for everybody. “Now, it can’t be everybody, because there’s always those on the extreme edge of the right who want to clear-cut everything, that’s their idea of sustainable timbering . . .” But in general, he says, you work with all the stakeholders, and then if one element of the coalition starts to defect, if the snowmobilers, say, try to link up with the ATVers, which they sometimes threaten to do, “you put the leverage on. You say, ‘If it’s a choice between letting the ATVs in or keeping the snowmobile people out — sorry, we’ll see you later.’ And that brings the snowmobilers back to the table . . .”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
But the truth is that even after Dean himself calls me the following week, and apologizes for being so elusive, and works out a tentative schedule, and mollifies me as only a direct call from a candidate can do, I still feel less sanguine about his chances than I did a month before. The notion of community that seemed so overwhelmingly powerful, such a unifying, encompassing theme for all the elements of his campaign . . . our responsibility to one another . . . seems to have gotten eclipsed in the welter of detail about policy in Iraq and policy about taxes and health care. It’s not that it no longer seems applicable — far from it — but as an explicit theme, a summing-up, it appears to have disappeared deep into the background. I’m discussing Dean’s campaign with a friend in New York, and out of nowhere he says it, too. “He has to start talking about community — if he doesn’t do that, I don’t think he has a chance to take this thing further.” In my head, a phrase starts circulating: “the beloved community . . .,” though I can’t remember where it’s from.
Dean’s official candidacy announcement is scheduled for Monday, June 23, in the Burlington, Vermont, town square. Rallies to see taped versions of the announcement have been set up all across the country, and the one in L.A. is scheduled for 5 o’clock in the afternoon, in the Plaza de Los Angeles at Olvera Street. I’ve agreed to drive down with my cousin Olivia, a 29-year-old artist, and her friend Leila, a screenwriter. Both of them are quite excited about the plan — they’ve been Dean supporters for a couple of months — and I don’t want to dampen their spirits, so I don’t mention my misgivings when we arrange things on the phone. I’ve been witheringly snide since January to anyone who’s skeptical about the possibility of Dean getting the nomination — nobody’s prouder of their political instincts than the people who predicted Clinton’s rise as early as 1986, of whom I’m one — so my own ego is feeling a little bruised; and then on Sunday comes Dean’s infamous Meet the Press interview, which I watch with sinking stomach, and by Monday I can barely drag myself into Olivia’s car.
On the ride downtown there are the usual traffic jams and the usual worries about being late and the usual mutual assurances that nothing starts on time. When we get near the plaza, we see on it a scattering of maybe 70 people, with a large, white screen teetering in their midst. It seems apparent that either we’ve been right about start times or that my perceptions about a certain ebb in the campaign are painfully correct. But by the time we’ve parked and walked over, the crowd has swelled to at least 300, and more people are arriving by the moment. And with barely a Westsider in sight, this is, in fact, a crowd that calls up the notion of community: There are people of all colors and all modes of dress and all ages — not just adorable toddlers of the sort set loose to be admired for 15 minutes on Westside fund-raiser lawns, but actual real-life children making noise and behaving badly, as well as some people who are truly old, i.e., over 70, and not especially well-groomed. And there are lots and lots of people in their 20s and early 30s (“You know what I got Jessica for her birthday? A Howard Dean bong . . .”), a number of whom are manning the sign-in tables (every new arrival is firmly handed a name tag), as well as the campaign merchandise tables, which sport, among other things, some really superb T-shirts with an old-fashioned-looking Bayer aspirin bottle silk-screened on the front — Dean’s name substituting for Bayer on the label, in the Bayer typeface — and the phrase “The Doctor Is In” floating around it. Olivia and Leila each buy one of these right away.
A young woman sings a beautiful a cappella version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and there are some announcements, and then, not unexpectedly, someone comes onstage to announce that the organizers are still waiting for the video to be delivered, and then there’s a very long period of vamping, maybe 45 minutes’ worth, with the representatives of various Dean groups making their way up to the mike. And here is the revelation: There are so many of them! Randy Economy, of the Dean bastion in Cerritos, is there, and someone from Santa Clarita is talking up a big house party — wine and pizza, $25 a head, with a conference call from Dean — that’s going to take place in Valencia the following weekend, and Jason Brown, the Tom Bradley look-alike who heads Pasadena/Glendale for Dean, talks about events they’re planning. And there are Bruins for Dean, exhorting the troops to attend the rally at the upcoming UCLA environmental forum (“Other candidates will be there, so it’s really important that we show up and be a presence”), and a guy who introduces himself as the representative of the Cal State Long Beach Disaffected Students for Dean. Someone reports that Dean was the only candidate with a booth at the West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade, and that 500 people signed up there for the campaign’s e-mail list, and someone else recruits volunteers to set up tables anywhere people gather in groups: Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Promenade, flea markets, farmers’ markets.
And now two young men arrive with the video, except that it turns out not to be a video, but a laptop computer with digital film of the announcement on it, and it takes forever to set up and fuss with and connect, and when it does get connected, it turns out that the sky’s still so bright that the projection’s barely possible to see. Olivia says, “Only extremely committed supporters would sit here watching such a verrrry faded announcement . . . ,” but we all do; we lean forward, with the last of the sun on our shoulders. There seems to be a red-brick building of some sort on the screen, with crowds of people in front of it. We hear Senators Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords, and then someone who appears to be Dean (“I can see it’s a guy with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up,” says Leila) is zoomed in on for a close-up, and we hear tumultuous applause and cheers, and he begins to speak.
And what he is talking about, almost immediately, is duty and obligation and our responsibility to one another, the restoration of these values . . . reclaiming community . . . “Here are the words of John Winthrop,” he intones: “‘We shall be as one. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in our work.’ It is that ideal,” he goes on, “the ideal of the American community, that we seek to restore . . .” He continues speaking for another half-hour while, in an almost too-perfect metaphor, his image on the screen grows clearer in the descending dusk.
“Nice rig,” says Dean appreciatively of the late-model Audi in which a volunteer is chauffeuring us from the UCLA environmental forum to a glamorous house in Benedict Canyon for a big-ticket fund-raiser. “This is what my son wants, but he’s never gonna see one until he pays for it himself . . .” The rally has been impressive: Six hundred people cheering under a blue sky, flashes of sun illuminating the Bruin jersey presented to Dean for his 17-year-old son, Paul, recently arrested with some of his hockey teammates while attempting to remove liquor from a country club at 4 a.m. (Tim Russert, in his interview, alluded to it in a particularly insinuating way: “Is your whole family going to be with you at the announcement ceremony?”) And Dean, who’s been struggling with the normal mixed parental emotions accompanying this kind of incident, is obviously touched by the gift; he puts it on and leads the final chant of “You have the power! You have the power!” with his face beaming over its neckline.
After all the fuss about finding time, Dean is surprisingly collegial and easy to talk to — even cozy — once you’re sitting down with him. You need to remind yourself of the national stature a few short months have brought him; he still seems like such an ordinary — though bright and thoughtful — guy. We discuss the process of national campaigning: how it removes from the very person at its center an accustomed level of control. “That required . . . a lot of letting go for me. Y’know, I was a hands-on governor, I always knew what was going on in most areas and details of state government, and now . . . When you’re running for president, you have to put your fate in other people’s hands. I don’t have a lot of input into the scheduling, and y’know, a lot of times I get up in the morning and go where I’m told.” And then, sounding alarmed at any potential misinterpretation, he adds, “They don’t tell me what to do. Nobody can do that . . .”
We arrive at the fund-raiser, where Dean, among the crowd of elegantly attired guests, a startling number of them with apparent face-lifts, seems more than ever like a college administrator of some sort, or a professor who doesn’t get out much. In an unfortunate lapse of scheduling (the prolonged exuberance of the rally has been unexpected), he’s able to spend only 10 minutes at the party before leaving for the Burbank Airport to catch the last flight to Riverside, where he has another appearance. (It might be worthwhile in the long run to charter a plane, but the campaign can’t easily afford to do that yet, and so far Dean has resisted. “He’s cheap,” Rick Jacobs, the finance co-chair, says cheerfully.)
Back in the car, Dean resumes, almost to the sentence, where we’d left off. He’s been describing the adrenaline boost that can come from a crowd: “This campaign’s a little different from most campaigns,” he says, sounding oddly mystical, “in the sense that it’s not really about me, it’s about a movement to take back the country . . . I’m really a kind of mirror for a lot of those folks, and it’s their own energy which I can reflect back to them. So in a rally, it’s just automatic, I know what they want and I know what they need, and I just reflect back their own hopes and energies and desire to change the country . . .”
Smaller gatherings like the one we’ve just left, he says, are more difficult. “Because then you really do have to spend individual time with people, put some time into listening to their individual stories and their histories, and getting to know new people is hard work. It’s fun . . . You go in, you meet people who are smart, who know the issues, and the only frustrating thing is you get dragged out, ’cause you’ve only got 10 minutes on the schedule. It’s the most enjoyable part of the campaign — there’s no such thing as a boring American — but it really does take energy. You get really tired . . .”
Energy is what Dean and his campaign have these days. In one two-day period in July, they were able to bring in more than $500,000 over the Internet, double the amount raised by Dick Cheney at a North Carolina dinner for Bush that the campaign used as a challenge. Over the past week Dean embarked on his Sleepless Summer tour, which put him in six cities in six days to emphasize that while Bush is taking his ease at his Texas ranch, regular Americans don’t have the luxury of a month’s vacation. Crowds — and cash — continue to outstrip expectations, with some 40,000 attending rallies and more than $1 million raised. (Dean will appear in Los Angeles September 29 and 30.)
“Well, it’s been a great pleasure,” Dean says as he exits the car at Burbank Airport. (“Are we horribly late? . . . What time is wheels-up? In 15 minutes? Really?”) We’ve spent the rest of the ride-along discussing the future. As Edwards and Lieberman and Gephardt appear to fall back, and Bob Graham’s campaign seems to have difficulty getting off the ground, the calculus seems more and more to involve Dean vs. Kerry. But Wesley Clark still is an unresolved question.
When I ask Dean about Clark, his response is characteristically two-fold. He praises him with sincere fervor: “I know Wes Clark, he’s a very good human being, and he’s got an enormous amount of integrity.” At the same time, on the subject of Clark entering the race, he shows more than a glint of steel. “It’s going to be very hard to start late,” he says, “and think you’re going to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s going to be incredibly hard. I mean, we’ve already got 39,000 people working for us all around the country . . . I really do believe — and I think about this — I want to get this nomination, and if I don’t . . . these kids are not transferrable. I can’t just go out and say, ‘Okay, so I didn’t win the nomination, so go ahead and vote for the Democrats.’ They’re not going to suddenly just go away. That’s not gonna happen.”
Moments before the start of the Dean announcement film, just as the crowd on the Plaza de Los Angeles moves closer in, the sound system begins to grumble: It emits whines and groans, and then, all at once, it gives a long, ear-splitting CRAAACK. It’s so loud that people jump back a step or two. “Ah,” says tall, dark, frizzly-haired James, standing behind me wearing black-framed glasses and an olive-green T-shirt with his name tag on it, his beautiful Asian girlfriend beside him. He cocks his head and gestures in the direction the noise has come from. “Ah,” he says, “the thunderous sound of change.”