Did the Doctor Get Gored?
by Michael Hammerschlag
From the beginning of Howard Dean’s insurgent rise to the top of the Dem pack in the summer, through the other candidates’ and DLC’s harsh critiques, through Dean’s fearless off the cuff “gaffes”; the lurking question was: was the media going to destroy Howard Dean like they destroyed Al Gore- that is, seize on some simple negative dishonest story line (that Boy Scout Al Gore is a liar), and repeat it wildly until almost every story had to “prove” it (a Balt. Sun commentary accused Gore of lying because he claimed a rally “was the biggest”), instead of reporting the facts. Al Gore’s reluctance to cozy up to the press wasn’t seen in light of his exposure to the 6 year Clinton witchhunt and the radioactive right-wing hatreds that fueled it. No, mild-mannered dryly witty Al was cold. Also known as the echo chamber, the pack phenomenon had top paper reporters changing Gore quotes on the front page just to prove he was a liar. Let’s call it the THEME LIE.
Dean’s consistent attacks on the Washington Democrats’ support of the Iraq invasion and reckless tax cuts had aroused the ire of the Democratic Leadership Council by May, who called Dean + crew “the McGovern wing, defined by weakness abroad and elitist interest group liberalism at home”.1
MUST HE BE STOPPED?, The Case Against Howard Dean, railed a July issue of The New Republic, in what turned out to be a fair pro and con critique. Still, Dean was derided as arrogant, dishonest, stupid for calling himself a “social liberal”, and the first big THEME: that his anti-war and Patriot Act opposition stance was “politically lethal”. This in a country where almost half opposed the war and the dishonest way it had been foisted on the American people, and most of the rest believed Iraq connections to 9-11. A President pledging humility and shunning nation-building had dragged America into a unprecedented unprovoked invasion in the powder keg of the Middle East on a foundation of lies, but the official Dem line was “We must support it because of 9-11”, when they were different, and competing security issues. Every other Dem candidate, but Kucinich and Braun, voted for Bush’s war authorization because they were terrified of being seen as being soft on Saddam (replacing Communism), and the slim possibility that Bush wasn’t deceiving them. As Dean’s courageous criticisms of the War and Administration created millions of supporters and contributors and tens of millions of dollars, the other candidates echoed his anti-war spiel. This theme, after 9-11 and Bush’s propaganda, wasn’t a lie- but it was rarely analyzed.
The next big THEME was that Dean was UNELECTABLE because he was a wimpy left wing liberal, with the pantheon of Dem big loser aspirants trotted out for comparison, but that completely ignored his stewardship of Vermont. He was a strict fiscal conservative, who had courted business and stood up to liberal demands, who had balanced the budget of Vermont while creating health care for children, and he was pro-gun (a huge factor in the South and West); a tough guy wrestler who fought consistently and ferociously for his programs. The other candidates (inc. Lieberman and Gephardt, who were unelectable) were repeating this theme, so the media could repeat it over and over with impunity, but rarely was there an honest examination. “The issue.. isn’t illegitimate., says Annenberg School of Communications Public Policy Center director Kathleen Jamieson, “if.. you discuss it intelligently… Are the candidates getting comparable scrutiny on that as an issue?” Because this was the silver bullet, the all important factor to Democrats horrified at the threat of Bush’s reelection, it was the most powerful theme- the constant stressing would, could, and did become a self-fulfilling phenomenon. In Iowa and New Hampshire Dean’s support crumpled explosively because, after being pummeled with it by both candidates (who weren’t disinterested) and pundits… voters bought it.
Another THEME was Dean’s anger- his short temper and impatience was often on display on TV, but often out of context. When he dressed down TV cameramen in NH, it was because one had clunked a woman reporter in the head with his camera deliberately, which of course the clip didn’t show or explain. To viewers exhausted with self-serving legalistic justifications of lawyer/politicians, Dean’s tendency to slap back at attackers was refreshing, not reckless. Reporters did not present it that way. Dean was angry, out-of-control, reckless…maybe untrustworthy. He said what he thought, without a filter, and answered questions with breathtaking honesty. Like… a doctor.. giving a diagnosis. Supporters loved him for this but he sometimes did look irate. In person, Dean didn’t come across as angry or negative, but outraged at the Bush squalor, with an inherent sense of optimism and hope. Voters didn’t leave his meetings mad, they left hopeful, after years of paralysis. Repeated accusations of Dean's so called anger, in the midst of coordinated media and candidate assaults, made it impossible for him to respond without "proving" their contentions.
In December, the concerted forces of the Washington establishment media struck in the last and definitive THEME LIE – that Dean was ignorant and dangerous in foreign policy. Opposing Bush’s war, though he supported keeping the troops there, was count one. The now pro-war Washington Post ran a scathing dishonest editorial attack on Dean on Dec 18th. Called Beyond the Mainstream, it contained some whoppers - like sending Nat. Guard troops on interminable deployments to an optional war was SOP. They savaged Dean for the “extraordinary argument” that “the capture of Saddam has made America no safer”, but that line was preceded by “the capture of Saddam is a good thing which I hope very much will keep our soldiers safer, but” in a detailed 7 page LA speech on foreign policy, which the Post seemingly hadn’t read. “The argument that this tyrant wasn’t a danger to the United States is not just unfounded, but ludicrous,” ranted the doyens of the Washington press in what was intended to be a career destroying blast. These charges were picked up and repeated by the other candidates. Even Fareed Zakaria, foreign editor of Newsweek, who supported the war, felt compelled to write a column defending Dean’s reasonable foreign policy positions. “Dean is not a peacenik…..you will be struck how centrist and sensible his speech is… Dean is tough on terrorism and proposes several intelligent policies.”
The attacks were accurate only in that Dean doesn’t have direct foreign policy experience, but this is a guy who traveled around the world (inc. inside the Iron Curtain), when he was only 17, who has visited 50 countries as chief executive of a state or tourist. That alone puts him head and shoulders above Bush, who as the princely son of a Veep and President, was never even curious enough to leave our shores. Most of the FP criticisms of Dean have been manifestly unfair, a knee jerk (and increasingly desperate) reaction to the vast appeal his courageous stance against the Iraq war has engendered. He did, as he points out, support the Gulf War (inc. going on to Baghdad), and military force in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. “They all voted for the war, I didn’t, it seems my kind of foreign policy experience is the kind we need in the White House,” said Dean in a Town Meeting in Manchester, to loud applause. Indeed, after Saddam’s capture, the other candidates waffled again, trying to ride the updraft of patriotism and Bush support created by it. Attacking the wrong enemy doesn’t boost our security (just as putting the wrong man in prison doesn’t), because the system itself is damaged and discredited, the guilty villains are still out there, and the waste of forces and resolve cripples our ability to react to them. (In a year the military will be decimated by disgruntled resignations from the impressed reserves, Nat. Guard, and stop-loss Army).
Dean’s foreign policy / Nat. security team includes 5 generals, admirals, and colonels, a Nat. Security Advisor, and CIA director. He is talking of urgent real security issues: tripling the budget to buy the loose fissionable material in the FSU (something I’ve been complaining about for a decade-pan rt.); increasing security for the 19 million shipping containers that flood America every year- a desperately important subject (see Stephen Flynn); funding alternative schools to the hate-mongering madrassas in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, rebuilding the alliances damaged and circumvented by Bush’s arrogant war, increasing funding and integration of intelligence agencies rather than co-opting them with preordained findings; building a world-wide anti-terror alliance rather than insanely cranking up the long idled nuke-making machinery. None of this made a more than a passing mention in the press, while they continued to criticize his inexperience.
At the end of a NH town meeting, a visiting Chinese student came up to Dean, “I'm a little worried that you sound kind of aggressive to China." (about his answer to my question about Chinese purchase of our bonds).
DEAN: “Well, China is going to be one of the greatest security challenges and possible threat over the next 50 years- I don't think there's going to be a war, unless they invade Taiwan... but I don't think that's going to happen. But we have to handle it perfectly, with extreme care and tact… because we are now very much interdependent",
- expertly summarizing the prickly security relationship w China in 15 seconds. The student didn't expect that- he expected some sugar coated diplomatic stroking, but it impressed him enough that he blinked and said, "People who say you don't know foreign policy are wrong." Dean’s startling candor is his greatest asset and greatest vulnerability- his words will be selectively excised by assassins for arrows to sling. He comes across as a decisive leader, rather than a politician- and the truth is- all Presidents decide foreign policy after extensive consultation with experts, not by their native hunches. Dean’s youthful travels show a man engaged and exposed to world from the earliest age.
In the middle of December, opening a New Hampshire debate, Ted Koppel, trying to shake things up, stepped over the journalistic line: “Raise your hand if you think Gov. Dean can beat George W Bush.” Perhaps stunned at the import and audacity of the respected newsman slamming himself into the process, no one, but Dean, did. It was the silver bullet- the one thing that could kill any candidacy, and wholly inappropriate- humiliating Dean at the outset. And only Dean had been getting shot with it for 6 months. The candidates were the last people to ask for an honest answer. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs of TV evening news found that over ¾ of the stories on Dean’s opponents were positive, while most stories on Dean were negative. Another brutal Wash. Post editorial on Dec 28, Assessing Mr. Dean, found him a waffling “canny, if loose lipped, poll” who suffered from “smarty mouth” (self-described) and was hypocritical in hiding his records (unlike, say, Bush’s sunshine policy). “..Had his counsel been followed, the brutal dictator would still be in power,” pontificated the DC newspaper of record in a self-evident hypothesis. And 510 troops and maybe 20,000-30,000 Iraqis would be alive. NBC, the most critical network of Dem candidates, dug up a video of Dean dismissing the importance of the Iowa Caucus, saying they were dominated by radical partisans. (This may have been Repub. oppo research.)
In January, all 3 weekly newsmagazines ran cover stories on Dean. Newsweek's cover story, Doubts About Dean, used photos in which Dean looks ominous, threatening (almost attacking Clark), frowning, or a picture rotated 50º so Dean looks like he falling over to the left (get it?) in sickly blurred mixed flash/ambient florescent tones; and they harp over piddling 3 or $4000 Dean contributions from corporations, but when did they report on the tens of billions ripped out of the pockets of Cal. voters and handed over to Enron, and other Bush energy pals when he cancelled the Clinton price cap on Cal. energy prices his first day in office (which had risen up to 90-fold)? Political writer Howard Fineman (who had fawned over George Bush in another cover story so much that some editors were embarrassed) first quotes anonymous Dean bloggers (look, even they don’t trust him) and later enthused over the “Clark surge” on LiveTalk Internet Q+A while taking questions like, "Why does Dean hate members of the American military?". US News+WR had the best profile of the Vermonster, “I love Dick Gephardt” ..in a tone more sorrowful than angry, he said, “I’m surprised at the bitterness of the attacks, I really am.” They also illustrated the vision of Trippi’s ‘motivate the base and the middle will follow’ strategy- the first new one in the Democratic Party in 30 years.
By Jan 19th the dripping of acid THEME erosion, and Dean’s repetition on Iraq like a one-note pony, had eaten away at the hope and enthusiasm that he had engendered, causing a stunning 30 point swing between Dean and Kerry numbers in only one week. Three numbers were devastating to Dean in Iowa: Dean lost the young, the new voters, and the opponents of Iraq. Likewise in NH, there is a 15-23 point swing from a week ago (take with shaker of salt). Wash. Post columnist EJ Dionne thanked Dean for bringing backbone to the Democratic Party, then suggested he leave the field to the adults.
Another theory was that Dean’s support was primarily based on 5 months of steady media reports that he was dominant in fund-raising, organization, and polls; and that was propping him up; when he faltered, people deserted him en masse. There may be some element of truth in this, but Dean was almost always presented as an ominous force, riding the rails of inevitability. Could he be stopped? What if he wasn’t?
I’ve covered the Dem. Presidential Primary campaigns before- with multiple opponents attacking from every side, for the leader they are brutal trials worse than the actual race against the other Party, or the worst trials of being President. Even at this stage, candidates are pallid and exhausted at the constant travel, endless recitation, chronic lack of sleep, and dehydration. They are surrounded every second by killer press who want nothing so much as a catastrophic flub or misstatement to boost their career on, and maybe end the candidate’s. Advisors are constantly telling them what to do, where to go, what to say, what they did wrong. Even being near them is energizing and exhausting, like being near a hurricane- great gobs of hope and enthusiasm and power and pathos floating around. To be at the center of it isn’t just disorienting, it’s unimaginable- reality itself is sucked out in the hyperspeed of Election Central. The only thing that might compare to the stress is extreme military training, where they go days without sleep or food. Dean has been at it for a year.
After the crushing blow of the Iowa collapse, Dean gave his critics the ammunition they lusted for with his exhausted laryngitic dorky non-concession rebel yell. Expected to show contrition or reflection after the debacle, Dean was caught giving a defiant rally to young departing troops. It was "bizarre, weird, eerie", said CBS Evening News, with quotes from Dean-defecting NH voters. “Sounds more like Howard Beale,” opined another pundit. “He looked like a rabid dog… an angry guy who may be border line psychotic,” quoted a LA Times story from Charlie Cook and an impartial GOP strategist. It would be replayed hundreds of times. Dean recovered somewhat in a funny and humanizing Letterman Top Ten reading, and a Prime Time interview with his wife with Dianne Sawyer, but he was hemorrhaging big-time. Still, no one should ever count out Howard Dean.
Was the media unfair to Dean? Not in the contemptibly dishonest way they were to Al Gore, who I think didn’t run again because of that. But taking all the exaggerated attack THEMES together, and the dishonesty about his foreign policy, Yes, absolutely.
Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism disagrees: “That’s how we elect Presidents- we don’t have smoke-filled back rooms.. the candidates and media investigate the front runner proctologically. Dean should have seen this coming- he didn’t have a strategy to behave like a front runner- to turn and stand above the fray.”
No other candidates received a tiny fraction of the harsh scrutiny Dean did. “They only do this to one candidate at a time,” says Rosenstiel. But the scrutiny is mostly arbitrary, petty, irrelevant, misdirected. In contrast, George Bush has received a virtual blanket pass for 3 years of blunders, lies, corruption, and war. And if you investigate the candidate proctologically, you might inevitably conclude he is an ass---. Dean’s mistakes were responsible for some, maybe much, of this criticism. And he peaked too soon. But if the media succeeds in destroying Howard Dean, who will be next? After all, isn’t John Kerry from Massachusetts? Can someone from Massachusetts be electable?
Michael Hammerschlag has written commentaries + articles for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Capital Times, Media Channel, & Moscow News, Tribune, and Guardian. He covered the ’84 Democratic Presidential Primary in Iowa, WI., and DC; was a correspondent in Russia from 1991-1994; and has written on foreign policy for 24 years.
1 The New Republic- July 28/Aug 4 2003 p21