My Final Days With Howard Dean
PROLOGUE AS EPILOGUE
There are facts and truths and political truths but there’s always another story and it’s hard, oh so hard, to trust the media. The fact is that Howard Dean has stated he will drop out of the race for president if he does not win Wisconsin. That’s the truth on the ground as the wheels of ATA Flight 936 kiss the pavement at Midway Airport on the South Side of Chicago late Sunday night. In response, hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised on the Dean for America website to fund Howard Dean’s last stand. But what if Dean didn’t say that? What if that was just an email from Roy Neel, his campaign manager, thinking aloud and then accidentally hitting the send button? And if Howard Dean denied it the next day? Would it be too late?
The roads north of Chicago are slick with ice. By three in the morning the only vehicles other than my own are tractor-trailers jackknifed on the side of the tollway, their blinking lights blurred by the snow. The campaign has staked everything on a Wisconsin victory, whether it meant to or not. The former front-runner and presumptive candidate has yet to win a primary. The John Kerry machine has been leaving tire prints across the field and the race is not as close as it looks if you’re just counting delegates. It takes 2,161 delegates to lock down the Democratic nomination for president. The numbers, nine days before the Wisconsin primary, have John Kerry with 320 compared to 136 for Howard Dean. But if you look closer you’ll see a different story. Most of Dean’s delegates are super-delegates, political officials like mayors and sheriffs who operate outside of the primaries and caucuses, who gave their support to Dean back when he was the hottest ticket in town. But super-delegates often change their minds and their votes are only as good as what they expect in return. Of the pledged delegates—the delegates elected in primaries and caucuses—Dean is dead last. Several super-delegates have already switched to John Kerry. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has pulled its support, saying they’ll hold out for the general election. This is a story about abandonment.
This is also a story written for people who already know the ending. Like in the movie Casino, which opens with a scene of Robert De Niro exploding from his car in a small Las Vegas parking lot. Cut back to the beginning: music, dice, money, and Sharon Stone.
But this is not about Las Vegas. This is about the American electoral process and the seventeenth state, a frozen voting bloc of seventy-two pledged and fifteen unpledged delegates lodged between Chicago and Lake Superior. This is about an Indian tribe that tried to open a casino in the state capital and ended up on the same ballot as the presidential primary and lost. This is about what money can’t buy. Howard Dean spent close to $50 million, more than any Democrat before him, and never won a state.
GETTING ON MESSAGE
Howard Dean kicks off his Real Choice, Real Change Tour at the Concourse Hotel in Madison at 9:45 Monday morning. Several hundred people sit in a ballroom on the second floor. There is a world-weariness about the room as the supporters wait patiently with blue and white signs across their laps and the camera techs wrangle the mic cords. These are not new voters, these are people who have been Dean supporters since he forcefully posed his question to the Democratic National Council nearly a year ago: “Why aren’t Democrats standing up to Republicans on the war in Iraq?”
Dean approaches the podium and thanks the local organizer. That’s one of his lessons from Iowa. The senators in Iowa were very upset when Dean didn’t thank the people of the state in his now-famous concession speech on January 19th. Now Dean thanks everybody. At the Jefferson Jackson Democratic Dinner in Nashua, New Hampshire, he spent three and a half minutes of a seven-minute speech thanking every elected official in the room. The crowd claps and Dean waits for them to finish.
“The lobbying-disclosure system in this country is a joke…. Democrats who watched the popularity polls and cut bad deals with the White House are not the right people to stand up to George Bush this fall…. Bush wanted enormous tax giveaways for the richest people and corporations, creating enormous deficits that mortgage our children’s future. The Washington Democrats went along…. George Bush embarked on a unilateral, preemptive, wrongheaded war in Iraq. He misled us about the facts. Washington Democrats looked at the polls and went along. Without asking the hard questions, they gave George W. Bush a blank check.”
It’s a great speech but a small crowd and he sounds just like he used to when I got hooked on this trip back in July, like someone nobody has ever heard of speaking candidly, as if he had nothing to lose. Dean lacks charisma; he speaks in staccato sentences while making choppy movements with his hands. The words don’t flow from him and when he pauses it always looks like he’s forgotten what he was going to say. There are more than five standing ovations.
Toni Montgomery from the Florida Observer gives me the real scoop on background behind the riser. “Staff members are abandoning the campaign as if it were a burning building,” he says, pulling out a packet of cigarettes and offering me one. “Go ahead.” He pushes the pack toward me so I take a cigarette and put it behind my ear. “John Kerry’s running the most vicious and mean-spirited campaign of any Democrat since Al Gore. Remember those late-night phone calls to Dean supporters in New Hampshire? That shit was Kerry straight down to the fingerprints on the receiver. Here’s one last tip: remember the Lyndon LaRouche supporters showing up at Dean events throughout December waving Confederate flags? Check out the LaRouche/Kerry connection.” Toni crosses his arms over his chest; the smoke hangs in his bangs like a mist.
I never know how much to believe with Toni, though the Lyndon LaRouche supporters were real—I saw them. They were dancing like mystics around a fire and wearing pointy white hats in the back of the hall during the college convention in Manchester. And the late-night phone calls in New Hampshire were well documented. But nobody knows where they came from and with less and less coverage dedicated to Dean, no one is likely to make the effort to find out. The only thing people know for sure is that John Kerry and Richard Gephardt shared notes on Howard Dean in Iowa and former key operatives from both campaigns took part in a shady group (now defunct) called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare, and Progressive Values that briefly ran television advertisements with pictures of Osama bin Laden while Howard Dean and Weak on Security flashed across the screen.
After the event I run into Bill Margolin. He’s eighty-one years old but he looks closer to sixty-five. His wife passed away a year ago. He’s still wearing his orange Perfect Storm hat that he got while canvassing for Dean in Iowa.
Before retiring, Bill was an engineer in Detroit. “I had other hobbies. I love to sail. I was a musician. I played violin and my wife played viola. But I’m taking a year off of that.” Bill is one of those cool old guys that are easy to like. He’s very alive. He says he’s never been involved in politics before but after Iowa he caught a flight to New Hampshire because he didn’t want to miss a day. Then he rode with other volunteers to Michigan, and now here. “I knock on doors and make phone calls,” he says, pulling on his gloves. He got the campaign to give him the software from Iowa so he could figure out how the canvassing operation works. He likes Dean the best but is willing to work with whichever Democrat captures the nomination. “We have to beat Bush,” he says, and gives me a look that’s part hope and part exasperation, as if what he’s saying is obvious. Something in his look betrays a faith in the basic goodness of humanity and for a moment I’m jealous. “We have to beat him,” he continues. “The guy’s an asshole and a cretin. He’s running the country and he’s a liar.”
The downtown Hilton dominates the Milwaukee skyline, an enormous red brick building in three sections with a giant middle and twenty-four floors of corridors stretching off its center like a gargoyle with its wings half closed. This is where the press will spend most nights, high above the Polish and black neighborhoods and far away from the political heart of Wisconsin’s famously blue-collar city. The Dean national staff will stay here as well, working shortened days between the exercise room and tours of the beer factories. The hotel has a water park that you get to through a special elevator on the sixth floor.
Meanwhile, the Dean state staff is mostly in a series of shabby rooms above a coffee shop and a row of used bookstores in downtown Madison, near the capitol building. There’s no getting past the sense of doom that now hangs over the campaign. Staffers speak openly of what went wrong and what their plans are for the future. They blame each other, they blame the media, and they blame the candidate. One thing that’s clear at this point is that Iowa was the whole game. It’s been said that you can’t underestimate the effect Iowa has on New Hampshire, but everybody did. Wesley Clark criticized his own campaign for the decision not to compete in Iowa, a decision that, at least for a while, looked like a stroke of genius. But good instinct is something that can only be determined in retrospect. The truth is that Clark’s whole campaign was predicated on John Kerry losing, at which point Clark, who had voted for Nixon and Reagan, would present himself as the last chance for Democrats who were worried that Dean would suffer a disastrous loss to George Bush in the fall. But when Kerry won, Clark became an unnecessary safety valve and he dropped out after humiliating third-place finishes in both Tennessee and Virginia. Hindsight now says Dean’s Iowa organization was fucked, their phone lists and databases a disorganized mess exacerbated by the stress of handling four thousand mostly shaggy volunteers streaming in from all over the country to invade and annoy the Iowan citizenry. And people knew as early as September but nobody did anything about it, mostly out of a sense of loyalty and decency to the people that were there from the beginning. Their allegiance, it was felt, should be rewarded. This kind of loyalty is something that filters down from the top and is unlikely to afflict a candidate like Kerry, who not unlike Bush is capable of doing anything to win. Dean’s tightly run ship in New Hampshire was unable to overcome the Iowa disaster. With the primaries moving at such a clip now, the Dean camp has the vantage point of an island looking at the back of a tidal wave; all of the houses are already destroyed, everything is soaked.
Dean opens every speech these days exhorting the crowd not to listen to the media before rattling off a list of all the reasons John Kerry should be seen as a first-class scumbag. He reminds everybody that he was the one to start talking about the war in Iraq, the tax cuts, and the No Child Left Behind act. All of which is true but is hardly relevant since the other candidates coopted his platform at the exact same time that Dean was toning his act down and running TV ads in Texas.
At dinner several journalists make tender jokes about Howard Dean’s poor choice of wardrobe and the socks he was wearing that had holes in them. We’re at Sauces, a restaurant fifteen minutes from the hotel with a strange, curvaceous interior and twenty-five-dollar entrees. All the major media—Fox, the AP, CNN, the New York Times—are here, but in significantly smaller numbers, and the other outlets have pulled their coverage altogether. A reporter from Newsweek is in attendance but she’s flying out tomorrow, pretty sure her story won’t run in the magazine but might appear on their website. The AP has pulled their main reporter, Nedra Pickler, off the Dean bus, choosing to rely on coverage from their local staff for a while and flying Roy Sneyd out from Vermont for this final stand. Nobody knows why I’m here, but nobody really cares.
Things are a lot more relaxed these days. I sit right across from the Fox executive who once asked me to vacate her seat in the back of Press Bus 1. The regulars made it a point to sit in the same seat every time and it might have something to do with their things being stuffed in the overhead compartments but probably not. Those were the heady days before everything went so glaringly wrong. Though in retrospect, things had already gone wrong. There was a heavy pecking order back then and I was on the bottom of it, distrusted by staff and looked down on by the traveling press, but there are no stars on a sinking ship.
Somewhere in the wistful banter between the press and the staffers, one of the journalists says, “We never got him socks.” Apparently, there was a plot among the traveling press to purchase Dean four pairs of socks for his fifty-fifth birthday. But that was November 17th, Dean was the front-runner, and the Democratic Party machinery was in a panic. Dean was saying that when he got to the Capitol, members of Congress would scurry “like a bunch of cockroaches” under a light. In all the commotion as the turboprop whipped between DC, Baltimore, and Manchester, the socks were forgotten. With so much money and momentum it seemed like things would keep going forever, or at least for another year, until the voters pulled the handle in the general election. But now the socks, which were never bought, are remembered as one more opportunity missed.
The Hilton is hosting a convention of pharmaceutical workers. They hang out in suits with name tags taped to their jackets. Hookers lounge near the poker machine waiting for easy money from traveling salesmen who miss their wives. The young Dean staffers call the bar girls “cougars.”
“You guys just don’t know what it feels like to be on a losing campaign,” Jay Carson, Dean’s spokesman says, staring into his drink. Before Dean, Jay had worked in the Capitol for Tom Daschle and had contracted anthrax. The blue Dean pin is gone from his lapel, replaced with a red one that reads “Miller High Life.”
“Actually, I do know what it feels like to be on a losing campaign,” I say, referring to Nader’s run in 2000. I had driven a campaign bus in that election. The bus was painted like a box of Tide and we would show up at politicians’ offices throughout the Deep South and offer them bars of soap and request that they clean up their act. Nobody seems to think that’s comparable, and a look of anger and blame stretches over some faces. But even that passes. No point in being angry now.
In a game of quarter ante/quarter bet, Jodi Wilgoren tells us about playing poker with Jim McManus in Chicago. Jodi is the traveling correspondent for the New York Times. There are two types of traveling press, the ones that are on the bus all the time—like Jodi, who has gone everywhere Howard Dean has gone for the past six months—and the ones that parachute in for a couple of days to write their stories and then leave. But Jodi does more than just write her own stories; she is the resident Howard Dean expert and contributes to nearly every story the Times writes on the governor. Reporters like Jodi, who live with the candidates day in day out, tend to be young up-and-comers. This is where they make their break. She says she lost four hundred dollars in that game of poker with McManus, for which the New York Times reimbursed her one hundred.
The game we play is slightly weird. Someone insists that whoever bet last has to lead the betting, negating the dealer’s advantage immediately following the flop. Jay stares at his cards too long each hand, deciding what to do. A suggestion is made to play Seven-Card Howard Dean, wherein you get the option of joining back into the hand after you muck your cards. The problem with getting back in is that you’re no longer eligible for the big pot; you only get to keep what you win from the point you return to the game. In other words, you have to start from scratch. A bad bet, but the only way to pull anything out of a low house on the river. Take what you can get.
And this is the problem the Dean campaign faces, a problem more insurmountable by the day. First he called Wisconsin a must-win state, but then backtracked from that to say he would continue on, no matter what. Meanwhile, the other candidates are getting coverage talking health care, education, an unjustified and poorly planned war, and tax giveaways. And nobody remembers that those were Dean’s issues—that a year ago, except for Howard Dean, the other candidates weren’t criticizing the war or the Patriot Act or demanding better health care. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the message means more than the man and it was Howard Dean’s job to bring that message and deliver it to someone electable. But voting for someone who is electable is a slippery slope. If you vote for someone who is electable and then they lose, then you have to go back and examine your vote and question your own judgments and motivations. If you don’t like a candidate but vote for them because you want to vote for a winner, and they don’t win, then someone has tricked you. You’ve given something away and gotten nothing in return.
“Come on, Jay.”
The maximum bet in the poker game is seventy-five cents and a dollar on the final hand. With two fours in the flop I win a side bet with Jodi that neither of the two players are sitting on three of a kind. I find her faith in the honesty and skill of the other players startling.
AN ANGRY QUESTION
On the sixth floor of a technical school in Milwaukee, Dean blasts at Kerry in an unannounced press avail. He says that John Edwards is a better candidate. He says it would be a shame if the American people had to choose between the lesser of two evils. He’s surrounded by cameras and tape recorders. Dean’s anger is both vicious and justified. Under further questioning he says he will support any Democratic candidate but it’s hard to imagine him really coming out for Kerry after saying, as he does in this appearance, that Kerry’s “going to turn out like George Bush.”
THE DANCE OF HOPE
That’s the message played in all the papers and on TV, Howard Dean angrily denouncing John Kerry. Nobody pays any attention to what happens next, at the rally in Memorial Hall. Memorial Hall is on the campus of the University of Wisconsin and over a thousand students fill the seats. This is the news Dean wanted to get across, but didn’t. Here are the new voters the campaign had been promising to bring to the polls since the summer, whom Dean had promised to give a reason to vote again.
But nobody pays any attention. The big news for the day is a rumor downloaded from the Drudge Report that John Kerry had done filthy things with a bottle of vaseline and an intern and the intern had been sent off to Africa to hide. And that’s all anyone in the press pool is thinking about. Dean won’t comment on the issue and most of the newspapers still aren’t writing about it, or not too much, because without a smoking dress or some cryogenically frozen sperm it’s still just a rumor. But it’s a rumor every paper wants to print and they’re just waiting on a good reason.
In Memorial Hall Dean is introduced by his wife, Judy Dean, who stands awkwardly on the stage and says a couple of words about her husband being a good person who would make a good president. She had stayed out of the campaign until after Iowa. She looks around like she’s waiting for him to come out, but he doesn’t. She begins to walk off; she goes left, then right, and then left again. Then music starts and the curtain lifts behind her and her husband is there with a bunch of supporters cheering and shaking signs. He hugs her tightly and for just a moment she buries her nose in his neck.
There are a lot of kids. The most I’ve seen since I first saw Howard Dean on the campus of the University of Iowa, but not enough to fill the balcony. And Dean gives the same speech he’s been giving with a little more emphasis on civil unions. When he finishes, the music kicks back in and the volunteers who were sitting next to me jump out of their seats and start dancing.
INTO THE LOOKING
Racine is south of Milwaukee on the lake, halfway to Chicago. Chairs are set up around a podium with a stage in the middle. “This is a bad turnout,” Mike Tate, Dean’s Wisconsin state director, says to me. “But we planned this less than twenty-four hours ago.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” I say.
During the question and answer a supporter stands to tell Dean that she doesn’t know where the polls get their data because everybody she’s talked to is going to vote for the governor. Dean nods politely, pretending as if he didn’t already know exactly how many votes he has as of yesterday, how many more he needs to get, where he has to go to get them, and what his chances are.
I can almost see past Dean’s tight smile, to where his teeth meet his gums. This was the man who was almost the Democratic nominee for president and now he has to stand and listen to this junk. I want him to say, “Thanks a lot but you don’t know anything. You won’t be there to console me when you’re proven wrong. Now sit down.” But he doesn’t.
And that brings me back to January 11th, eight days before the Iowa caucuses, when the polls still had Dean with a strong lead and the landscape was endless all the way to Sioux City. That was the day Dean met Dale Ungerer. The event was in Oelwein and Dean had been campaigning nonstop. The press bus smelled like fish. Ungerer was sixty-six years old with skin like gravel. He looked the way Iowa looks, with its decreasing population and failing farms. He stood up during the question-and-answer period and he told Dean to tone down “the garbage, the mean-mouthing [of George W. Bush].” He continued on for three minutes until Dean finally said, “Sit down, you’ve had your say and now I’m going to have my say.”
And that was probably the point at which Howard Dean lost the race. The trap had been set. A whisper campaign had been underway for months about Dean’s “famous” anger, and finally someone had coerced him into that net. Dale Ungerer was a registered Republican and was semifamous in that small county for building a thirty-two-foot corn on the cob made of gallon milk jugs. The Iowa voters didn’t like it when Dean was impolite to one of their own.
But Dale Ungerer is an oversimplification. The word among Dean’s own press and staff is that he’d been on self-destruct for months. Forget the organizational failures—many question if Howard Dean ever really wanted to be president, and point to a series of misstatements that ranged from Osama to Saddam to Confederate flags. Of course Dean wanted to be president, but a person can want two conflicting things at the same time.
The writing is on the wall for Howard Dean; our journey together is ending. The sad truth is that I always thought he would be a great president, but he’s not much of a politician. He wasn’t perfect, he flip-flopped on Cuba, his views on the death penalty are absurd, and when he started talking about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ I went into a brief depression. But he has a level of integrity that’s rare in candidates for the highest office. I remember the first time I heard him talk about the economy, and he said he would repeal all of the Bush tax cuts to balance the budget and with the money left over he would provide health care. The only other major candidate willing to repeal all of the tax cuts was Dick Gephardt but Dick’s plans were much more expensive than Dean’s, $224 billion for health care compared with $87 billion.
So it’s been a long journey that we’ll both continue separately in some new capacity. In the final days he speaks about issues and voters coming together to change the party into something that can beat George Bush. The day before the Wisconsin primary I drive to Wausau, three hours north of Milwaukee. It’s a flat and ugly drive until you get there, when tiny lumps of the snow ringed with chairlifts struggle out of the distance to the north and west. Otherwise everything is white; the only variations are the exits, dotted with McDonalds and Arby’s as if splotched with red paint.
There was no reason for all three candidates to appear in Wausau the day before the primary but they all were, a strange coincidence of planning for a town of forty thousand. Wausau has been devastated by factory closings and jobs being moved out of the country and every candidate talks about NAFTA and Bush’s jobless recovery. Both Dean and Kerry have altered their positions on NAFTA and Edwards says he’s the only candidate who’s always been against it (but he wasn’t in the senate at the time so he didn’t have to vote on it). This morning it was announced that Steve Grossman, the chair of Dean’s campaign, is leaving. Grossman worked Kerry’s senate bid in ’96 and is a keen example of the political opportunism that tore the Dean campaign apart. When Dean looked like a lock for the nomination everybody was climbing aboard. Now he’s taking their careers down with him. Grossman’s resignation—or firing, depending on whom you listen to—is the final nail in a coffin that was already closed.
The first rally in Wassau is a rally for John Kerry. Risers are built six high but not in places that will block the cameras. Maybe 250 locals are squeezed together with plenty of space left over for the press behind the rope. An overflow room is set up in the cafeteria and 200 more watch on closed-circuit television. Kerry is questioned on his vote for NAFTA. He responds by pointing out that key side provisions are not being enforced. He says we need to review NAFTA. In response to a question about Colombia he says we need to review our policy toward Latin America as well. As usual, the rally is dotted with bright yellow shirts, representatives of the firefighters union, the muscle behind Kerry’s organization. Kerry has worked diligently in the senate to raise money for first responders like firemen. He also has one of the best records on the environment and was instrumental in the fight against oil-drilling in Alaska.
These are my thoughts as I’m walking back to my rental car and my phone rings. It’s Toni, back in Florida, now writing about celebrities in Miami Beach and working on his tan while watching the election on C-SPAN. “Did you notice how he licks his lips when he talks?” Toni says.
“Kerry?” I ask.
“Yeah. He does this thing where he opens his mouth and his tongue darts out to touch his lower lip.”
“Maybe his lips are dry.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Dry lips. And his daughter’s a doctor and he’s never heard of chapstick.”
I hang up on Toni and head to the Edwards event. Fewer than 200 people show up for John Edwards and in the afternoon 400 people pack the Labor Temple for Howard Dean. I place a losing twenty-dollar bet with the reporter from the Washington Post that Howard Dean will beat John Edwards by five percentage points. But I know I’ve made a mistake right away by his eager acceptance of my wager. After the Labor Temple I speed to Madison to catch Dean’s last act before primary night, a rally at the Orpheum Theater. There are probably 2,000 people there, including his staff and a ton of press. I’m late and take a seat on the floor in the aisle. Dean is conciliatory, thanking everyone for their support, emphasizing the importance of their vote, stating that he’s going to back whoever the Democratic nominee may be. He mentions that the other candidates stole his message, but that’s a good thing. He’s glad they did.
I go out for a drink afterward in downtown Madison with Bill Margolis and eight or nine Dean volunteers. The bar has stopped serving food and closed the upstairs. There’s a lot of talk about the media conspiracy, about John Kerry owning $50 million in media stock. “Are you with the media?” someone asks me.
“Not really,” I reply. I could just as easily have said, “Aren’t we all.”
Many of them have been volunteering for Dean for months and tomorrow will be time to go home. It’s a strange mix of anger, loneliness, and hope that drives a person to work on a presidential campaign for free, nine months before the general election. They talk about putting limits on what the media can and can’t say. “They’re not doing their job,” one of them says. But I remember the Kerry bus when times were bad and how upset the Kerry people were, especially with the Boston Globe, which they thought was deliberately distorting the truth. Nobody’s ever happy with the media. I went to Israel in 2001. I stood next to CNN outside the Jerusalem Sbarro’s, which a suicide bomber had turned into a twisted pile of beams and concrete with spider cracks along the foundation and wires hanging from the ceiling. One of the chefs was walking up and down the street in a daze, his white smock covered in blood. And Uzi Landau, the right-wing minister of the interior, spoke angrily about the media’s biased coverage. He said Hamas and the Palestinian Authority were the same thing, a statement he surely knew was incorrect, even as metaphor. Some Hasidim were boycotting the New York Times.
The next day I was in Ramallah on a hill with a Palestinian general overlooking what was once a police station. It was dusk and the edges of the sky were pink-purple, as if bruised. The Israelis had bombed the station to a pile of bricks and dust. The general spoke harshly of the deceptive media covering the conflict, the lies propagated in the New York Times. “Four hundred people worked in that building,” he said. “We were lucky to hear the planes coming and quickly evacuate.”
I nearly laughed, except I was surrounded by men with guns and my taxi was waiting to take me back to the checkpoint. What the general was saying was nowhere near the truth. The Israeli authorities had warned them ahead of time to evacuate the building so they could bomb it. If the Israelis hadn’t warned them everyone would have died. That was when I knew that everybody was lying, and that everybody hates the press.
But Bill Margolin doesn’t jump on that bandwagon. He orders a Guinness and grips it tightly when the waitress comes by to clear the glasses. “Oh no you don’t,” he says, smiling like a child. If I could figure out what he does to stay so young and alive I would do it. I can’t believe he’s drinking a beer and I hope I can still enjoy a beer when I’m eighty-one years old. He tells me that he started with Dean because he thought Dean was the only one who could beat Bush. And in the process he came to like Howard Dean very much. But he’ll regroup, take a little time off, and then go to work for whoever the Democratic nominee is. Several other people echo his sentiment.
“It’s going to be hard going out for Kerry,” one of them says.
Bill tells me about his experiences in World War II. He worked in the signal core in the Pacific Theater. “I was almost 4-F, because of my eyesight.” I ask Bill if he wishes he had been political earlier. He says he doesn’t think that way. “You’ve got to look ahead,” he tells me. Bill has been sharing a room with two other Dean volunteers. He’s the greatest old man I’ve ever met.
The night of the primary Howard Dean comes in third with 18 percent of the vote and addresses a small crowd of loyal supporters. “I know some of you are disappointed. But I also want you to think for a moment how far we have come. The truth is, change is tough. There is enormous institutional pressure in this country against change. There is enormous institutional pressure in Washington against change in the Democratic Party…. [But] you have already started to change the Democratic Party and we will not stop.” It’s a fine ending to a turbulent campaign, though not the ending many had wished for back when 10,000 people showed up to see Howard Dean in Seattle, Washington.
The journalists from the larger organizations like the LA Times, Time magazine, and others have pitched in to get shirts made to remember their time together. On the front, the shirts say “Establishment Media.” On the back they read, “We Have the Power—Dean Press Corps 2004.”
After nine days with journalists, staffers, and politicians, it’s hard to relate to or act like a normal human being. I hang out in the concourse ballroom long after Howard Dean and his entourage leave on a charter to Vermont. I throw my press credentials in the garbage and grab a Miller Lite from the ice tub but I’m not fooling anyone. “Where’s your notepad?” somebody asks spitefully. Several volunteers approach to voice their complaints against the biased coverage their campaign received.
“You don’t have to worry about that anymore,” I promise them.
In the morning Howard Dean officially drops out of the race but urges his supporters not to vote for a third-party candidate, an obvious reference to Ralph Nader. The newspapers are filled with the Dean obituaries. It’s easy to list the missteps and intrigues of the conflicted Dean organization. An A-list candidate with a C-list staff. Dean was insulated from his workers, iconoclastic. Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s second campaign manager, who was fired after New Hampshire, was brilliant but divisive. The most important thing was Howard Dean being Howard Dean. He ignored the advice and offers of help from the professionals who came on board. Some of the missteps were unforgivable, like his campaign’s failure to find the episode of a Canadian TV show where Dean labeled the Iowa caucuses a tool for the special interests. Competing campaigns released it to the media and caught the governor off guard just days before the caucus. Tracking polls the next day showed the governor had lost twelve points.
Everything is so clear in retrospect. The things written about the campaign are mostly true but I think there is something else that not too many people are talking about. I don’t think people really wanted Howard Dean to win and I’m not sure he wanted to win himself. Worse, possibly, is that I’m not sure I wanted him to win either. It was a protest vote from the beginning, a forceful message sent to the Democratic Party that it needed to reach out to its base. When it looked like he was going to take the nomination, all the hatred and fear left over from the race of 2000 came crushing forward like a broken dam. One Dean supporter who had switched over to Kerry put it this way: “Last summer we wanted to kick Bush’s ass. But now we want to beat Bush’s ass.” The idea of putting an amateur up against a heavyweight like the Bush White House was too much to bear. The Democrats knew the Bush team wouldn’t fight fair and they wanted someone ready to match that. Dean’s integrity, forthrightness, and basic humanity was a liability. There was too much at stake and a nervous electorate pulled the plug.
And they were probably right. But the Dean candidacy was more than just Dean—it was the most successful grassroots organization since George McGovern’s in 1972. The Dean campaign mobilized thousands of previously uninterested voters. The day before the Iowa caucuses, when Dean suffered his first and most disastrous loss, his offices in Des Moines were packed with thousands of unpaid staff members. The nearby Edwards and Kerry offices were ghost towns by comparison. But the paid staffers on the Kerry campaign were far more effective and efficient than the volunteers that worked for Dean. And maybe the lack of organization within the Dean movement was a sign that the White House would have been disorganized too. Are people really ready for a White House blog?
Then there was his lack of experience in foreign policy, which he admitted at one point was a “hole in [his] resume,” though he had more experience than George Bush in 2000. And it’s possible that his failure to serve in Vietnam would have poisoned his relationship with the military the way it did Bill Clinton’s.
But what Dean brought to the table was an ability to think outside of the box, to see when something was wrong even when popular opinion hadn’t yet caught up. This could be seen in what worked in his campaign, i.e. opposition to the war, the tax cuts, and the No Child Left Behind act. But his honesty worked against him when he said that we weren’t safer with Saddam Hussein captured, or when he advocated a fair trial for Osama bin Laden, and stated that he wanted people with Confederate flags on their trucks to vote for him.
I started this story with a reference to the movie Casino and I’m not saying there’s a link between politics and gambling, though maybe there is. But what I left out was that when the narrative caught up to the beginning, Robert De Niro was still alive and the movie continued for another half an hour. You thought you knew the ending, but you didn’t.
AN ALTERNATIVE ENDING
It warms up a little bit today, cracking forty degrees in Green Bay. The ice has been melting for a while up here and people are no longer sitting alone in tiny shacks out in the middle of the lake waiting for a fish on a line. The time has passed for those solitary acts of quiet desperation, as Thoreau would say.
I’ve been waiting to see the fallout from John Kerry’s decision to leave the race. His abrupt departure to Europe to marry an ex-intern has hung over the Wisconsin sky like a tarp on a sleeping elephant. And things only got weirder when Wesley Clark admitted to a stunned crowd that he’s been a Republican all along. But that’s politics. Most people don’t even remember when Eddie Verdolyak left the Democratic Party in Chicago. These things happen.
Meanwhile, the Dean campaign continued its surge, following strong first-place finishes in New Hampshire and South Carolina. There was a time when it looked like the Dean for America train was going to fall off the rails and take Generation Dean and Dean Core with it. But recently the campaign headquarters has taken on the feeling of a teapot about to whistle. So I was not surprised when they moved today’s rally from a room at the University of Wisconsin to the Green Bay Town Hall. But I am a little stunned with the decision to relocate a second time to Lambeau Field.
The Green Bay Packers are the only community-owned nonprofit football team in the country and serve as a proud example for socialists and antiprivatization activists everywhere. The Packers have a lifetime record of 832 wins, 608 losses, and have won championships twelve times, more than any other team.
Any good advance-guy will tell you that it’s a balancing act trying to fill a room and generate excitement but at the same time not turn too many people away. Nothing’s more depressing than a rally in a ballroom filled with empty chairs. The only way to understand it would be to imagine what would happen to Gucci or Prada if they started selling at TJ Maxx. And by that measure the stadium is a failure. The stadium seats 60,000 but there are only 26,000 in attendance. But the fact that 26,000 supporters including every black voter north of La Crosse show up for a political rally nine months before the general election does, when one stops to think about it, boggle the mind.
I almost don’t get in myself. I have no intention of hanging out in the top bleachers to hear Howard Dean repeat the same speech I’ve heard a hundred times, but they don’t want to let me into the press area. To make it worse, I know the guy working the door.
“Hey,” I say. “You drove me down to Ottumwa from Des Moines. We’re like this.” I cross two fingers to demonstrate our intimacy.
He looks at me beneath his dark shades. His eyes are so bloodshot the red lines continue below his glasses down his cheek almost to his mouth. A winning campaign requires a lot of hours and advance-men in particular tend to run very short on sleep. Still, we had spent three hours in an SUV just days before what at the time was considered a disastrous fifth-place finish in Iowa but in retrospect was really just an insignificant blip on the political radar screen. Nobody pays attention to what Iowa thinks. I was as wrong as everybody else about Iowa but I distinguished myself among the press corps by being the first to admit it.
I see the flash of recognition move quickly like a twitch across the advance-man’s face, his hand holding steady to the end of rope. Ah yes, Ottumwa. I still have my tags from Iowa and Arizona but there are over 200 members of the media gyrating in a confusing mass trying to get into the stadium. Pat Healey, who formerly covered John Kerry for the Boston Globe, is wearing a giant slab of cheese on his head and unlike the other cheesehead hats, his is real. A massive thick block of provolone. It is painful to look at but I can’t stop staring.
“You need a laminate,” the guy tells me, and I know what he means. Not some fake tickets to old events scammed and lied for, but a genuine Wisconsin press pass and an identification card with my picture on it from a major news agency. And the sad truth is that I am never going to get either of those things. There isn’t much point in arguing with a guy who has based his life and dreams on a job with the White House security detail. He is well on his way.
I funnel through Main Gate B with the rest of the late arrivers. In order to give the appearance of a bigger crowd, large sections of the stadium are closed off, leaving only the seats directly in front of the stage, starting on the thirty-yard line and continuing up 100 rows into the Wisconsin sky. Some of the seats are pretty far back from the stage, and to deal with it the Dean campaign has rigged a giant video screen behind the presumptive Democratic nominee. I am surprised to see so many kids in the audience and I find myself thinking maybe I was part of a real movement.
A steady drumming is already aching through the crowd. People tap their feet in a rhythmic and growing noise that at first sounds like a pulse but as it grows comes to resemble an earthquake both in intensity and unpredictability. It feels like the very foundations are going to come undone; I can feel the bolts shaking loose until the place erupts into a scream loud enough to power a small city as the governor takes the stage.
At a distance Dean looks even smaller. With Dean are co-campaign managers Roy Neel and Joe Trippi. Trippi is shirtless and painted green with a yellow GB painted across his stomach. He looks like Shrek. I admire Trippi’s audacity and willingness to connect with people on a local level. Roy Neel is wearing a suit; some things never change. To the right of the stage is an advisory committee or a presidential cabinet, depending on how you look at things. Al Gore, Tom Harkin, John Edwards (who had dropped out to throw his support behind the governor after what can only be called a humiliating showing in Tennessee and Virginia), Jesse Jackson, Jesse Jackson Jr., Ralph Nader, and John McCain, who broke ranks with fellow Republicans.
The video relay goes up behind the governor, casting him larger than life, a fifty-foot president. And why not? It worked for Tom Cruise. Then two sprays of fireworks went off and Dean appears on several large screens to the left and right of the field. It was like an Eric Clapton concert.
Dean hits most of his usual planks—health care, gay rights, balanced budgets, normalized trade relations with Cuba, and a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose. What is perhaps most impressive is that he’s sticking with the issues that propelled him to the top of the race to begin with, as opposed to desperately grabbing for some mythical center as so many failed politicians have done before him. It’s especially impressive at this point, when he is the only candidate left and most people would have expected him to play it safe. Dean really didn’t have to do anything.
The sun never sets in this state and I leave my sunglasses on and stare out to the cloud banks in the distance. “I love this,” I think to myself, lifting my chin to take some sun on my neck. “Why would anybody do anything else?”