Although I was eager to see the Howard Dean Phenomenon first-hand in my hometown, Seattle, Washington, I didn’t want to go alone. When the email invitation for the ‘Howard Dean Sleepless Summer Tour’ appeared in my Inbox, I immediately forwarded it to the two people I know who are the most enthusiastic about Dean winning the Democratic primary.
The first was Melissa, a licensed midwife and member of the Anyone But Bush faction of the electorate. Melissa freely admits she backs Dean not for where he stands on the issues, but because she thinks he’s the only person capable of beating Bush in 2004. Supporting a politician wholly for his electability is unusual for Melissa, but these are desperate times: ‘We have to do whatever we can to get Bush out of office,’ she said. ‘Considering the direction the country has gone in the last two years, I almost feel like talking about issues and policy is a luxury we can’t afford.’
Duane, on the other hand, knows exactly where Dean stands on the issues, and that’s why he wants him to win the Democratic nomination. A forester and proud neoconservative, Duane thinks Dean is just the ticket for a Republican rout in 2004. In response to my email, Duane cheerfully agreed to attend the rally, and even took the liberty of replying to the original ‘Dean Team’ message that urged readers to ‘come join Howard Dean and thousands of others as we rally to take our country back’:
Dear Mr. Dean,
You can’t have your country back
It’s ours now and we’re keeping it.
The promised thousands were jammed into Westlake Park when we arrived. Pamphleteers urged us to join a Real Liberal (Kucinich), a Real American (LaRouche), and an organization called ‘Jews For Jesus.’ Event coordinators handed us ‘Dean For America’ placards and slapped matching stickers on our clothes.
We pushed our way through the crowd to the only available space, a small gap in the throngs conveniently located behind a tree.
At the scheduled start time of 6:30PM a choir took the stage, a band of neohippies genetically engineered to reinforce every negative stereotype about both Seattle and Howard Dean. After some brief remarks by a guy who looked like he knew his way around a hackysack, the group launched into an acapella rendition of ‘Ain’t Going To Study War No More,’ accompanied by—yes—the bongos. The polite applause afterwards turned to palpable concern when it appeared that more songs were to come. As one of the musicians said into the microphone, ‘Now here’s one that I wrote,’ two of the people near me simultaneously said ‘uh-oh.’ Melissa rolled her eyes and muttered, ‘It’s times like these that I wish marijuana was legal.’ Later, as they prepared to begin a third song, Duane sighed and said, ‘What’s next, ‘Smells Like Dean Spirit’?’
The crowd cheered when the choir departed, but Dean was not forthcoming. In fact, nothing happened for 15 minutes. The chairman of the regional Democratic Committee came out and tried to explain how Dean could become the state’s Democratic nominee. (Washington is one of less than a dozen states employing caucus primaries, a system as easy to explain as trinomial equations and about a third as interesting.) Next up was a University of Washington professor (and one of only two African-Americans I saw) whose Michael Moore-ian remarks reminded us that Bush had been ‘installed by the Supreme Court,’ and characterized Ashcroft as a ‘hymn-singing fascist.’
At some point during the Pregame Show, a group in the center of the crowd started shouting ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ As Dean is an M.D., I ignored them on the assumption that this was some quasi-official campaign catchphrase. Others nearby thrust their fists in the air and joined the chant.
Eventually it dawned on everyone that the shouters were seeking an actual doctor. Melissa dashed off into the crowd to offer assistance.
Meanwhile, a Dean activist took the stage to say blah blah blah blah—I really have no idea, having ceased taking notes after completely losing interest. The electricity in the crowd had turned to boredom, and the boredom had turned to agitation. Remembering the WTO debacle, I assumed we would soon be setting dumpsters on fire.
It was 7:20. Melissa reappeared to report that someone had fainted but was otherwise fine. The activist on stage appeared to be wrapping things up. Behind me a guy was on his cell phone: ‘Yeah, don’t even bother,’ he said. ‘Just meet us at the restaurant afterwards. You haven’t missed a thing.’
Howard Dean greeted the cheering mob with a ‘Holy cow!’ Between the distance, the tree, the placards, and his stature at 5'8" I could only see his head bobbing above the crowd, but he looked like the same square-jawed tough guy I’d seen in publicity photos. He opened by thanking a remarkable number of locals from memory, and then announced that Seattle had clocked in with the largest rally attendance thus far on the tour.
Preamble completed, he established his reoccurring buzzwords right from the get-go. These were:
Texas: Texas was used throughout the speech as a euphemism for Hell, as in ‘Bush needs a one-way ticket back to Texas!’ or ‘Maybe that’s the way they do things in Texas, but not in [current city name]!’
Three Trillion Dollars: The tax cut, he told us early on, amounted to ‘three trillion dollars of our money, if you include the interest.’ I have no idea how you calculate interest on a tax cut, but, having added this caveat, he repeated the figure thereafter without qualification.
$2000 Checks: Either by accident or design, Dean was in Seattle two days after Bush attended a fundraiser where guests paid $2000 for a ‘light lunch.’ ‘Those folks writing the $2000 checks,’ therefore, was used as longhand for ‘corporate bigwigs.’ In case you didn’t get it, Dean would occasionally append ‘like Kenneth Lay.’
We Can Do Better Than That: Unlike the cries of ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ I’d heard earlier, this appeared to be the for-real official Dean campaign slogan. Alas, unlike the other one, this one does not have a corresponding Thompson Twins song.
Dean spent the first third of his speech citing his Moderate credentials, touting his hawkishness (despite his opposition to the war in Iraq), excoriating Bush on national security, and promising to balance the budget within 17 minutes of taking office. But having done so, he veered to the left and gave the crowd what it wanted: universal healthcare, social security, intervention for troubled children. When Dean boasted that doctors in Vermont provide home visits to 91 percent of all newborns within two to four weeks of their birth, Melissa turned to me and said ‘Okay, now I know why I’m going to vote for this guy.’ When he said, ‘Your college tuition went up because the President thought cutting Pell grants was more important than financing students,’ the predominant demographic became apparent as the crowd was wracked with violent booing. A few moments later a woman clutching a terrified and bawling child pushed her way past us toward the exit.
The last 10 minutes was a grab-bag of miscellaneous issues, including the environment, Saudi Arabia, ‘the race card,’ reproductive healthcare (without using the word ‘abortion’), equal rights for all Americans (without using the phrase ‘gay marriage’), and how to join the Dean For America email list. ‘We will not spam you,’ Dean promised. ‘Except in the last three weeks of every quarter, when we’re desperately trying to raise money.’
Twenty minutes later, in a pub several blocks away, I tried to goad Duane into bad-mouthing Dean. He wasn’t going for it. He even went so far as to praise the candidate for his ‘A’ from the NRA.
But he wasn’t particularly impressed, either. He reminded us of a person we’d seen holding a hand-made sign reading ‘I Really Hate Bush.’ ‘That was pretty much the theme of the rally right there,’ Duane observed.
When I asked if Dean was still his candidate, Duane said yes. ‘No one who opposed the war in Iraq is going to win,’ he stated flatly. Asked how Dean would fare against Bush in the general campaign, Duane looked positively gleeful. ‘Republicans won’t even focus on him. They’ll just say ‘Democrats are soft on national defense’ and Dean’s record on the war will speak for itself. That will be the end of that.’
Melissa, meanwhile, is equally certain that Dean is the Democratic Party’s cavalry, ‘as long as he loses that opening act.’
‘We’ve got to get rid of Bush,’ Melissa went on, ‘but a lot of my clients aren’t even registered to vote. They say ‘why bother, no one represents me.’ Dean is the only one I can see motivating enough of those people to go to the ballots. And that’s what’s going to win in 2004.’
Me, I’m inclined to agree with Melissa about the viability of a Dean candidacy. After all, I distinctly remember the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary. Upon hearing that Bush had bested McCain, my father and I high-fived and began gloating, crowing ‘Gore just won the presidency!’ We had gotten our Republican Nominee of choice…and we all know how that panned out. I can’t help but wonder if Duane won’t be equally unfortunate.
And although I remain unconvinced that Dean is the best of all possible Democratic nominees, I admit to really liking the guy. Riding the bus on the following morning, I noticed that the ‘Dean For America’ sticker was still on my backpack. I decided to let it be.
Duane Emmons writes the blog Forest for the Trees,