The Magazine

The Dean Clap

From the January 26, 2004 issue: . . . and other manifestations of political enthusiasm.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By DAVID TELL
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LET US BEGIN by acknowledging the many and various respects in which Howard Dean's presidential campaign isn't weird. I visited New Hampshire on January 2, the traditional stretch-run kickoff date for that state's primary, intending to see four of the candidates, Dean among them, all in a single 12-hour span, more or less back to back, for purposes of comparison. And I managed to pull off this plan. But just barely; Dean almost messed me up. By the time his 1 P.M. "town hall meeting" at a Nashua VFW post was supposed to get underway--only his second event of the day, and the one I'd chosen to attend--Dean was already running seriously behind schedule.

Perfectly normal. Successful insurgent campaigns usually work this way, in fact. The crowds swell up. The local staff offices swell up to handle those crowds. The traveling staff swells up to supervise the local staff and keep watch on a swelling press corps. And with the field operation so big and unwieldy--never mind what's going on in the national headquarters--moment-by-moment demands on the candidate's attention are constantly multiplying and he gets slowed down.

Sure enough, waiting for this particular slowed-down candidate at the Nashua VFW was a crowd so swollen that city fire marshals barred the front doors and started turning people away, dozens of them, a full 25 minutes before Dean arrived. No exceptions, there simply wasn't room; even Gina Glantz, Dean's senior traveling aide, got stuck outside in a light, sloppy snowfall. Ms. Glantz was Bill Bradley's national campaign manager in the 2000 primaries. She has since proved gullible enough to accept an offered ride from me, only to be held backseat hostage, for a comically frantic hour and a half, as I drove around--in a blizzard-level snowfall, in the pitch-black middle of Iowa's nowhere--trying to find her boss's tour bus. Ms. Glantz seems otherwise a highly intelligent, wise-in-the-ways, and charming woman, however. And this, too, as I say, is perfectly normal. Even before the first votes get cast, winning primary campaigns tend to attract more and more of their party's best and brightest operatives with every passing week. Glantz was then still new to the Dean team.

Anyhow, back at the Nashua VFW post, Dean was late, and the 300 or so locals who'd been lucky enough to squeeze inside were murmuring away under a long, low ceiling hung with dim fluorescent lights and a single, crooked disco-era mirror-globe. Dean was very late; they had to murmur on like this for quite some time, interrupted only by the occasional public service announcement ("If you're parked in the Post Office lot, you're gonna get towed") and by a get-out-the-vote list come-on from one of Gina Glantz's junior-level colleagues--like the striking young woman who had a clipboard on which she was asking people to scratch down their names and addresses. More of them might have been complying, I suspect, instead of pretending to study the disco globe and light fixtures, if this woman hadn't also got what appeared to be a small, circular, silverplated key ring projecting up into the space between her slightly parted lips from its anchor in a hole that had been poked straight through the flesh of her cheek about an inch and a half north of her chin.

You oughtn't smirk. Imagine how this person's mother must feel. And you oughtn't jump to conclusions, or be worrying about all the other mothers, because, by my rough eyeball survey, no one else visiting the VFW that day looked anything like the clipboard lady. Far from it; she was an anomaly. Which is the only good reason I've got to mention her in the first place.

That and the fact that about this same time, a free-market advocacy outfit called the Club for Growth PAC began airing a puckish television ad in Iowa with the following, handy-dandy demographic exegesis of the Dean campaign: a "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show." A pair of actors speak these lines with exaggerated relish, making like Mr. and Mrs. Iowa Everycouple, closing with a demand that the freak show in question go "back to Vermont where it belongs." The ad's tongue pokes straight through the flesh of its cheek; it's mostly just a joke. And as just a joke, it's mostly funny.