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.

But as a piece of implicit lifestyle criticism, however broad, it's worth pointing out--not to be too persnickety about it--that the ad might not be so well-grounded in reality as its creators imagine. Not any more. Even in New Hampshire, its original home and continuing epicenter, the Dean movement's famous visual uniformity is finally breaking down. They remain apart, different, a sharply demarcated subcategory of the American electorate. But it's no longer something you can easily spot in their clothes. With relatively few exceptions, the Nashua VFW was filled with people who could have been drawn at random from the phonebook of any middle-class community in the country.

While we were waiting, I fell into conversation with an enormously likable and gregarious woman named Deborah--"Don't I get to be quoted, too?"--who didn't want to tell me where she worked because she'd called in sick to come see Howard Dean. This, even though Deborah had already volunteered her extremely distinctive last name, which I think we'll leave go for now, just to be on the safe side. She looked to be in her late 40s, maybe early 50s, no body piercings. She also looked likely to have done a helluva lot less latte-drinking, sushi-eating, and New York Times-reading than, say, anybody they've got working over at the Club for Growth. "Oh, yeah," Deborah told me, "are you kidding?"--she'd already decided to vote for Dean.

And she'd made her decision when? "Oh, gosh, I don't know, after I saw the other guy, John . . . whatsisname," meaning Kerry. Though there was that "other guy, John . . . whatsisname," too, she remembered, meaning Edwards. In any case, Dean was the only candidate who'd impressed her, because "he's got something to back him up, you know? He's got a past." And "Everything I hear is good," she went on. "He's done a good job in Vermont"--which was a perfectly normal thing for her to say, I thought. Also, "He's a sweetheart."

WHICH WAS WHERE THINGS GOT WEIRD, for reasons having nothing to do with Deborah (though that "sweetheart" business will be worth coming back to) and everything to do with the young Dean staffer at the front of the room who'd just tapped on the mike to get our attention. He wanted to welcome us, he said, and he wanted also to tell us, without further ado, how he'd first gotten involved in politics at age 6, when his older sister came home one day and told the family she was gay. And then his older brother turned out to be gay, too, so in solidarity with his siblings he started to wear gay-rights T-shirts to school, where more than once the other kids beat him up. Then, years later, Howard Dean signed Vermont's civil unions law, and there was finally an American politician who was brave enough to stand up for what was right and true.

It was an affecting story, actually. And, nowadays, it wouldn't have been that unusual, either--this fellow's eagerness to deliver public testimony about deeply personal and sometimes painful experiences to 300 people he didn't know--had he been doing it someplace else. On "Oprah," for example. But this was a presidential campaign event, not a true-life-drama daytime TV show. And presidential campaign events are generally designed to showcase their presidential candidates, in the most attractive possible and universal light, to the outside world of would-be-but-not-yet supporters. In such a project, the campaign's supporters are a secondary concern. And anything unpredictable, or emotionally volatile, or potentially embarrassing--like the autobiographical intimacies of those supporters--is shunned.

The Dean campaign routinely defies this rule, as if the outside world barely registers, and missionary work is hardly necessary, and the concerns of its self-identified initiates are all that count. Before he left the mike and walked toward the back of the VFW hall, the man with the two gay siblings told his listeners that they would soon be asked to share with their adjacent-seat neighbors some individual moment of revelation that had led each of them to The Cause. But first, he wanted to teach them the secret handshake. "You have to be organized in everything you do," he advised, "and that includes applause. So when we clap on the Dean campaign, we try to all do it together. So, real quickly--everybody who knows The Dean Clap can help me out, and I think everybody else will figure it out. Maybe you can join in when you figure it out. Hold on."

Whereupon he took a step or two away from the mike and led his 300 fellow tribesmen, most of whom seemed already familiar with the ritual, in a rhythmic, single-beat-per-second handslapping, which gradually accelerated until it ultimately dissolved into the kind of applause that ordinary people are used to.

Curious about this young man's background, I asked him for his name, which he gave me--Sam Simon--though only after a hesitant, sidelong glance at a woman who was evidently his staff superior. I wondered how old he was and where he was from. That he wouldn't give me. "Um, that's all I think I can say," he mumbled, turning to the boss lady for relief. "He wants to know how old I am and where I'm from," he told her. He'd have to go consult with "someone from Press," she instructed him. And so he did. Several minutes later, Sam Simon, who'd already been assigned to tell 300 perfect strangers that his brother and sister were gay, finally secured someone's permission to disclose that he was 19 years old and a native of New Mexico.

I have had numerous experiences like this with representatives of the Dean campaign. I imagine it's what covering a Scientology convention must feel like.

The candidate himself did eventually show up, 40 minutes or so into the proceedings. They did The Dean Clap again, and he ran through an unremarkable iteration of his current standard stump talk. Then Dean took about 20 minutes worth of questions, the last of which involved a low-voiced gentleman remarking that "elections are won in the center, not on the right nor on the left, and Bill Clinton taught us that." So "how and why and what is your strategy to capture the center," this man asked Dean, "so people like Rove and others don't depict you as a liberal, northeastern, bleeding-heart, kneejerk, et cetera?"

They're going to say that about us no matter who we nominate, Dean replied. And then he ran through an equally unremarkable iteration of his candidacy's central, organizing myth. "Rove and Ralph Reed" win elections for Republicans because they know how to "polarize the country and crank up their base," Dean explained. Democrats have to do the same. "You've got to really get the base excited." You've got to "energize disillusioned Democrats" and "get two million people in this country to give us $100 apiece," which they'll "gladly" do.

This is snake oil, of course, and it is already beginning to leak into view even from such unlikely places as the Dean campaign's own website, which had promised to "sign up" at least a million supporters by New Year's, and is still today, three weeks later, more than 400,000 supporters short. The number of new financial contributors the campaign attracted actually declined from the third quarter of last year to the fourth. Dean is not a "sweetheart," let's face it; he is chilly and abrasive and unusually prone to growl and bite. It's not really fair to call him a "left-wing freak show," but only because the ideological character of a prospective Dean administration is virtually unknowable: The man's campaign platform--I can't understand why more hasn't been made of this--is thinly articulated where it exists at all.

And so on, the point being that there is a clear upper limit to Howard Dean's support. As might be said of all the other Democratic candidates and George Bush, too, admittedly. But unlike the others, Dean has embraced his limits--rejecting "the center"--and declared them a virtue. And his present supporters love him all the more for it. That is what truly distinguishes them, not where they went to college or how many nose rings they have. It is a matter of temperament, elemental self-conception, more than anything else. Democrats good; Republicans bad. No series of gaffes Dean might commit, no surging poll numbers posted by one of his rivals, can dramatically affect such an orthodoxy or its adherents. And there are a godawful lot of them, apparently.

The point being that there is also a clear lower floor to Dean's support, below which he likely cannot fall. That rhythmic, tribal clap will be in our ears for quite some time yet.

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.