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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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.