The Blog

Rich Man, Poor Man

Howard Dean struggles to get up from the canvas, Wesley Clark talks sense, and John Kerry gets in touch with his roots.

1:15 AM, Jan 22, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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New Hampshire, Wednesday, January 21

8:20 A.M., Dean HQ, Manchester: The Dean building is a combination of the rustic and the high tech. The floor is simple plywood, with the occasional protruding nail. Wires dangle from the ceiling like jungle vines and the pipes, cables, and ventilation ducts are all exposed. And yet headquarters is littered with row upon row of computers, always occupied by a shifting company of young people. It has the feel of a well-run hive.

This morning the hive is packed with workers and a hefty contingent of press because Howard Dean is scheduled to address his campaign before retiring for the remainder of the day to his home in Burlington. The assemblage resembles nothing so much as a student-faculty mixer, with the mostly under-25 Deaniacs and the middle-age press corps eyeing one another suspiciously. When questioned about even the smallest matter, the Deaniacs dutifully explain that they shouldn't speak to the press without getting permission first.

When Dean enters the building, the room erupts in chants of "Pow-er! Pow-er!" and "We want our country back!" He is introduced by Jeremy Birde, whose story is ur-Deaniac:

About a year and a half ago, I had been tired of reading the papers every day, frustrated with the Bush administration and everything they had been doing to shatter all my values. And so I was working at Harvard Law School, I was doing a little bit of mediation and conflict-resolution work. . . . I went and heard [Howard Dean] speak. And it was the first time in my life that I left with hope. . . . About two months after that I left my job and came up here to New Hampshire.

Birde speaks about Dean in a soft, reverential tone, referring to the former governor as "Howard," and when Dean steps up onto the small riser that has been placed inconspicuously behind the lectern, the air is heavy with expectation. Two days ago, he let loose with his now-famous harangue after losing Iowa. Yesterday, when faced with a heckler, he broke into an odd, rickety rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Today, Dean resists playing to his audience. In a raspy voice he discusses campaign-finance reform (McCain-Feingold is not enough, he says, "I want to put into law what this campaign has done") and the problems with corporate-controlled media outlets (read: Fox). It's a speech largely devoid of applause lines.

What's more, Dean looks and sounds exhausted. Twice he stumbles through passages of the speech, once almost losing his way entirely.

More worrisome is that since being drubbed in Iowa, Dean has had only three public events in two days, opting to spend much of his time home in Vermont. It's possible that Dean is using this time to retool. In 2000, George W. Bush was beaten badly in New Hampshire; he went to ground in Texas for a couple days and emerged with new themes and rhetoric, including the tagline "A Reformer with Results." With three events and an important debate scheduled for Thursday, Dean 2.0 might be on the way.

Another possibility is that the doctor is rattled. For all his pugnacity, Dean has never faced an electoral setback before and it's not a given that he'll recover. He's going to have to prove that he can take a punch.

(An aside: Democratic sophisticates often deride George W. Bush for his mispronunciation of the word "nuclear"--he says it "Nuc-u-lar"--but it's worth noting that both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark have their own speech tics. Dean pronounces "ideas" as "idears" and Clark says "warsh" instead of "wash.")

2:00 P.M., University of New Hampshire, Durham: Billed as a talk "about his plan to fix the mess in Iraq," Wesley Clark has come to the University of New Hampshire still preoccupied with the State of the Union speech. But gone is the rhetoric and Bush bashing--the roughly 240 students and faculty are treated to a thoughtful discourse.

Criticizing the president's June 30 deadline for handing over power in Iraq, Clark says, "we'll be less safe if we leave in haste and leave behind a mess." "There is no easy way out of Iraq," he explains. "And every American should understand this: an early exit means retreat or early defeat and we can't afford either. . . . It's only success that can provide for our security and honor the sacrifices of those who have served. It's only success that will allow Iraq to stand on its own. And it's only success that will allow us to bring our soldiers home the right way."

Clark then goes on to agree that the United Nations was "unable" and "unwilling" to help in Iraq and calls for a new international body to help aid in reconstruction.

It's a thoughtful, articulate speech and it is matched in quality by the questions from students. "How would you deal with Ayatollah Sistani and his apparent veto power over anything that President Bush--or you--would attempt to do in Iraq?" asks one. "Do you think diplomacy is enough to deal with Fidel Castro and his influences in South America?" inquires another.

The professors at UNH must be doing something right.

6:30 P.M., Exeter: Earlier today in Nashua, John Kerry tested a populist stance, saying, "This election is not just about which candidate wins, but about whether we will win the fight to put opportunity and security in the hands of the many and not the few." Tonight he's at The Philips Exeter Academy in an auditorium with rich crimson carpeting, ornate moldings and pediments, dozens of formal portraits in big, gilded frames, and 1,500 adoring fans.

Founded in 1781, Exeter is the most prestigious boarding school in America and one of the most expensive, too--a year at Exeter costs more than a year at most private universities. In other words, tonight John Kerry is among "the few." He looks comfortable.

As he should. Kerry begins by reminding the audience that, while his father and daughter went to Andover, and he's a St. Paul's man himself, his wife and chief of staff are both Exeter graduates, so really, everyone here is on the same side. He laughs. The audience laughs with him.

Gazing down from their portraits, Harlan Page ("The Seventh Principal of The Philips Exeter Academy, 1895 - 1913") and Sanford Sidney Smith ("President of the Board of Trustees, 1903 - 1920") must surely be comforted.

Kerry's populist appeal should, perhaps, be put on hold.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.