The Phony Dean 'Meltdown'
Published: Jan 22 2004
|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
The so-called Dean "meltdown," the claims that his
campaign is finished, and his forced contrition are all symptoms of
how debased the political dialogue has become.
It's true that Dean yelled at his Monday night rally in Iowa. And
so what? Basically, at a pep rally, he yelled like a football coach.
This is described as being "unpresidential." But says who? Besides,
what's the definition of 'presidential?' Isn't giving insulting
nicknames to world leaders unpresidential? Isn't sending hundreds of
American soldiers to die for uncertain and misrepresented ends in
Iraq unpresidential—or worth considering as such? Isn't having an
incredibly poor grasp of essential world facts and an aversion to
detail and active decision making unpresidential?
As far as I can tell, the worst Howard Dean has done is to try to
be himself. (And, when criticized for that, to show some willingness
to alter his demeanor.) But neither of those is good enough for a
media that smells a good story—allegedly about personality, much
more interesting than issues.
We saw and see nearly every news outlet playing the footage of
the rally again and again. We see headlines in the less-cautious
papers about Dean "imploding," and gleeful spin from Republican
strategists that Dean is "finished."
From Slate magazine ("Mean Dean Loses Steam") to The
New York Post ("Dean's Ballot-Box Conspiracy Theory"), it's all
about painting him as unseemly, unstable and irrationally angry,
rather than focusing on his ideas. And yet, carefully scrutinized,
virtually everything the man has said accords with the beliefs and
understanding of a significant portion of the American populace,
and, significantly, of what has been reported in the media.
But once something like this "meltdown" story gets started, the
media go into a kind of inexorable black hole, and the pull is so
great it becomes hard for thinking journalists and editors to
resist. And not just journalists. It takes extraordinary mettle for
anyone in the limelight to resist this. Once the howl of the pack
gets loud enough, questioning the seriousness of Dean's so-called
'problems' becomes tantamount to downplaying allegations against
Sometimes it's hard to remember, but presidents aren't primarily
dinner party hosts or recruiting posters for perfection. They're
supposed to be smart people who can make intelligent choices, mostly
in private, that serve our interests. And they're supposed to be
Ed Muskie probably wouldn't have been a bad president, nor would
George Romney or John McCain, all of whom got slammed for showing
quintessentially human traits on the campaign trail. Muskie didn't
like his wife being attacked; Romney admitted to having been
"brainwashed" on Vietnam (obviously less so than those fellow
GOPsters who couldn't admit their mistakes), and McCain was
charmingly blunt if occasionally brutish. As each could attest,
candor isn't a priority in this society. People want to hear what
makes them feel good and safe and strong, no matter the reality.
As for Dean, one doesn't need to take sides to see that the
treatment of this man is unbecoming of the media. It's also going to
be seen in retrospect as colossally one-sided, not in any way
balanced by comparable scrutiny or criticism of his rivals.
If anything, this affair is a kind of test. Dean seems too tough
a customer to back out after such a setback. And the fact remains
that he essentially still holds exactly the same constituency he did
before. If his supporters keep their eye on the ball, if Dean
refuses to be distracted or rattled, and if the media somehow manage
to restrain their headlong rush into tabloid-land, this country may
yet have a meaningful conversation on what really matters.