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The Phony Dean 'Meltdown' 
Published: Jan 22 2004

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

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 Michael Jackson.

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 human.

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.


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