I confess that I didn’t stay awake long enough to hear Howard Dean roar or growl or hoot or holler after the Iowa caucuses. (You remember them, don’t you? They were a couple of weeks ago. They took place shortly after the pundits decided that Dr. Dean would be the Democratic Presidential nominee. Remember?) So I missed the live version of this important turning point in the 2004 Presidential campaign.
In the days afterward, however, I did read and hear a great deal about Dr. Dean’s performance. The newspapers and cable shows were filled with reports that the good doctor had self-destructed right there on live television. Why, the American people could never choose such a man to be their lawfully elected leader. Did you hear him roar? Such unbecoming conduct simply wouldn’t do.
And so the pundits who had declared Dr. Dean to be the next Democratic candidate for President decided that somebody else would now be the candidate. Why? Well, because … because … because Howard Dean let out a roar on live television. This behavior clearly demonstrated that he is unfit for the job of leader of the free world, as such leaders do not go around yelling into microphones, because doing so will unsettle Wall Street and undermine the Middle East peace process and cause the French to think we are barbarians and make the Russians nervous. No, they do not roar. They start wars and cut taxes for their friends and that sort of thing. But they do not yell on live television.
I could no longer contain my curiosity: I had to see this great moment in American political history. Doing so, however, required great sacrifice, because I was forced to watch political news shows on television. These shows were playing the Dean speech over and over again, to the amusement of those same studio pundits who had been saying that Howard Dean would be the next Democratic Presidential candidate.
Finally, then, I saw the speech. I heard Dr. Dean reel off a list of states where, he promised his supporters, he would continue to fight for the nomination. Pretty conventional stuff-after all, what was he supposed to say? Then, after reciting his list, he let out a whoop. And then the tape stopped and the studio guests appeared on the screen and they were smirking and laughing and saying, “See, this confirms what every American already knows about Howard Dean. He is a very angry man who cannot be trusted because he whoops on live television. Every American has suspected this, and now they know it, so Howard Dean is finished. He is un-Presidential because, instead of giving us the kind of canned, scripted, poll-tested concession speeches we have come to expect, he exhibited a moment of authenticity. Every American will want to punish him.”
That was it? Surely there must have been more to the alleged Dean meltdown, I thought. After all, the pundits who said that Howard Dean would be the next Presidential nominee now were saying he wouldn’t be because of this speech. So where was the crackup? Where was this moment of lunacy? Was it so horrible, so scary, that it was deemed unfit for re-broadcast?
It turned out, of course, that I had seen every excruciating moment of the speech which ended the campaign of Howard Dean, at least for the moment. I have no dog in this race, but I didn’t find Howard Dean scary at all. Far more frightening was the reaction of the punditry class, which generally spends most of its time bemoaning the lack of authenticity and spontaneity in modern political candidates.
But now we know why so many candidates for high office refuse to show even the slightest hint of personality, why their handlers insist that they stay “on message” with points that are scripted, poll-tested and unchanging: If they show some flesh and blood, if they dare to demonstrate unscripted humanity, they will be attacked by the same pundits who complain about message-of-the-day campaigns and candidates.
During the 1988 Republican President campaign, the pundit class attacked Bob Dole when he, like Dr. Dean, actually veered off-script on live television. Mr. Dole was asked if he had anything to say to his chief opponent for the nomination, then–Vice President George H.W. Bush. “Stop lying about my record,” Mr. Dole snapped.
Oh, the horror and outrage! The pundits snickered and guffawed and said that this proved that Bob Dole was unfit for the Presidency: because he was an angry man, what with the bad arm and everything. Personally, I was delighted to hear a politician condemn another for telling lies; would that every elected official was so righteous. The pundits, however, disagreed. Angry candidates simply can’t be President.
They might get us into a war or something, you see.