Song and a Prayer: Here’s How to Fix Dean’s Ailing Machine

I’ve come to save the Dean campaign. As a fellow “Browning boy” (the East 62nd Street school that Howard Dean and I attended back in the early 60′s), I can’t very well sit on my hands any longer while the former Vermont governor botches another batch of primaries, his once-proud movement sinking into political oblivion.

The time has come for emergency intervention, for wheeling out the defibrillator. Fortunately, I’ve figured out what Dr. Dean’s problem is. It isn’t the way his opponents piled on him and then stole his message. Nor is it his chest-beating concession speech in Iowa. Or even Dr. Dean’s shirt problem-you know, how his neck bulges over his collar, making him look like he’s about to explode.

No, Dr. Dean’s problem is poor song selection. Hear me out: I was recently listening to the soundtrack from Yankee Doodle Dandy , the 1942 movie musical based on composer George M. Cohan’s life, starring Jimmy Cagney. The patriotic music-songs like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There” and, of course, “Yankee Doodle”-took me back to the early 60′s and the height of the Cold War, when I was a little kid and proud to be an American. I fell in love with the movie when it ran on WOR’s Million Dollar Movie , where films played for a full week. I’m not alone. Both John Travolta and Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air , share an affection for the film, which they also watched repetitively on WOR.

As I listened to Cagney sing his way through “Yankee Doodle,” the pride swelling in my chest like in the old days, I realized that what this election is about for many of us is the stealing of America-the theft of the land I love-by the right wing. Preemptive war, tax breaks for the rich, huge subsidies for the oil and gas industries, giving carte blanche to polluters: These things aren’t just criminal, they’re un-American!

“Who needs Dean now that Kerry is back?” you might ask. Give me a break. No way John Kerry wins in November; the guy looks like an Easter Island head (alleged Botox injections notwithstanding). It’s the wooden-Indian Al Gore syndrome all over again. Heck, Kerry’s classmates at St. Paul’s didn’t even like him. George W. Bush’ll walk all over him in the debates with his smarmy frat-boy charisma.

No, Dr. Dean remains my man. And what he needs to resurrect his candidacy is a stirring campaign ditty you can hum along with. And what better melody than “Yankee Doodle” or “You’re a Grand Old Flag”? (“Over There” also sends chills down my spine, but its refrain-”The Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming!”-sounds a little too close to the Bush administration’s foreign policy and might confuse voters.)

I called the Dean headquarters in Vermont to see if they already had a campaign theme song. “Gee, I don’t know,” the volunteer said. “I could ask. I don’t see anyone singing.”

That was good enough for me. My next call was to Ethan Geto, the New York State campaign director for Dean for America. Mr. Geto seemed to recall that the campaign had an anthem, though he couldn’t remember what it was. Joanna Pacilti, whose Web site describes her as a singer and ex-gymnast, performed it before 12,000 people at a Dean rally in Bryant Park last August.

“I was the M.C.,” Mr. Geto recalled. “It wasn’t too inspiring to me. It was like one of those ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ kind of things.”

Mr. Geto didn’t exactly jump at my suggestion to replace whatever the current song is with “Yankee Doodle,” either. “There’s ‘macaroni’ in there,” he said, humming the tune. “He’s riding a pony. It’s a nice thing if you’re doing an event and had a little drum and fife; the music hits exactly the right note. A Yankee-that’s what Howard Dean is. But the lyrics aren’t tremendously inspirational.”

Or even on message, I have to admit-especially the part about Yankee Doodle going to London to ride the ponies, or Cagney’s memorable soft shoe on the docks after he’s exonerated for throwing the Derby. It would only be hours before Ed Gillespie, the R.N.C.’s attack-dog chairman, was on the air accusing Dean of having a gambling problem.

Mr. Geto offered to send me the lyrics to the current campaign theme song so I could see what I was up against. By the way, it’s called “We Can.” It was written by Diane Warren and performed by LeAnn Rimes in Legally Blonde 2 . “He’s taking music from a crappy summer sequel?” my 15-year-old sniffed in disbelief when I asked if she was familiar with the tune.

Her incredulity, unfortunately, isn’t shared by the Deaniacs. The link to “We Can” on the Dean for America Web site-”They’ll try to stop the dream we’re dreamin’ / But they can’t stop us from believing,” the song goes-also includes e-mail exchanges between campaign workers, apparently in the golden afterglow of that long-ago Bryant Park rally.

“I just listened to LeAnn Rimes singing it and wanted to be standing in a group of thousands of Deaniacs all singing WE CAN,” one Dean disciple confided to another. “Talk about optimism, talk about hope … is that our campaign slogan? We Can!”

“You should hear Trippi blasting it out of his office late at night!” replied his buddy, referring to Dean’s then-campaign manager, Joe Trippi.

If anybody needs another reason why Mr. Trippi was given the boot, there it is! It’s not because he was disorganized or squandered millions on mailings. It’s because he has no taste in music.

It was becoming apparent that there was substantial sentiment behind “We Can.” But my mission was too important to give up: Nothing less than the soul of the Republic seemed at stake. I mean, who knows if Truman would have come back to defeat Dewey if “I’m Just Wild About Harry” hadn’t been his campaign song? Could Johnson have beaten Goldwater in a landslide without help from “Hello, Lyndon”? And could Bill Clinton have put the Gennifer Flowers fiasco behind him if Fleetwood Mac’s optimistic “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” wasn’t always playing in the background of the 1992 campaign?

Obviously, I would have loved to have pitched my song idea to Dr. Dean in person. But since he’s got his plate full at the moment trying to persuade his wife to hold his hand in public, I contacted his younger brother Jim. “I wave at him and he waves at me,” Jim said of the pep rallies where he mostly sees his brother these days. “But the love’s still there.”

Jim admitted that he wasn’t familiar with Yankee Doodle Dandy or the Million Dollar Movie . “We used to watch Sergeant Bilko , The Honeymooners and The Three Stooges , all of which were Dad’s favorites,” Jim remembered. “It didn’t run too deep in our home.”

He described his brother as a “hootenanny guy,” suggesting by implication that he probably had little to do with picking the campaign’s de facto theme song; he agreed that “We Can” wasn’t doing the trick. “I think something from Aerosmith could work for this,” he said.

I kept my mouth shut, finally getting him to agree to pass along my suggestion to the candidate. “I’ll try to pin him on that a little bit more,” he promised.

So now I watch C-Span 2 all day long, waiting to hear “Yankee Doodle” at the next Dean rally, fully expecting two complimentary tickets to the Dean inaugural to come my way.