Mar 1 2004

Target Dean

Re-establishing the establishment

If you accept the “horserace” metaphor beloved by campaign pundits, it seems like media looked to disqualify former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean even before he left the starting gate.

Once thought to be a long-shot contender for the Democratic nomination, Dean found himself anointed as the media front-runner weeks before any voters had their say. With that status came intense media scrutiny, much of it focused on Dean’s perceived weaknesses. “Doubts About Dean: Behind the Democrats’ Battle to Stop Him,” declared the January 12 cover of Newsweek. The same week’s Time probed the rise of a candidate who “barked and blustered,” originally thought to be “little more than entertainment value” to party insiders and the press corps. “Is the country willing to elect a Brahmin who grew up in East Hampton, N.Y., and on Park Avenue, who brings virtually no national-security experience to a post-9/11 nation and who governed a state that gives homosexuals all the rights that go with marriage?” the magazine asked.

Early reservations about Dean’s candidacy were often framed as an ideological problem (“The Left’s Mr. Right?” asked an August 11 Newsweek headline). Media impatience about the “cluttered” Democratic race relegated Dean to the margins, presumably on ideological grounds. Before a debate early in the campaign, NPR‘s Cokie Roberts lamented (4/28/03) that “some of the strongest voices are likely to come from Al Sharpton, Howard Dean, people who are not necessarily in the mainstream of the American voting public.”

But journalists intent on painting Dean as too far left found a dearth of material—a Time headline (8/11/03) backhandedly acknowledged this, calling the budget-balancing, pro-gun Dean “An Unlikely Spokesman for the Anti-Bush Left.” Since remaking the centrist governor as a leftist seemed a bit of a stretch, the media script changed: Instead of fretting over his being too liberal, the punditocracy was vexed by Dean’s outsider status and his insurgent campaign style.

Running against the party establishment is not a strategy likely to endear you to most political reporters, who view party insiders as their most valued sources and advisors. And Dean’s coverage reflected this: “Dr. Dean is a scrappy if diminutive candidate who has commandeered attention with his antiwar platform and sometimes impolitic abandon,” explained the New York Times (5/12/03). The paper added that “Dr. Dean enjoys the freedom that comes with being someone viewed as unlikely to win.”

Even as a perceived fringe candidate, Dean worried the establishment press. New York Times reporter Matt Bai (6/1/03) warned about the damage he could do to the party: “The bad news for Dean’s rivals, however, is that Democratic protest candidates have proved very effective at indelibly soiling whatever image the party is trying to convey at the moment.”

But as a Dean victory began to seem less and less unlikely, his press treatment got harsher: Time‘s Joe Klein (9/15/03) wrote after an early debate that there was “a critical decision the Democrats now face—between principled opposition to the Bush administration and populist demagoguery on the two main issues of this election, the war and the economy.” Dean, of course, represented the latter.

Others suggested a real danger to the two-party system as a result of the Dean campaign: Washington Post reporter David Broder (NBC, 10/12/03) suggested that the campaign was part of “a clear kind of anti-establishment rumble in the country,” raising the possibility that “we’re in for a kind of a wild ride where even conceivably a new party or independent candidate could muddy the picture.”

The press corps’ essentially political objections to Dean’s anti-establishment approach (on view most clearly in his call to break up big media conglomerates—Hardball, 12/1/03) were usually personalized in news reports as concerns about his temperament—and attributed to other Democrats. The New York Times (12/19/03), for example, cited Democratic officials who wondered “whether he is suited temperamentally to the challenge of a presidential campaign.” That piece began: “Many leading Democrats say they are uneasy about Howard Dean’s candidacy for president and are reluctant to cede him the nomination for fear that his combative style and antiwar stance will leave Democrats vulnerable in November.”

Beyond cyber-novelty

Though the press corps initially exhibited genuine interest and amazement at the cyber-support for Dean’s campaign, the novelty quickly wore off, and media began to dwell on the reservations of the Democratic Party establishment about the long-term viability of an insurgent candidacy. “The greatest fear among certain Democrats is that if Dean does win the nomination, his liberal supporters will put their Birkenstocks on the gas pedal and drive the party right over the cliff,” explained Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter (8/11/03).

Early in the campaign, some journalists were suggesting that Dean’s campaign, fueled by antiwar fervor, would need to find a new angle. Reporting from the scene of Dean’s formal announcement of his candidacy, New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney (6/24/03) wrote that Dean was focused on how “to retool his candidacy now that the war in Iraq has concluded with, in the view of most Americans, success,” referring later to the “successful resolution of a war he had opposed.”

As time wore on, though—and the success of the war became less evident—Dean obviously attracted significant support. But reporters still saw the downside. Nagourney reported (12/18/03) that a CBS/New York Times poll spelled trouble: In “a potential sign of concern for Democrats who are contemplating the prospects of a contest between Mr. Bush and Dr. Dean, one-quarter of registered voters already have an unfavorable view of Dr. Dean.” But this angle was a stretch: The poll included Republicans, whose unfavorable disposition to Dean was unsurprising. Though Nagourney failed to mention it, the very same poll indicated that other prominent Democrats—Dick Gephardt (22 percent), John Kerry (20 percent), Joe Lieberman (24 percent)—were essentially tied with Dean on the “not favorable” scale: By Nagourney’s logic, the Democrats might want to think twice about running anyone with significant name recognition.

Sometimes journalists seemed bothered by Dean’s unconventional campaigning. The fact that Dean’s wife Judith Steinberg was not traveling with him became a subplot in the Iowa coverage. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (1/15/04) wrote that the Deans “seem to be in need of some tips on togetherness and building a healthy political marriage, if that’s not an oxymoron. Even by the transcendentally wacky standard for political unions set by Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Deans have an unusual relationship.” Calling Steinberg “a ghost in his political career,” Dowd suggested that Dean “could use a character witness on the road to vouch for his core values,” closing her column with the command: “Physician, heal thy spouse.”

When Steinberg began making appearances on the campaign trail, journalists breathed a sigh of relief. When Chris Matthews commented about hearing “so much buzz” about Steinberg’s absence (Hardball, 1/19/04), NBC‘s Tim Russert explained that the campaign was “trying to round out some of the rough spots on Howard Dean. People are beginning to ask, ‘What is this? Is he a loner? Is he an angry man who doesn’t have a family that supports him? We want a president without a wife?’ And so forth. They threw her out, got her in here right away.” Tom Brokaw agreed: “A lot of American politics now are about cultural values, about family and whether you’re comfortable with the people that are there. And so Howard Dean couldn’t just run as an angry man.”

The elusive Dean temper

In the run-up to the Iowa caucus, media profiles almost uniformly reached the same conclusion: As Time‘s Joe Klein warned (1/26/04), Dean had a “serious problem . . . his intemperance. It is difficult to imagine this huffy, impertinent man in a delicate diplomatic negotiation; it is difficult to imagine him showing the resolute but gentle public touch that George W. Bush displayed after September 11.” Klein was not a newcomer to the topic, writing in earlier columns about Dean’s “ad hoc bellicosity” and his “peremptory” manner (12/22/03), a “recklessness about the man, an adolescent screw-you defiance” and “his almost casual anger and adolescent taunting” (1/19/04).

Klein was far from alone. Another Time writer (8/11/03) called Dean “the testy ex-governor of a speck of a state.” “Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush” was one Washington Post headline (7/6/03), over a story that led: “Howard Dean was angry. Ropy veins popped out of his neck, blood rushed to his cheeks, and his eyes, normally blue-gray, flashed black, all dilated pupils.”

A piece in the Post‘s Style section (8/3/03) almost seemed a satire on the emerging “angry man” theme, as reporter Ann Gerhart offered a medical analogy: “With a style even his friends describe as abrasive, the Democrat could be the kind of doc the nurses complain about in the coffee room—arrogant and disrespectful.” Asking, “Is he too cranky to be president?” Gerhart decided: “Yelling and hollering is not an endearing quality in the leader of the free world. And Dean can get plenty fiery on the hustings, relentlessly hammering away at the president for the war on Iraq and attacking those fellow candidates who voted to approve the war resolution in Congress. More than one account has mentioned his tendency to grow red-faced.”

Most articles about Dean’s supposed temper, though, were strikingly light on examples of what we were led to believe was an inescapable feature of his personality. “That Howard Dean has always had a temper is beyond dispute,” asserted the New York Times (1/3/04), following that with timely evidence: “He mentioned it himself in an essay he wrote for his high school yearbook.” The Times described the Dean temper almost as if it were an elusive natural phenomenon: “The salient aspects of the Dean temper mentioned by those who have witnessed it are that it flashes quickly and then disappears.” The paper did acknowledge that Dean has managed to restrain himself: “During the current campaign, with scrutiny heightened, the Dean temper has yet to show much of itself in public and, aides say, has appeared only a few times in private.”

Gaffes, real and imagined

Anger was just the start, though. Media took a keen interest in Dean’s alleged gaffes and flip-flops, raising more questions about Dean’s instability. That’s not to suggest that Dean did not switch positions on some issues, or deny such changes. When ABC reporter George Stephanopoulos commented (9/14/03), “You used to be a very strong supporter of NAFTA,” Dean objected: “Where do you get this ‘I’m a strong supporter of NAFTA’? I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t vote on it. I didn’t march down the street demanding NAFTA.” On the same program eight years prior (1/29/95), though, Dean had described himself as “a very strong supporter of NAFTA.”

And there were certainly occasions when Dean’s loose lips were a legitimate issue—as when he illustrated the Democratic party’s need to broaden its appeal by referring to a racist symbol: “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” Dean said (Washington Post, 11/2/03).

Though in one sense Dean was reciting conventional wisdom about appealing to voters outside his party-he added, “We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross section of Democrats”—the comment understandably sparked a media furor. But it was interesting to see how careless reporters could be in describing the incident. Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz (11/13/03) alleged that Dean “seemed to wrap himself in the Confederate flag while saying the party needed to appeal to Southern whites,” while Newsweek (1/12/04) wrote that Dean “condescended to Southern, rural white men by inferring [sic] that they all drive pickup trucks with Confederate-flag decals on the back.”

Attention turned to Dean again in early December, as conservative syndicated columnists Robert Novak and Charles Krauthammer claimed that in an NPR interview (12/1/03), Dean suggested George W. Bush had knowledge of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks before they happened. In his December 12 column, Novak accused Dean of spreading a “conspiracy theory,” summing up the story this way: “Dean was asked about allegations that President Bush is suppressing information that he was warned about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. ‘The most interesting theory that I have heard so far…,’ Dean responded, ‘is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.'” Novak was amplifying Krauthammer’s earlier column (Washington Post, 12/5/03), which made cheeky suggestions that Dean was possibly deranged.

But what Dean actually said was quite different. Responding to a question about why he thought George Bush was suppressing the September 11 Commission’s report on the terror attacks, Dean said:

I don’t know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far—which is nothing more than a theory, it can’t be proved—is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now who knows what the real situation is?

Dean’s point seemed obvious: Given the White House’s unwillingness to provide complete disclosure to the commission, such theories will continue to float around. Novak had managed to change both the question Dean was asked, and his answer.

It wasn’t just right-wing columnists who were doing this. Time‘s Karen Tumulty wrote (1/12/04) that “six days passed from the time he mentioned that ‘interesting theory’ on National Public Radio about Bush being tipped off about 9/11 until he told Fox News that he did not actually believe it.” In fact, most listeners who heard the NPR interview probably understood he did not believe it.

CNN‘s Paula Zahn (1/9/04) went further, clipping Dean’s quote to make it more provocative during an interview with campaign manager Joe Trippi: “Let me just repeat exactly what came off the transcript of the NPR radio show. And this is Governor Dean’s remark, quote, ‘The most interesting theory that I have heard so far,’ he responded—quote—’is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.'” When Trippi protested that Zahn was leaving out some pretty important context, Zahn was adamant: “Well, I think our audience has a pretty good sense now of what was said and what wasn’t said.”

But it was Dean’s carelessness, not the media’s, that was the issue, and at times it seemed like the media were piling on. When Dean mentioned former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay in the midst of a critique of the Bush tax cut package, one Associated Press report (12/13/03) offered this nonsensical rebuttal: “But when he criticizes Bush’s links to Lay, Dean never mentions that Enron’s mismanagement was not the result of the president’s tax-cut package.”

Another AP report (1/4/04) chastised Dean for claiming in a debate that 60 percent of Americans got a tax cut of just $304. Was he wrong? Apparently not, since the report only pointed out that “those cuts appear to be in the ballpark when it comes to the poorest 60 percent of Americans—many of whom pay little federal income tax to begin with.” AP then cites figures from the Tax Policy Center that suggest a much higher return for middle-income Americans from the Bush cuts. Dean wasn’t wrong, but AP reported that the incident caused some “head scratching.” The article did not elaborate on whose heads were being scratched.

Capturing Saddam

When Dean remarked that the capture of Saddam Hussein did not make Americans any safer, that was another gaffe for the press, with many reporters insinuating that an antiwar candidacy should close up shop once Hussein was in custody. Reporters were commenting on Dean’s downward slide before there was any evidence of it. A December 19 Knight Ridder report led with the bad news: “Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, seeking to regain momentum that he lost after Saddam Hussein’s capture, lashed out at his critics Thursday and defended his assertion that the seizure didn’t make America safer.”

How such “momentum” is measured is unclear, since it’s largely a creation of the media. Some polls suggested a slight dip in support for Dean—though usually within the margin of error—while other polls contradicted this line: “It appears his standing among Democratic voters has not been hurt by the capture of Saddam,” explained CBS anchor Dan Rather (12/17/03). “A CBS News/New York Times poll out tonight indicates his support holding steady at 23 percent.”

The New York Times, which co-sponsored that very poll, treated its findings as almost an afterthought to the main storyline. A December 19 story, “Some Democrats Uneasy About Dean as Nominee,” conveyed the feeling among many party leaders that Dean wasn’t the best candidate. According to the Times, “their worry has been heightened anew, they say, by Dr. Dean’s statement this week that the capture of Saddam Hussein ‘did not make America safer.'”

Several paragraphs later, the Times did finally mention this salient point: “The latest New York Times poll showed that the capture improved Americans’ view of President Bush and his handling of the war but also that 60 percent said the United States was as vulnerable to terrorist attack as before the capture.” In other words, most Americans agreed with Dean’s “gaffe” (as did, apparently, the Bush administration, which raised the terrorism warning from yellow to orange about a week later).

The comment was nevertheless cited after the Iowa caucus as a harbinger of Dean’s eventual slide: “Many Democrats say that perhaps the most profound shift in his fortune followed the capture of Saddam Hussein last month, when Dr. Dean declared the United States no safer,” wrote the New York Times‘ Jodi Wilgoren (1/20/04). “Opposition to the Iraq war had propelled his campaign, but his statement drew criticism and led many Democrats to question whether he could take on the president on the critical issue of terrorism.”

Wilgoren relied on the mysterious “many Democrats” twice in one paragraph, a familiar media pattern when it comes to criticism of Dean. As Salon‘s Eric Boehlert pointed out (1/13/04): “One staple of news and opinion stories that cast Dean as headed for a McGovern-style drubbing is a fair-seeming grounding in Democrats’ worries that Dean can’t win. But it’s worth noting that such stories almost never name these Democrats—except the other candidates for the nomination—who are allegedly wringing their hands over Dean.”

The yell heard round the world

The media’s intense focus on Dean’s carelessness and waffling seemed to bear a striking resemblance to the press coverage of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. Gore’s deceptions were mostly media inventions (Extra!, 1-2/01), and it seemed a distinct possibility that the knock on Dean—that he’s too angry for prime time—was also largely a media-driven phenomenon.

Luckily for the press corps, Dean provided what they saw as a perfect, visual example of exactly what they’d been warning us about. When Dean delivered his pep talk after the Iowa caucus, he began naming the states with primaries still to come, working the crowd into a frenzy. Dean punctuated the moment with a swing of his arm and a yell.

For those in the room, it was hardly noticeable over the considerable crowd noise; but on camera it was something else, and for the next few days was a fixture on TV news. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called it his “guttural primary primal scream” (1/22/04), and it was described in various Times news stories as “growling and defiant” and a “guttural, concession-speech battle cry” (1/21/04), an “emotional outburst,” and an “unruly,” “howling concession speech” (1/23/04). Times reporter Todd Purdum (1/20/04) explained that “Dr. Dean looked more like Howard Beale, the angry anchor in Network, than Marcus Welby, M.D.” The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz (1/23/04) called it “Dean’s guttural, post-Iowa rant,” while Newsweek (2/2/04) went with an artistic reference, calling it Dean’s “[Edvard] Munch moment.”

Pat Buchanan on The McLaughlin Group (1/23/04) called it “the most destructive performance by a primary candidate since Gary Hart got off the Monkey Business… and you know what everybody was saying when they saw it: ‘Is this the guy who ought to be in control of our nuclear arsenal?'”

The Washington Post‘s David Broder analyzed the damage on Meet the Press the Sunday after Iowa (1/25/04), noting that “women voters that I’ve met up here really do worry about what that suggests.” But it wasn’t just women, according to Broder: “I just think that this is one of those universal moments. Every single voter that I talked to, I believe without exception, this past week has mentioned it.” Broder acknowledged that Dean’s campaign blamed the media for “running this over and over and over again,” but seemed to dismiss the criticism, saying that “it has just penetrated”—as if that didn’t have anything to do with its non-stop repetition in the media.

Nine days after the incident, one outlet did pause to consider the possibility that the Dean scream was overplayed. ABC‘s Diane Sawyer (1/28/04) noted that “the media played it nearly 700 times in just a few days,” and that most mainstream outlets now seemed to regret that they had put the tape on an endless loop for the better part of three days.

Broder’s fellow Meet the Press pundit Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times was revealing in his explanation of why they did so: “The worst thing that can happen to a politician is to do something that confirms an existing preconception…. What really hurt him here is he provided a dramatic symbol of the doubts that were already there.” The question is, were these the doubts of voters or of the political reporting elite?

“The winner’s heroic backstory”

Some of the post-Iowa speculation seemed remarkably off-key. Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman explained in an online column (1/22/04) that he saw all this coming: “Paradoxically, as private as he is, Dean is capable—perhaps too capable—of showing emotion. When I interviewed him for Newsweek last year, he broke down in tears when I asked him about his lost brother. I had never seen a politician do this: He turned beet-red and sobbed. He told me he had had counseling. It was touching, but, in retrospect, a harbinger of his angry reaction to his loss in Iowa-a fateful moment to say the least.”

The fact that Fineman would connect Dean’s recollection of the traumatic death of his brother to his Iowa speech is bizarre; that he would deem Dean’s speech proof that the candidate is “angry” suggests that he has trouble reading human emotions—the speech, while certainly animated, was not angry. But when anger is the key to the media’s campaign script, sometimes you have to stretch a little.

When the 2004 campaign is finished, some might look back and marvel at the trajectory of the Dean campaign. Time‘s Karen Tumulty (8/11/03) might have inadvertently captured the mood of reporters toward Dean:

Look back at nearly every campaign trail to the White House, and you will find embedded in the asphalt the flattened form of a once-captivating outsider. The story line plays out as follows: He seizes the imagination with a compelling message and personality; he upsets the dynamic of the race; the media lavish attention and praise on him (there is talk that he has created a phenomenon that will change politics); he makes a rookie mistake or two under the TV lights; the reporters turn on him; his fanatical legions realize he wasn’t the guy they thought he was; and finally his demise becomes part of the winner’s heroic backstory.

A few months later, it seemed a story many in the media were eager to write.