Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Howard Dean's Way with Words

I sort of enjoyed Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, because he really stirred the pot for the Democrats with brashness, frankness, and a grass-roots appeal (much as McCain tends to do with Republicans). Some Republicans were openly salivating at the prospect of Dean facing off against Bush, thinking he could be easily caricatured, but I suspect that if Dean kept his head he could have given the Bush folks a real headache. Still, I’ve always felt Dean would make a great college professor or activist but just doesn’t have the temperament for national leadership. He’s made an interesting front man for the Democratic National Committee. This year I’ve seen him make some very intelligent, reasoned points on the news shows, yet with alarming frequency he’ll come out with some gaffe. His latest occurred on Hardball on 10/5/05 while discussing Harriet Miers and how she really needs to reveal her true legal views (video here and more fully here):

I think with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, you can’t play, you know, hide the salami, or whatever it’s called.

Now, he does laugh, perhaps because he realizes what the hell he said and the absurdity of it... but I have to wonder, is “hide the salami” ever not sexual innuendo? It’s not like, “hide the Easter eggs” or something. It’s ultimately a silly, harmless gaffe, bearing repetition at the water cooler but not a formal apology by Dean. Still, it doesn’t elevate his credibility. What the hell is on his mind? I suppose it does play into the assumption that liberals have more sex (and better sex) than conservatives, certainly more than the religious right, unless you’re counting the persistent figure of the hypocritical moral crusader (the latest appears to be Lou Beres).

Now, despite my concerns about Dean, I still contend that Dean got a raw deal with the whole “scream” thing. I attribute that to several factors:

1. Video and Audio. The scream made for a quick, memorable clip that could be (and was) played over and over again. In our sound byte culture, it made for a quick teaser for the evening news and something to be dissected endlessly on the weekend news talk shows, not to mention countless sophomoric radio shows. Diane Sawyer showed it about five times to Dean during her subsequent interview with him. Imagine if Cheney’s “go fuck yourself” to Senator Leahy on the Senate floor had been on camera how much more press that would have gotten.

2. The Seductive, Easy Storyline. Most news outlets did not cover the context of “the scream,” that Dean was yelling over a crowd of rowdy young campaign workers, and as he tells it, was trying to buck them up after the disappointment of losing the Iowa caucus. Because Dean had been the frontrunner, the easy storyline was “has Dean lost it?” “Has he blown his chances?” “Is this his Dukakis moment?” “The frontrunner has toppled,” and so on. This was The Moment Dean Blew It, and when the media’s conventional wisdom gels like that, their storyline often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Never mind that the media was much, much more obsessed with the whole incident that the vast majority of the public... as with Jessica Lynch and Scott Peterson, when the media decides the public wants a story, they don’t bother to consult the public. Plus, I also think journalists, more even than most people, like to think they’re smart. It’s similar to the saying that an idea can very dangerous when it’s the only one you have. Especially under the pressure of a deadline, when a theory or decent storyline pops into a journalist’s head, that’s what he or she is liable to push forward with, damn the torpedoes. The idea of a Dukakis Willie Horton moment for Dean (never mind that Dukakis’ flub occurred during a presidential debate, not the primaries) was just too sweet to pass up; many outlets projected into the future Dean’s collapse, proclaiming with barely restrained glee, ‘if Dean fails, this is the moment where it all turned.'

3. The Aesthetic Quality of the Scream. Frankly, as with the salami comment, I thought the scream was cause to laugh at Dean, but not something to disqualify him from the presidency. Wasn’t it good to have a leader with some actual passion? The problem with Dean’s scream was that it sounded like a strangled cat, which made it prime material for replaying over and over, and to raise eyebrows. Imagine if Dean had instead uttered a suitably macho, cheering-on-your-favorite-sports-team sort of “YEAH!” If Schwarzenegger had done something like that, he might have been briefly mocked, but many people wouldn’t even have blinked. Meanwhile, if Kerry had bellowed a “yeah!” like that during the course of the Democratic National Convention, and it sounded authentic and not forced, I imagine his poll numbers would have jumped.

So, Howard Dean — ready for the national spotlight? At times it seems he’s not, but I have to give him credit for being honestly entertaining.

(Based on information given to her by Ahmed Chalabi, Judy Miller wrote a story that Saddam Hussein sought high-yield "redcake" salami only suitable for use in nuclear centrifuges... then decided to push the fraudulent aluminum tubing story instead.)

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