a remarkable sea change in the presidential election campaign last week. The
biggest news, little noted in the newspapers, was the unofficial coronation
of Howard Dean as the Democratic nominee by none other than George Bush himself.
In a fundraising
e-mail sent out to would-be supporters, Bush for the first time made what appeared
to be a specific characterization of his eventual opponent.
wins the nomination will have done so by energizing their party’s left
wing with angry attacks," Bush "expressed" in the e-mail.
It was clear
that Bush was referring to Dean in this statement, because for quite some time
now, "angry" has been the unofficial code word for Dean in the mass
media. The evolution of the use of this word has been, to me, the biggest story
of the election so far. It was a kind of shadow nomination process, in which
the winning caricature was elected in convention.
watch a presidential election campaign up close, as I have for the last five
months, you start to realize that the actual people running in the race are
irrelevant to the results. Instead, the race is an exercise in corporate storytelling,
in which the mass media–in a committee-like process that evolves over time
through trial and error–settles on a storyline and then drags the rest
of the country along for the ride, all the way through to November.
I had a
front-row seat for this process. Though there were rumblings on the "angry"
front before–most notably in a June piece by Matt Bai in the New York
Times magazine that concluded by wondering aloud if Dean’s "angry
message" might not be his downfall–the real launch of the "angry"
theme came in the dual cover stories in Time and Newsweek that
appeared simultaneously in early August.
Jonathan Alter and Time’s Karen Tumulty–using language suspiciously
similar to that of earlier Democratic Leadership Council memos about the burgeoning
Dean disaster–focused heavily on the "anger" theme, openly concluding
that the chief "problem" of Dean’s candidacy would be convincing
voters to get past his "anger," "testiness" and "pugnacity."
along with fellow Newsweek butt-buddy Howard Fineman is among the worst
swine in the business, went so far as to say that voters simply don’t like
people like Dean: "Dean’s pugnacity might not wear well with voters,
who usually favor buoyant, warm personalities."
on to hold a formal knighthood ceremony for the second great Howard Dean myth,
that he is unpopular with journalists: "In truth, Dean is no favorite of
working reporters [as opposed to non-working reporters?] who tend to like their
candidates funny and solicitous. So do voters."
echoed Alter’s theme, noting that "Washington insiders" thought
that Dean’s candidacy early on had "all the resonance of a temper
tantrum." Like Alter, Tumulty described Dean as "testy" and "angry."
Neither piece, incidentally, did anything more than briefly touch upon Dean’s
actual positions on the issues; both were frankly and excessively focused on
the electability/horse-race aspect of the story.
covers came at a key moment in the Dean candidacy, just before Dean’s "Sleepless
Summer Tour." This was Dean’s media coming-out party, in which he
brought some three dozen or more prominent journalists around the country with
him on a chartered plane and gave them all intimate access for four consecutive
I was on
that plane, and I can report that the "angry" issue (as well as the
"journalists hate Dean" issue) was something that was much discussed
among the journalists. Mostly we thought it didn’t make too much sense.
With us reporters on the plane, Dean was never anything but congenial and accommodating.
And in his speeches and public appearances, he presented the full gamut of emotions.
I think I speak for a lot of the reporters in saying that had I not just read
the Fineman and Tumulty pieces, I would’nt have been aware that he was
any angrier than any other candidate running for office. Christ, Dick Gephardt
by comparison is a raving lunatic: waving his finger all the time and screeching,
"Bush is a miserable failure!" with that creepy mask-like face of
his. The only difference is, Gephardt’s speaking in front of 10 people.
because of the Time-Newsweek stories, a large percentage of the reporters
on the Dean plane felt that they had to at least address the "angry"
issue. And so a great many of us talked about Dean having the reputation
for an angry public style, and this focus frequently came at the expense of
actually explaining to readers what Dean’s positions were.
cases this trade-off was explicit. Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal
admitted openly in his final "Sleepless Summer" wrap-up piece that
he wasn’t interested in Dean’s actual politics:
likes to tell crowds that he is about more than Bush-bashing. His speeches have
their wonk-ish stretches, where he details his policy ideas."
went on to ignore those "wonk-ish" policy ideas. He did not, however,
ignore the more important Alter-Tumulty thesis:
Dean phenomenon has sparked an evolving discussion among Democrats, Republicans
and pundits about how far ‘people-powered Howard’ can ride the political
wave he is on and whether his persona is too angry, his tone too harsh and his
politics too far to the left to win the nomination or the presidency."
of thing was typical; virtually every journalist who came near Dean during this
period addressed the "angry" issue. David Jackson of the Dallas
Morning News: "Analysts… wonder how voters will react to Dean’s
aggressive demeanor, sometimes described as downright angry." Rebeca Rodriguez
of the San Antonio Express-News quoted RNC spokeswoman Christine
Iverson: "Iverson said Dean’s campaign has appealed to the ‘angry,
anti-war base of the Democratic Party,’ but that’s not a message that
is likely to appeal to more mainstream voters." USA Today’s
Jill Lawrence talked about Dean’s "angry style" and wondered
if Dean might become "less strident" now that he was the frontrunner.
of all of this is like a chamber of mirrors. Once the "Dean is angry"
issue gets mentioned in enough places, it replicates endlessly and after a period
of time becomes a fact in itself, existing more or less independently of the
candidate. Four months ago, "angry" was merely a description of Howard
Dean. Now, in many places, it practically substitutes for his name. Just ask
the New York Post, which the other day asked in its house editorial:
who is Howard Dean? That’s not clear–apart, that is, from being the
angriest opponent of the president’s post 9/11 foreign policy."
ago, in an awesome, for-the-hell-of-it demonstration of media power, the journalism
establishment succeeded in convincing half the domestic population, including
the landlocked portion, that it was about to be eaten by a shark. Two years
ago, despite a statistical drop in such incidents, the bogeyman was child abductors:
There was one around every corner. We all know who and what it was last year:
Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. This coming year, the media
is going to sell us another bullshit story. It’s going to be a WWF match,
entitled Shrill and Angry versus Calm and Cocksure. Dean has yet to formally
secure the nomination–that part of it will probably be over in a few weeks–but
his label is already through to the general election. We’re kidding ourselves
if we don’t admit that the labels are the real candidates.