This January I've imagined myself a foreigner revisiting the United States after a long absence. My last visit might have dated back to a summer in the late 1990s when affairs of state hung on the stain of a blue dress and national cares aimed no higher than the stock market's latest onanistic peaks, when America was a theme park of self-indulgence and the world its oysters' dump. How much things would have changed in a few years, and how little.
Assuming that I was coming from one of those countries where individuals are not much more than plankton for the state's whale-like paranoia, I would have been struck by how similarly suspicious America had become at its ports of entry. Automatic mug shots, fingerprinting and interrogations make airport terminals indistinguishable from the visitors' lobby of your average state prison. Security guards pad their shoulders with chips the size of Moby Dick. Customs' officers' insistence on seeing a bomber in each one of us is a strangely democratic courtesy that nevertheless makes you feel as if you were entering a totalitarian time-warp.
The time-warp is more pronounced when I make it past the unwelcoming committee's maws and walk inside the whale, where the newsstands' many little windows into the culture of the moment open on, of all things, an otherworldly obsession with Mars. Wasn't outer space the dopey diversion of the well-behaved during the Cold War? Weren't moon shots the 60s' and 70s' bread and circuses for a country worn out by a pointless war abroad and social insurrections at home? Replay. The country is again being worn out by a pointless war abroad and split by political and economic divisions at home. Insurrections can't be far behind. China is looking to put a man on The moon. What better excuse for a president -- whose deficits in dollars and sense already reach well past the moon -- than to aim for Mars?
Mars is getting some overexposure through those little windows, but not nearly as much as America's enemy du jour. The surprise, to the unwary visitor, is that enemy's identity.
With Saddam's capture, Qaddafi's conversion and Iran's president quoting Max Weber and David Hume instead of his mullah's latest rants -- as Mohammad Khatami just did in an address to the leaders of the world's richest economies -- the United States looks dangerously close to running out of bearded men with whom to scare that old lady in Dubuque (and a surprising number of her younger progeny everywhere else). That would be disastrous for politicians to whom the endlessly mutating deceptions of the war on terror are like burkas to their incompetence. They need the war on terror because they offer little else. I don't mean President Bush alone. He merely misleads by example. Most of the Democrats who'd like to replace him, and most of those who'd like to stay where they are in Congress, are equally dependent on the fictions of the war on terror for their survival, equally willing to exaggerate its necessity while downplaying its damages to the nation's economy, its liberties, its once-noble purpose.
Which explains why the enemy that has darkened the cover of virtually every major magazine at least once since last summer (and three times in Time and twice each in Newsweek and The New Republic) is not Osama bin Laden, not North Korea's Kim Jong II, not even French President Jacques Chirac, but Howard Dean. (The New Republic, July 28: "Must He Be Stopped? The Case Against Howard Dean." Newsweek, Aug. 11: "HOWARD DEAN: Destiny or Disaster?" National Review, Oct. 13: "Hell: The case against Howard Dean's Vermont." New Republic, Dec. 29: "Howard Dean's Religious Problem." Time, Jan. 12: "WHO IS THE REAL DEAN?" Newsweek, Jan. 12: "DOUBTS ABOUT DEAN.") The barrage of sinister cover stories on Dean may be a surprise to someone who's been away from the United States for a while. Looking closer, not really: The whole phenomenon of Howard Dean sums up what's best and worst in America's political atmosphere today.
Dean's rise from Vermont's leafy obscurity was, to those who despair of the democratic process, a signal that the grassroots haven't rotted yet. Dean's initiative and his intellectual independence vaulted him to the front of a Democratic pack of Republican clones and liberal ninjas. He's no liberal and no ideologue. His stances on war and taxes are, if anything, tactically and fiscally conservative. But he's worse than the Republican and Democratic establishment's worst fear: He's unpredictable -- not in the occasionally temperamental sense, which his enemies have so disingenuously reveled in (what president from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush hasn't had an execrable temperament, and who would want a Mister Rogers in the White House? Dean has simply outed his temperament, breaking essentially Victorian rules of decorum).
No, Dean is unpredictable because of his willingness to risk his own ideas above those of canned platitudes and focus groups. Honest pragmatism makes gaffes inevitable. They make for good television, the way his un-Bush-like ability to engage complex and actual issues, as opposed to abstract fears, doesn't. Between the media's complicit alliance with establishment candidates and the two parties' abhorrence of the unpredictable (which also explains the parties' sclerotic look to half the electorate), Dean's unmaking, probably to be sealed by tonight, was a matter of time.
Whether Dean would have been the Democrats' right choice is not as relevant as the way both Republicans and Democrats made sure he wouldn't get the chance. Dean's demolition says more about the two parties' viral tactics of self-preservation (and contempt for a truly pluralist electoral process) than about Dean's limitations. The wonder is that he got so far, and that the fictions of the war on terror and its tireless scam artists in the White House got such a drubbing. So there's hope yet, even for those of us who feel like aliens in our own country.
© 2004 News-Journal Corporation