KEENE, N.H. -- IF HOWARD DEAN'S campaign was faltering last week, they hadn't heard the news in Keene.
On Friday, the Cheshire County seat was overrun by Dean volunteers and overplanted with Dean signs, from the mall-ugly approach on Route 9, to the length of its rather grand Main Street (once touted by local boosters as the world's widest paved thoroughfare).
Post-Iowa, I suppose I'd been expecting to find a deflated balloon draped over the downtown median strip with the words "Dean for President" barely visible through wrinkled footprints. But I should have known better than to believe what I read in the newspapers, especially The New York Times.
After all, I'd fled to southwestern New Hampshire precisely to escape the lava flow of clichés spewing forth from Gotham's information Gulag, and to sort out for myself why the national media -- not just rival Democrats -- seem so determined to bury a candidate whose most radical policy proposal is the exhumation of a 56-year-old, Harry Truman-vintage plan for guaranteed national health care.
Indeed, the New York newspaper and network television coverage of Dean had recently turned so viciously unfair that I thought I'd better go see the "former frontrunner" in person before he got run over by a Fox camera crew riding on a flat-bed truck driven by Dick Gephardt.
Not that some locals, like the charming Karen Bowen, of Monadnock Developmental Services, weren't put off by the Dean "scream." But it turned out I wasn't alone in thinking that the politico/press overreaction to the concession rally in West Des Moines had more to do with a sullen hostility to anything honestly emotional than with the mental state of the former Vermont governor.
One could almost hear the sigh of relief emanating from the pashas of West 43rd Street when John Kerry won Iowa. At last, a thoroughly compromised moderate Democrat -- kind of pro-invasion when he voted for war authorization on Oct. 11, 2002, when it took courage to vote no; kind of against it now, when it's easy to attack the president's lies -- similar in personality to The New York Times itself. (Will the paper of record ever acknowledge its corrupt promotion of Bush's phony nuclear-bomb-scare stories?)
Fortunately, midtown Keene is more sophisticated than midtown Manhattan. Between ringing up sales at the Bookland store, near Central Square, Rock Shaink, 25, told me that he "wasn't that bothered" by Dean's notorious outburst. "It's more of a media hype," he said with muted Yankee sarcasm. "To say, 'we don't want someone mad to run the country.' "
More relevant to Shaink's probable support for Dean was the story of a 52-year-old family friend, who naively re-enlisted in the Army reserves, aiming only for a slightly better pension, but wound up shipped to Iraq as a mechanic. A couple of Marine acquaintances, just back from Mesopotamia, had revealed too late that poorly protected support troops were more likely to be killed than front-line combat soldiers: "It's the guy way in back working on the water who gets it," Shaink quoted them saying.
Hype was also what the pro-Dean Keene Sentinel had in mind in its Thursday editorial headlined "Incoming!" that ridiculed the spate of "investigative" reporting aimed at knocking Dean down and out. As Keene's paper of record aptly noted, a front-page Times story suggesting sleazy conflicts of interest in the awarding of a state contract (subsequently canceled) to an HMO that employed a former Dean aide, "wasn't even in the league of the famous photo of President Lyndon Johnson picking up one of his beagles by the ears."
Neither was the Associated Press "exposé" of Dean's alleged laxity in preparing disaster plans for his state's lone nuclear power plant. "It is true . . . that Dean did not personally scale the fence at Vermont Yankee to see if an intruder could get by the guards," The Sentinel remarked. But nuclear-plant safety is entrusted to the federal government, "so no Pulitzer."
The Center for Media Research and Public Affairs has found a distinct anti-Dean bias in coverage by the big-three broadcast networks but the big papers have been worse, never more so than after "the rant."
Exhibit A should be the gratuitous comparisons between Howard and Judith Dean's interview with Diane Sawyer and the Clintons' 1992 marriage masquerade on 60 Minutes. I never cared about the Clinton sex scandals, and I think that candidate spouses are largely irrelevant (was Lincoln's crazy wife central to his policies?), but does anybody seriously believe that Judith Steinberg, M.D., was merely posing as a loyal wife, or that she was covering up some secret insanity in her husband? Was there any valid comparison to be made between Dr. Steinberg's obvious and natural warmth and Hillary Clinton's calculated hypocrisy?
The Wall Street Journal and New York's tabloid Daily News and Post have been putting the hurt on Dean for some time, painting him as an extremist madman bent on restoring communist rule in Russia and establishing it here at home. But this is what you expect from the reactionary press. Coming from The Times, the tribune of the liberal establishment, it's just a little shocking.
Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Dean beat reporter Jodi Wilgoren have distinguished themselves in their cynical disdain for Dean. Dowd's self-satirizing poses lost me long ago, but her condescending admonition to Dean and his allegedly unsupportive, unsavvy helpmate -- "physician, heal thy spouse" -- made me think that the Gray Lady's girlish spinster had finally shot her foot through the barrel of an empty joke.
Wilgoren strives daily to adopt a Dowdian tone, so terribly bored with the poses of politicians. Mrs. Dean is described contemptuously in the Sawyer interview -- "she looked lovingly at her husband and let out a little giggle" -- and Dean, struggling "to halt his dive in the polls" is portrayed on the stump as newly "unsure of himself," failing in one speech to use a stock line about how "even the Costa Ricans have health insurance for all their people." Isn't that just pathetic -- a camera-shy wife who loves her husband but puts her patients ahead of politics, and a candidate who doesn't always follow the script.
I couldn't find Wilgoren on Friday, not at "non-partisan" Mayor Mike Blastos's thank-you dinner for 100 Dean volunteers at the mayor's restaurant, The Pub, and not at the jam-packed rally (nearly 1,500 people, including 200 spillovers in the downstairs
cafeteria) in Keene's middle-school auditorium.
Like Dr. Steinberg, I don't watch much TV, so besides the aberrant Iowa speech, I had never heard Dean speak until Keene. The opening act, Rob Reiner, broke the tension by taking "full responsibility for what Howard did in Iowa." And Dean looked anything but unsure when he took the stage and the microphone; sort of low and compact, his theatrical aura recalls the analogously self-confident and funny John McCain.
Dean was once described to me by a Vermont leftist "as the best Republican governor we've ever had," and I was disappointed in advance by his support of NAFTA and the death penalty. At the rally, his shop-worn attempt to have it both ways on "free trade" -- "we globalized corporate rights, but we didn't globalize worker's rights" -- made me want to scream. (Just how are we going to force the Chinese oligarchs to acknowledge new rights that would destroy the very reason U.S. companies want to build factories there?)
But I liked him anyway. I had thought Dean's anti-war position was the best thing about his campaign, but it's his scalding critique of Bush's profound intellectual and financial corruption that could actually carry the day. In straight, clear language, Dean reminded the crowd that Bush is hugely defrauding them, from the underfunded "No Child Left Behind" ploy, to the commitment to "democratic" Iraq, to the inconsequential middle-class tax cut -- "60 percent of us got $304 back; how can it be a tax cut [for example] if your college tuition rose more than $304 because of cuts in Pell grants?" And he keeps banging away at Enron, the money power and Bush's criminal payoffs to greedy supporters.
Dean may be a balanced-budget centrist, but in these degraded times his loyalty to the Constitution looks pretty radical; he made a point of reminding his listeners of their constitutional power and responsibilities. The left, including me, should take such a commitment to heart.
However, the biggest applause line of the night came not from Dean, but from a man who prefaced his question with a statement: "Thank you for not apologizing for your enthusiasm in Iowa." Dean adroitly seized the cue, replying with exaggerated calm, "We're going to win in New Hampshire, South Carolina," and on down the list of early primary states. Another roar, more laughs, more warmth to stem the bitter cold outside.
After the rally I asked Dean if he thought that he was being targeted by the big media. He mentioned the study of network TV bias, then retreated to conventional wisdom: "I got disproportionately negative coverage because I was the front-runner; I'm not a conspiracy theorist."
I am. Throughout the speech and subsequent Q & A, I saw not a hint of "the fierce grin and red face" described by The Times on Iowa caucus night. But this is the same newspaper that preposterously called Bush "somber" and "determined" in its headline describing the State of the Union address, while ignoring the dreadful smirk that played on the president's lips -- a smirk that said, "I don't give a damn what I'm saying; I'm getting away with murder."
Red-faced or pale-faced, if Dean survives the media freeze out in New Hampshire today, he might just wipe that smirk off Bush's face.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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