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It’s The Same Song

Dec
7
2003

Why can’t Big Media write about Howard Dean’s campaign without sounding like a bunch of clueless but well-meaning 19th century explorers debating the source of the Nile all the while breathlessly reporting back on the wonders of Africa?
First, there was Nicholas Kristof’s piece on Saturday comparing the Dean campaign to George McGovern’s humiliating loss to Richard Nixon.
Every time I see that comparison – they said the same thing about Clinton and Carter, by the way – I have the same reaction: Nixon cheated! Remember, that Watergate thing? He cheated! Doesn’t that make a difference? Things have changed since that campaign. Remember Thomas Eagleton, the Senator who had to resign as McGovern’s vice presidential pick after it was “discovered” – more like planted by the well-funded dirty tricks campaign run by the Republicans — that he had seen a psychiatrist and been treated for depression? Contrast that to Dean’s candid admission just a few weeks ago that he had, years after his brother Charlie’s death, seen a therapist to talk about his grief and that yes, he thought it had done him some good.
Kristof was quickly followed by Eric Alterman’s piece about a dinner party he attended in Manhattan – an island in New York that’s filled with famous and really smart people who work for important publications read by all thinking Americans – hosted by comedian Al Franken. At what sounds like a parody of an Ann Coulter one-liner, the party was attended by writers, historians and famous journalists. Past and present New Yorker writer ‘Rick Hertzberg’ and artist ‘Art Speigelman’ get special mention but no formal introduction because, of course we all know them. This group was treated to the “spontaneous” thoughts of Democratic Presidential hopeful and Dean rival Sen. John Kerry. Marriage must have really changed Kerry. Back when I was covering the Senate Commerce Committee the only guy who was more of a stiff than Kerry was then-Sen. Al Gore.
But here’s what was really amazing about Alterman’s account of the dinner: It’s utter lack of regard for the completeness of its hermetically sealed tone. The whole account reads like a parody of the accusation Republicans used to lob at the opposite party. They’d talk about “Georgetown” Democrats and “limousine liberals” saying they were a bunch of elitists who only listened to the sound of their own voices. Yeah. Well. I guess everything comes true given enough time. Alterman’s piece was embarrassing and I say that as a life-long registered Democrat and card-carrying Ivy-league prep-school educated media elitist.
Just as Alterman took great pains to talk about the diversity of opinion in the room with Kerry, Kristof was very solicitous of the young people working for Dean. He didn’t want to see them become as disillusioned as he did when, as a 13-year-old, he campaigned for McGovern. That same caring and nurturing of the politically naïve, colors the NYTimes Sunday Magazine piece on the Dean campaign.
The magazine article spends a lot of time talking about how people supporting Dean are drawn to the campaign because they want to change the world. They’re all fired up by politics because it’s fun! And oh, yeah, boys who like girls meet girls! And they make out! And Geeks who like to code do it for free (oh, now there’s something we didn’t know; hey check this out, writers who like to write sometimes do that for free, too). And people who like to organize and meet other people and motivate them, they get to do that too. For free or for tiny salaries! My God. It’s a movement.
Some of this fascination with the fervor of the Dean campaign is completely legit as Craig Newmark’s reaction demonstrates. Newmark was genuinely interested in the article because it tells him something he finds to be true of the Dean effort.
But, as Newmark’s reaction also demonstrates, the sort of political activity that Dean’s people are channeling isn’t just technical or web-based. The Times’ dwells on the mechanics of Deanworld – Friendster and meetup are explained in wondrous detail. But the amorphous and evangelical role that the Cluetrain crowd has with many Dean supporters is boiled down – inaccurately – into terminology used by political insiders. They’re described as “consultants.”
As anyone on the web knows, that’s not the role that Doc Searls and Howard Reingold play. But the description, an attempt to get their relationship to the Deanheads into a neat category, pretty much sums up the problem here. Dean is turning people on to politics because he is speaking their language. The Times also dwells for a bit on Dean’s willingness to talk to a local organizer – the Howards for Howard Dean guy – just as if he were a representative from AARP, one of the nation’s more powerful lobbying groups. Yup. Courtesy to less-than-loaded supporters. Now there’s a concept.
That’s not the language of the Manhattan dinner party – and please, tell me, does anyone think Al Franken is funny? Really? – of political insiders or the jaded columnists. Dean is speaking about change and despite all the talk by guys like Kristof about anger, Dean’s supporters seem to think he’s offering hope.
And, as hard as it is for many Democrats to believe, the hope he offers envisions a world that has little to do with their established ways of doing things. That’s what’s so frustrating about reading campaign coverage: it fails to understand that people outside the media are sick to the core of their beings about politics as it’s being practiced by both Democrats and Republicans. They want change. And they want it soon.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 6:17 PM | Permalink

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