Campaign Crawlers

Phoning It In

Howard Dean presses the flesh, so to speak.

9.11.03

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San Francisco -- The Rolling Stones boomed from a battered stereo. Keith Richards unfurled the opening guitar scrapes to "Sister Morphine" as Jagger's coo swelled to a misshapen howl. Through the haze and smell of barbecue smoke I made out the faces of a few friends, in the backyard of the old Victorian in the old Castro District. And I knew then, poorly copied directions notwithstanding, I had arrived at a genuine presidential rally.

Unfortunately, we were one candidate short. I groaned when I learned Howard Dean would not be "physically present" to preside over the parlor games at my friend's house. Instead, he would address the assembled skeptics, hopefuls, and devotees via speakerphone. It was part of a larger teleconference with a multitude of small gatherings across Northern California.

I was certainly interested to see how Dean would establish a long distance rapport with these supporters. I was, however, even more tantalized at the prospect of enjoying a rabid political pep talk in the company of some idealistic folk and a hearty helping of whatever was on tap (on the house of course). Moreover, I have a fondness for funny politicians, quite possibly one that overwhelms my capacity for making sensible decisions in accordance with my civic duty.

The party's host was a kind and generous friend whose endearing political idealism and love of the underdog had driven him into Dean's growing Bay Area camp, and so his own backyard was packed with a goodly number of local lefties and progressives.

Party guests helped themselves to a tasty spread of vittles, though the vegetarians, including moi, were less well served. Young law students turned out in sizable numbers. Most were white and a few years shy of 30: eager graduates of top-notch East Coast colleges destined to make their collective mark on Bay Area litigation. They mixed with some kooky local color, noticeably improving the vibes.

A robust older fellow wearing a pink shirt that matched his salmon complexion pulled a joint out of his pants and asked me if I'd like a puff? "No thanks," I replied. "Howard Dean ought to be heavy enough for me tonight."

Boy, was I right. At a quarter after six, the party moved into the apartment's cramped living room. The host placed a black telephone on the coffee table in the center of the room. We were told we'd be able to commune with Howard Dean through this… magical device.

Guests rested on the edges of couches, knelt on the floor, and leaned against the walls. The host dialed a number and then a secret code. There was a click. Hunched over the table, he motioned for silence. After a muffled exchange with a voice on the other line, our host turned and grinned around the room.

Our little gathering was logged on to the larger network and, through the tiny telephone speakers, we could hear the hum of dozens of distant house parties awaiting Dean's voice. We listened while new parties came on and called out their locations and numbers. Thirty-five minutes later, when the Yuba City welcome ran its course, we heard what we had come for in the first place.

"You are now talking to the leading Democratic presidential candidate in the state of California," boomed the voice of Howard Dean over the small speakerphone. "We are going to beat George Bush in 2004 because we will do what no other candidate does. Everyone else tries to be like him and shave off votes. We won't do that. We'll reach out to the 50 percent or so who have given up."

Cheers. Fists pumped. People clinked their beer bottles together, and then cheered some more.

The voice rose once more and a hush fell over the crowd. Howard Dean had finally entered the building. These were his people; this was his moment. The doctor was, in fact, in, and it was party time in 'Frisco. I leaned back on the couch and waited for the show to begin.

Sadly, the pre-game action was much better than the main event. After the obligatory crowd-pleasing jabs at President Bush, he eased up and handled the question and answer like he was playing patty cake.

First, Dean acknowledged the efforts of his grass-roots support base:

"You've been going out to the farmer's markets and spreading the word."

Long pause for effect.

"Now, we're seeing results. We're increasing our paid staff out here in California from 1 to 2!"

Another round of muted -- very muted -- cheers erupted.

More questions filtered through Dean's staffer. Dean rattled off a series of low-energy responses that further dampened the crowd's enthusiasm. He was against Bush's tax cuts, for basic services, in favor of healthcare and education, and pro solidarity with the downtrodden black and Latino voters, noticeably absent from Vermont. In fact, he even worked at a hospital in the South Bronx.

For the final question, some joker from Berkeley asked what Dean would do for the environment. His answer was convoluted. It involved a recitation of his land development initiative in Vermont, and some general affirmations that he was "pro-environment." As if that was ever in doubt.

Then, without so much as touching on the situation in Iraq, Dean bid his adieu, citing a dinner obligation due to begin in a matter of minutes, and the line went dead.

We emerged from the house rather confused. Party guests loitered in the driveway in huddled groups, offering up disparate takes on the event. Dusk was upon us as we trudged off to catch buses headed in different directions.

I suppose one could have taken issue with the candidate's answers on the grounds that they were vaguely uninspiring and delivered in an offhand, frankly sub-presidential manner, or that his handlers neglected to select questions of real importance, but I was not particularly concerned with the content of Dean's talk. Twenty minutes by speakerphone isn't a good gauge of anyone's abilities.

And yet. Dean's utter failure to get the party started right was troubling. A boozy political rally is the place to kick out the jams, not go wobbly. I left feeling uninspired, with no more information about the Dems' best hope than I had going in. I handed my dollar to the bus driver and settled into a seat and pondered the year to come.

It will be a long, curious primary. Maybe, in the next few months, the word of mouth on Dean will compel a demographic more significant than a semi-sizable sub-section of young and affluent white people to hit the polls in his favor. Until then, people like me will make heated arguments over pints at the yuppie bars, voice earnest predications over the water cooler at work, and keep reading those irresistible Salon profiles on our lunch breaks in the hope that he'll make it far enough to finally appear with Tony Snow on Fox News Sunday, right after Nascar winds up.

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