Washington Goes to War (with Howard Dean)

By Alterman, Eric | The Nation, January 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Washington Goes to War (with Howard Dean)


Alterman, Eric, The Nation


Saddam Hussein may be out of his spider hole, but Washington's real enemy is still at large. His name: "Howard Dean"--and nobody in America poses a bigger threat to the city's sense of its own importance. New Republic writer Michelle Cottle returned from maternity leave to find Washington fit for a "Tarantino-style blood bath," with the Democratic front-runner cast as a "paleoliberal ... a heartless conservative ... too naive to beat Bush ... too politically cynical to trust ... a

Stalinist ... [and] a neofascist [who] kills babies and drinks their blood." In its self-appointed role as semiofficial punditocracy politburo, the Washington Post editorial board issued what ABC News's The Note properly termed "a button-popping, eye-bugging anti-Dean editorial" that it undoubtedly hoped would serve as Dean's political death sentence. Expressing editorial shock and awe over Dean's unarguably accurate observation that Saddam Hussein's capture left the United States no safer than before, Post editors termed the candidate's views to be "not just unfounded but ludicrous" and complained of his "departure from the Democratic mainstream."

The Note observed that "history might record that this piece stops The Doctor from being his party's nominee," but the hysteria embedded in its analysis could be found nearly everywhere in the media. Over at the New York Times, David Brooks, who appears to have taken over Russell Baker's comic spot on the op-ed page, contrasted Dean with the Bush Administration. He noted, apparently sincerely, that the latter was suffering "an insincerity crisis" owing to its "honesty and candor," along with its "candor and forthrightness." Meanwhile he smirks at Dean as being "the only guy who goes to the Beverly Hills area for a gravitas implant." Dean's crime: offering up a moderate, Clintonesque foreign-policy speech to the Pacific Council of World Affairs.

While the Post editors and Brooks speak for hard-line neocons, Dean receives no less abuse at the hands of many genuine liberals. My colleague at the Center for American Progress, Matthew Miller, attended the speech and found it lacking, not in substance, which he thought properly Clintonian, but in presentation. "When Dean barked it out, it felt smaller and shabbier, as if he were lecturing us on simple facts we ought to have known." Miller worries at length about what it means that Dean accidentally thanked US soldiers for their "services" rather than "service." Jonathan Chait, so obsessed he now operates an anti-Dean blog at The New Republic, also admits that the position that so exercised the Post pooh-bahs is "narrowly true." Chait's problem with Dean, and I quote, is that the Vermont governor "gives off the vibe that he likes to equivocate about the bad guys rather than recognize them for what they are" (what a bummer that Dean dude is ...).

ABC's Sam Donaldson made the same silly point, admitting that "in context, you know what he's saying," but when normally perspicacious pundits like Miller and Chait talk in terms of "feelings" and "vibes," something more than policy disputes are at work. Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's walking conflict of interest and barometer of conventional wisdom--named by the American Conservative Union as one of the most reliable reporters--offers up a clue to the journalistic zeitgeist when he complains of Dean, "Reporters who have spent hours with Dean express surprise that he never asks a single question about them. …

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