It's just before dark and blistery cold as photographer Jordan Silverman and I pull into downtown Manchester, New Hampshire. We're out searching for presidential candidates and tonight's supposed to be a good night to spot them. It's the New Hampshire Democratic Party's annual fundraiser known as the "100 Club Dinner." The name used to reflect the price of a ticket, which now costs four to five times that amount. The joke this year is that it also refers to the field of Democrats who have tossed their hats into the ring -- nine at last count, with perhaps four more waiting in the wings. We were promised at least a half-dozen of them this evening but find that only three can make it: Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Governor Howard Dean. It's a sore reminder about the unreliability of campaign promises.
Seven Days has sent me here to gauge the sentiments of non-Vermonters about Howard Dean. It's a curious assignment, considering I've only been in the Green Mountain State for four months. Not that I'm a neophyte in the political terrain. I spent a few years in the New York Assembly working for the chairman of the Commerce Committee, Lew Yevoli, a maverick Democrat who routinely butted heads with the 1980s darling of the Democratic Party, Governor Mario Cuomo. I had a brief stint reporting on the Idaho Statehouse in Boise, writing a slew of political pieces out of Helena and covering elections from western Montana. But having missed the Sturm und Drang of the Dean decade, my views on the Vermont doctor are still as raw and unformed as those of many of the folks I've come to observe in Manchester.
Dean's been the "flavor of the month" for about six months in the national media, with no sign that his appeal is waning. Apparently, this shocks the Birkenstocks off many Vermonters who long ago grew jaded to his centrist politics -- by Vermont standards, anyway. Likewise, they're astounded and bemused to see the historically vanilla orator described as a "fiery" speaker by the likes of The New York Times. There's a disconnect out there somewhere, and I'm supposed to track it down.
As we turn a corner into the Holiday Inn parking lot, I spot the first crop of campaign signs. They all say "Howard Dean: The Doctor Is In!" The abundance of Dean paraphernalia isn't surprising, considering the proximity of his home base. But there's not a single Lieberman banner anywhere, even though the "Liebermaniacs" -- as his supporters call themselves -- had a shorter drive than we did. In front of the hotel a gaggle of Dean and John Edwards backers are elbowing each other for turf along the sidewalk. Edwards won't make the event in person, having been called away at the last minute for a homeland security briefing with FBI Director Robert Mueller.
I briefly duck into the hotel lobby and pick up my press credentials, a fancy term for the red index card on a string with the word "PRESS" scrawled across it in black magic marker. Months from now the media will likely have to contend with the more rigorous security measures of the Secret Service, who eventually will be called upon to guard the next potential occupant of the White House. Tonight, no one even asks to see my ID.
Outside the hotel two or three photographers begin shooting off a few frames of the campaign volunteers waving their placards. The appearance of telephoto lenses is all it takes to rile up this young crowd of clean-cut, neatly dressed and almost universally white faces. "When I say doctor, you say Dean!" starts one organizer. "Doctor!" "Dean!" they answer. This call and refrain competes with that of the Edwards gang: "Edwards for president! Edwards for president!"
In the brief intervals when the Dean backers are not shouting or fumbling in their parkas for hand warmers, I strike up some conversations with them. Many are fresh-faced students from various New England colleges testing the waters in their first-ever presidential race. Several say they saw Dean on CBS's "Face the Nation" and were impressed with his tough antiwar position, his views on health-care reform and his fiscal conservatism.
"This guy is a break-the-mold candidate and, more importantly, he knows what he's talking about," says Sidd Pattanayak, a 25-year-old Boston University law student who drove an hour and a half with a friend just to stand outside in the cold. "When he got up there last Saturday [at the Democratic National Committee meeting] and said, 'I'm part of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,' people heard that."
Pattanayak, who's assembling a grassroots Dean organization back in Boston, already has a lot riding on the race -- he's bet all his friends $50 Dean will land the Democratic nomination.
Dean's stance against the invasion of Iraq resonates with Jerry Sneirson of Durham, N.H. He's one of the few people waving a Dean sign who's old enough to remember this country's last go-round with widespread antiwar rallies. The 63-year-old retired airline pilot tells me he flew C-124 cargo planes in and out of Vietnam. Often, he was shuttling a mixed cargo of soldiers and pinewood coffins -- "separately on the way over, together on the way back." One reason he supports Dean, he says, is he dreads seeing that image repeated.
Moments later, a red Ford Explorer with Vermont plates pulls into the driveway and is instantly swarmed by the crowd. Dean steps out and smiles, shakes a few hands and chats briefly with his supporters. I chase him into the lobby and hurriedly introduce myself. "You came all the way down from Burlington for this?" Dean asks. "I'm impressed."
An aide quickly shepherds the governor upstairs to the mezzanine level and into the "Dartmouth Room." Each candidate is corralled in a separate conference room where Democratic high-rollers are making the rounds for some one-on-one time. Members of the press are not allowed into "the petting zoo," as one reporter calls it. Before long, the candidates' handlers shoo us away. No media allowed until feeding time is over.
Downstairs, I wade into the crowd of party faithful assembling outside the grand ballroom. The median age here is a good 20 years older than among the sign-waving folks outside the hotel. In the ballroom I check out the dozen or so tables where volunteers are hawking the obligatory red-white-and-blue campaign shwag: bumper stickers, pins, refrigerator magnets, tote bags that read, "New Hamp-shire: Where it all begins." A Kerry volunteer sets up a TV set and VCR to show the senator's promotional video, "John Kerry: The Courage to Stand Up for What's Right." Kerry probably isn't doing much standing tonight -- he's home recovering from prostate surgery.
I elbow my way through the throng to the Howard Dean table, where the doctor's team is busily dispensing orange prescription bottles that read, "Rx For Change in 2004: Howard Dean." At a neighboring table, a salt-and-pepper-haired Lieberman supporter is fussily rearranging a formation of "Joe in 2004" coffee mugs. He's having a tough time finding any takers.
I chitchat for a while with a retired state rep from Concord and a couple of middle-aged guys sporting Senator Paul Simon bowties. Then I spot someone heading toward the ballroom who looks decidedly more hip in his narrow, nerd-rock glasses. His snazzy jacket has a Dean sticker on it, so I stop him and ask where he's from and what he thinks of the candidate.
Turns out I've stumbled upon Chad Griffin, political consultant to Rob Reiner. Last week the Hollywood director of such films as This is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally threw his sizeable political and financial clout behind Dean and agreed to serve on his California fundraising committee. I ask Griffin what Southern Californians are saying about the former Green Mountain governor.
"There's a tremendous buzz out in L.A. for Howard Dean," Griffin says. "I think you'll see Rob Reiner will not be the last person to endorse Howard Dean in the entertainment industry." While some of that interest was clearly sparked among Hollywood's civil unionists and pacifists, Griffin insists Dean has broader appeal, especially among California's independent and first-time voters. "I think Dean has the ability to inspire those who believe big business is what controls politics," he says. "Howard is showing the real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans."
I make my way into the ballroom where the evening's emcee is blowing a referee's whistle and asking everyone to come inside and take their seats. The buzzing crowd ignores her. The louder she talks, the louder they buzz. I nudge a reporter from a Concord TV station and ask him who she is. He shrugs indifferently and continues fiddling with his microphone. Most of the room's 600 or so seats are still empty, but a party bigwig suggests the event will net $150,000 to $200,000 for Democratic coffers.
A woman wearing a John Kerry button approaches the cordoned-off press area at the back of the room and asks me who I write for. I tell her. "I'm a Kerry supporter, but there's a real buzz for this Howard Dean. People are really energized," says Mary Tetreau of Londonderry, without any prompting. "That speech he gave about being the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party? How 'bout that, huh?" I'm sensing a theme.
Across the room, Jordan is shooting pictures of some guy with a Howard Dean button as big as a hubcap. I make my way over and introduce myself. He's Tony Baltes, owner of Tigereye Design in Versailles, Ohio. Baltes claims his company has been the primary supplier of campaign buttons for all the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial races in the last 10 to 15 years. He drove up from Ohio all by himself just for a chance to meet Dean.
"We've been real big Dean people -- my family, that is -- in Ohio for a long time. I liked him when he ran for governor," Baltes says. "When I heard he was running for president, I started making these things and sending them to all my friends." Lately, he says, Dean buttons have become a hot commodity.
I notice the union label on Baltes' button and ask him whether he sees support growing for Dean among organized labor. He says it's too early to say. "I'll tell you who they're gonna support -- the guy they think can beat George Bush," he says. "If this guy can catch the wave, labor will be behind him all the way."
The crowd finally quiets down when Jeanne Shaheen, the former three-term New Hampshire governor, is introduced. A veteran reporter -- or so I assume, based on the wad of laminated press passes hanging around his neck -- informs me this is Shaheen's first political outing since she lost her U.S. Senate race to Republican John Sununu in November. Shaheen is given the honor of introducing all three candidates.
First up, Shaheen invites to the podium "the sleeper candidate and the one to watch, our neighbor, Howard Dean!" Lining the wall, about 50 Dean supporters -- including many of the sign-wavers from outside the hotel who got invited in -- go wild, shaking their Dean pill bottles filled with pennies. I can hardly hear his theme music -- Elvis' "A Little Less Talk." It takes a while for the crowd to settle down.
"You know why it is that only 18 percent of kids between the age of 18 and 25 vote? Because we don't give them anything to vote for," Dean tells the audience. "You know why less than 50 percent of all adults in America vote? It's because they can't tell the difference between the parties. If we don't stand up for what we believe in, why should any American be drawn to the Democratic Party?"
Dean launches into a litany of populist themes: early childhood intervention, better pay for teachers and firefighters, universal health insurance. Not surprisingly, he levels his harshest attacks on Bush, condemning him for his stance on affirmative action and for creating the largest budget deficit in history. On Bush's foreign policy Dean lunges straight for the jugular.
"Can you imagine North Korea becoming a nuclear power on this president's watch? Who lost North Korea, Mr. President?" Dean shouts, as the crowd rises to its feet in applause. "It's time to start talking and disarming North Korea and stop worrying about a country that can't even feed its own people!"
Lieberman's 15-minute speech is methodical and to the point -- if uninspiring -- but still garners an enthusiastic response from the Liebermaniacs in from Connecticut. The senator pulls out a handful of good one-liners, the obligatory duct tape joke and a crack that "Joe Millionaire is not the only one promising what he doesn't have."
But when Lieberman begins talking about the differing opinions within the Democratic Party over a war in Iraq, a hush descends upon the audience, as though a terminally ill family member just entered the room. While he explains why he thinks Saddam Hussein must be disarmed, the only other sound comes from the busboys clearing glasses and silverware. Still, Lieberman distances himself from Bush on the issue. "Let us be clear," he says. "When more people around the world see the current American president as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein, then you know something is really wrong with his foreign policy."
Later, Lieberman is interrupted by someone in the back of the room who shouts, "No war, no war!" The Senator deftly sidesteps this intrusion and, with a cheer from the audience, resumes his remarks. He closes his speech by saying, "I know George Bush can be beat, because Al Gore and I did it in 2000." The room gives him a standing ovation.
It's a rock-solid performance. The only mystery is Lieberman's choice of a theme song: "Glory Days," by Bruce Springsteen. I look around and wonder: Doesn't anyone else notice the irony of a song about aging has-beens reminiscing about the lost vigor of their youth?
Last on the program is Al Sharpton, who takes the podium to the crooning of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." If Sharpton is traveling with an entourage, it's nowhere in sight. A smattering of people head for the exits. As one of them passes me, he spots my reporter's notebook and taps me on the shoulder. "Let it be noted that some of us left the room when Sharpton got up to speak," he says.
A couple of TV crews start breaking down their tripods. One reporter mouths along silently to Sharpton's words, as though he's heard him countless times. But Sharpton delivers an impassioned speech, and there's no denying his oratory acumen or his sharp wit. His line about Bush's attack on affirmative action -- "This president is the recipient of more preferences than anyone who's ever sat in the White House" -- earns him a standing ovation. And his line about Bush's trickle-down economics -- "They got the trickle and we got the down" -- scores him the best laugh of the night.
Heading home on I-89, Jordan scans the AM dial in search of a right-wing talk radio station -- mostly to help us stay awake. Mean-while, I start thumbing through my notebook to see what observations I jotted down during Dean's speech. A wave of anxiety washes over me as I realize I don't have any. While Dean was talking, I got swept up by the energy in the room. I've attended plenty of good political speeches, even a few excellent ones, including several by Mario Cuomo. But Dean spoke with the kind of honesty you don't expect from a politician so much as from... well, a family physician.
Are Vermonters really surprised to hear him called a "fiery speaker?" A few minutes into his speech, I was amazed that anyone would describe him otherwise. And I'll admit it: A couple times I felt a chill run down my spine, as though I were watching something historical, like an old newsreel of a Harry Truman stump speech.
When it came to attacking inside-the-Beltway politics, Dean pulled no punches, which only reinforced his persona as the Washington outsider. "Here's what's the matter with our party," he intoned. "The president wants to give his campaign contributors $670 billion in additional tax cuts, and instead of asking, 'Can we afford this when we have the biggest deficit in the history of the country?' our folks say, 'No, it should only be $136 billion.' We've already lost the argument."
Then he pulled out a great image on universal health insurance. "I want white guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back to vote Democratic because they have no health insurance, either," he told the room. Surprisingly, that remark barely stirred the crowd. But having lived in Austin, Texas, for six years, I knew those good ol' boys he was talking about. When he delivered the grand finale I knew was coming, it still came across as neither trite nor predictable: "If you'd like someone who's from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I'd like your support!"
Has this been Dean's message all along? I'm too green on the scene to say. As for what Vermonters should make of the new and improved Howard Dean, perhaps he just had to find a louder voice to grab the attention of a national audience. After all, Vermonters are used to taking their time, driving slower, speaking in more measured tones. Don't rush me, flatlander. I've got some cheese to age. Or, perhaps life is just so much better in Vermont, what we think of as ho-hum tastes as sweet as maple syrup to everyone else.