Defending Dean's Scream

DEAN : Democratic presidential hopeful former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean pumps his fist towards supporters during his caucus night party in West Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 19, 2004.
AP
This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

I'm not being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, honest. But I don't think Howard Dean's "I Have A Scream" performance was weird, troubling, scary, revealing or nuts. I don't think it was a big deal in any way, shape or form. I thought it was standard pump-up-the-troops campaign stuff.

What I do think is bizarre is the hubbub it caused.

Caveat 1: I recognize that many people saw Mad How and saw a man coming unglued, a weirdo out of control, and their perceptions were not filtered by the punditocracy (my mother-in-law, for one influential example). They don't want his finger on the trigger. We differ, that's what makes horse races, that's cool.

Caveat 2: The Scream is now a fact of political life. And it's hurt Dean badly. That's not going to change. It tapped into a long-simmering feeling among Dean-watchers (ok, the Washington press establishment) that he has a poor temperament for the White House; that's he's a hothead, a bully, a chesty, argumentative, inflated, pushy guy you wouldn't want in your poker game.

Caveat 3: I'm biased. Not because I like Dean, but because I have defended his right-to-gaffe several times. I've been extremely critical of some of his policies and propaganda, but I can't bear the press' preoccupation with bloopers and gaffes, like Dean's Confederate flag remark. This is where I am contrarian. Not only is gaffe-itis petty and unenlightening, it turns our politics into boring oatmeal. It commands our politicians to be scripted actors. Dean wasn't that and I always thought that was his most likable feature and the key to his attraction.

It's another fact of life that Dean gave the late-night comedians great material. The Dean Scream jokes are terrific, as is the gag picture someone just e-mailed of the offending Dean choking a cat.

But the press corps' decision that the Scream was serious is a bit more disturbing. One of the many character flaws common to the species 'reporter' -- one that I have in spades -- is an exaggerated pleasure in the fall of the mighty. There is some of that happening with Dean right now. I don't get too worked up about the media "making" or "creating" stories; there is no way for that not to happen in modern government and politics. But this time I do think Dean is getting a very bad rap.

From what I have heard, the reporters in the room when Dean allegedly wigged out didn't think there was anything odd about it. It seemed appropriate and unremarkable. He was talking to some 3,000 volunteers, many young, who had worked devotedly for his campaign. He wanted to keep them pumped and he did what politicians and coaches do at pep rallies.

I've looked at the tape many times and that's how it plays for me. Sure, if he had done it during a State of the Union speech or an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, it would have been crazy. But this was a rally. So spare me.

I've seen a lot of politicians do a lot weirder things. I've seen Ronald Reagan completely space out an answer during a presidential debate. I've seen Bush the Elder rumble on about how moose like to rub up to the Alaskan pipeline for, shall we say, gratification. I've heard Bush the Younger speak absolutely incomprehensible, illiterate gibberish on important issues. I've seen Bob Dole get really, really mad. I've listened to Newt Gingrich's college lectures. I've seen Tom DeLay fly to Texas when a gunman entered the Capitol. I've seen Bill Clinton drag his poor wife onto primetime television to defend himself.

I wish Dean hadn't renounced the Scream. His wife said it was "silly" and I think that's about the full extent of it.

A related gripe: the other thing I really like about Dean is that he thus far has refused to indulge in the "my personal tragedy" game. He doesn't trot out stories of his son's illness, his mill worker dad, his salvation from demon rum. He shouldn't. He's running for president. I admire him for that. I was not pleased to see him submit his wife to Diane Sawyer, though Mrs. Dean was charming.

But in the weeks before Iowa a couple of articles and op-ed pieces criticized Dean for not being "autobiographical" enough. If there's one thing we don't need more of in politics, or any forum of public life, it's more autobiography. We pundits always point how manipulative politicians are when they do sob stories, and now we're attacking Dean for not doing them. We can be such rats.

Similarly, we constantly bemoan how scripted politics has become, and then we jump on any gaffe or misstatement, as with Dean. We can be such rats. (For more on this, The Political Elite Is Schizophrenic.)

Politicians can, too, of course, including Howard Dean. But on the charge of disqualification for office because of insane screaming, he's innocent.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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By Dick Meyer