June 16th, 2006

The Fellowship of the Scream

by Philip Baruth

Had a long talk a couple of days ago with a guy named Gregg, a committed VDB-reader who once spent endless Wednesday nights licking envelopes for Howard Dean, back in the heady days before the Iowa primary, back before the Scream.

bbq iconNot only did Gregg volunteer himself, he dragged his wife and his kid down to lick envelopes. And when the Scream went down, it break every heart in the family, individually and without exception.

It’s a conversation I’ve had before, many times, with others who followed Dean loyally from the pre-Scream days — through the actual Scream itself — to the post-Scream days, those sunless, wintry days before Dean rose again from the ashes.

They were all raised up by the campaign, and then burned by it, a lot or a little, down deep.

I was depressed as hell myself when it happened. I didn’t work for the campaign, but I’d been writing about it, and turning on friends around the country to this ex-governor from Vermont who just might go all the way.

In any event, here is the last of those Dean pieces, for old time’s sake, in case you missed it.

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Announcer: Having finally managed to broker a deal to put Eye on the Sky broadcaster Steve Maleski on the Dean 2004 Democratic ticket, Philip Baruth was as disappointed as anyone to see the Dean bubble burst. In this morning’s commentary, Philip is sent in to pick up the pieces.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #126: Alas, Poor Howard, I Knew Him Well

Every form of tragedy has its caretaker. When a thoroughbred suddenly goes down at the Kentucky Derby, there’s a track vet who gets the call, a man who understands both sympathy and reality.

And when it’s a presidential candidate who goes down inches from the finish line, I’m your man. It’s an odd specialty, and I’m not sure how I got into it. But I got Dukakis on his feet again, and I was the one who eventually found Al Gore curled up in a little ball at a Red Roof Inn outside Phoenix.

So when the call came through from the Dean camp, I wasn’t surprised. Howard fell a long, long way, further than most of us will travel in our entire lifetimes. And gravity is non-negotiable: when you fall that far, you break.

A staffer met me at the door of the darkened Dean 2004 headquarters. Not Joe Trippi, not any of the players who once ran this place like a presidential theme park. One low-level Deaniac is all that’s left. His t-shirt says, The Doctor Is In.

“Where is he,” I ask.

“He’s in the prep room,” he whispers, and I can tell the situation has him nearly freaked. “He’s just sitting in there, listening to his music.”

I nod and start to move down the dim corridor. Every campaign has its official tune, and every candidate has a song that’s private, that tells him or her the moment is now. [Music starts underneath this line] As I reach the prep room, I hear it, the theme song from the film Eight Mile.

You better lose yourself in the music,
the moment, you want it,
you better never let it go, go.
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow,
‘cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime.

[Volume fades during this line] In the film, the song wins Eminem the battle of the rappers, and Dean’s campaign started playing it as a joke, but during the long months criss-crossing Iowa, it came to speak to Dean.

He listened to it before every debate, every news conference.

He’s sitting there in the gloom now, in one of his bad suits, chair pulled up right in front of the speakers, letting the music punish him.

I go and turn down the volume. And then I come back to his chair and I lean down to his ear. What I say can’t be about him; he can’t go there yet. So I talk about another Vermont boy who had his moment, and then saw it slip away.

“Remember Jim Jeffords, Howard? He left the Republican Party, threw control of the US Senate to the Democrats. And in year or so, the Republicans took back the Senate anyway, and Jeffords was suddenly just a guy in the minority with a bunch of arrows in his back. But that didn’t mean he didn’t do something fine and brave and true in his moment, because he did, Howard. And that can never be taken away.”

That’s all I say, for now.

I turn up the stereo again [music starts a very slow rise again], and then head into the little kitchenette to make the first of a thousand pots of coffee.

I learned during the Al Gore rehabilitation that it’s a long, maybe endless road. They watch the memories of themselves losing it over and over again, these fallen candidates, like the CNN film clip from hell.

But there’s tricks you learn, and one of those tricks is to let the candidate himself, at the very least, control the soundtrack. [Lyrics again take over]

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
‘cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime

[Fade] You can do anything you set your mind to, man.

[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio.]