Natalie Merchant’s “These Are the Days” booms cheerfully from a Boston University sound system, and about 400 students sit cross-legged on the auditorium floor, awaiting John Kerry. These may be the last days of Kerry’s campaign: three days hence, a Zogby New Hampshire poll will show him near single digits and perilously close to losing his long-held second-place position in a state he was once the prohibitive favorite to win.
This long and slow sinking is a painful puzzle to Carol and Maura, enthusiastic Kerry volunteers and ladies of a certain age, who are more interested in talking to me than are the two svelte sophomores to my right. They see Kerry as dignified, “a statesman,” and don’t understand the appeal of Dean, who is like “the guy next door” with “no record” who “shoots from the hip.” Carol, just retired as a teacher and now auditing classes at BU, says she knows, having once worked for McGovern, that you just can’t elect someone from the far left of the party. Maura can’t get over her irritation that people are still talking about Kerry’s vote for the Iraq war. “You should read the speech he gave before the vote,” she advises. “Is it on the Web site?” “It should be.”
The music rises, Springsteen now, and Kerry enters. We stand to clear a path. Bright green sweater, high cheekbones, sunken eyes. He is close enough to touch, reaching out to shake hands across the aisle from me. His waist is as thin as a child’s. At St. Paul’s more than 40 years ago, his hockey teammates dubbed him “Keep the Puck Kerry,” but it’s hard to fathom how a tall man who might weigh no more than 130 pounds could have even played prep-school hockey.
He is not bad on the stump, borrowing Bill Maher’s line to rip into Bush as “President Dress-Up.” It is a liberal speech—indeed most of the Democratic field is running to the left of where Bill Clinton was in the 1990s. Kerry delivers a riff about the cost of Head Start versus the cost of jail, reminiscent of Jesse Jackson, and closes with an evocation of the values of the 1960s, when students ended a war, helped desegregate the South, and ignited the women’s movement. A promise to ease fossil-fuel dependency with a new hydrogen institute gets applause.
After a nod at the spiraling deficit, Kerry promises to give to all Americans the kind of health-care coverage enjoyed by senators and congressmen. “Have you costed this out, Senator?” I wish someone would ask. He speaks about the war without dwelling on it—“I know something about aircraft carriers.” Kerry is trolling for volunteers to send to New Hampshire during “winter break” (formerly known as Christmas break), and his staffers seem to have gathered about 30 names by the end. Emily, one of the sophomores to my right, tells me that she likes what Kerry said about the environment and that he “lets his wife speak her mind” but is no more decided than she was an hour before.That evening, Wesley Clark is speaking at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, a small school founded in the 1890s by the Benedictines. It is the sort of place where a prominent sign at the dining-hall entrance advertises a debate on whether contraception is morally the same as natural family planning, and as the winter’s first snow begins to drop that evening, this seems like the most sublime spot on earth. Like all of southern New Hampshire, Saint Anselm is treated like a spoiled child by politicians. Presidential contenders will spend hours flattering an audience of 100 students. Time’s Joe Klein arrives, confirmation of the event’s significance. While we wait for Clark, a professor polls the crowd—perhaps six out of 100 from this conservative Catholic institution support the war policy of President Bush.
Clark seems small and, as often described, tightly wound. After a commercial touting his biography flashes on screen, he takes questions. “Is there a place for someone with pro-life views in the Democratic Party?” “Well,” Clark answers, “pro-choice does not necessarily mean pro-abortion.” He does not even try, as Mario Cuomo used to do rather well, to reply in such a way as to convey an understanding and appreciation of the sentiment behind the question.
Asked about affirmative action, he says he supports it, but not with the rigid numbers and formulae to which the courts have objected. In the Army, he explains, they scrutinized promotion lists to see what minorities fell just below the cut-off line, and if someone was especially deserving, he was boosted over the threshold. “With data processing, you can treat everyone as an individual,” is the technocrats’ answer. When the student asks if this kind of micro examination is feasible for large bureaucracies or universities, Clark simply repeats his points.
Then a question about illegal aliens, apparently from a proponent of amnesty. Clark says first that he does not favor amnesty, then goes on to describe how he would give illegals documentation, leading to green cards, starting the process toward citizenship, right away—if they are “good people.” The Danish journalist sitting beside me whispers, “But that’s amnesty, isn’t it?” and I assure him he understands perfectly.
When the questioners shift to foreign policy, Clark raises his game. Asked how to change the American image of “international bully” that Bush has managed to create, he talks of listening and respecting public opinion in other countries. Rather courageously, he points out that Saddam Hussein did admit inspectors to Iraq and was willing to let inspections continue. He mentions, with pride, his role in going after Slobodan Milosevic. “I saved a million and half Albanians,” he says several times that week in New Hampshire. While this is a debatable reading of the Kosovo war (ethnic cleansing didn’t start until after NATO bombing began), no one minds, and Clark always finds it useful to proclaim that he is far from being an “antiwar” candidate.
After an hour and a half with the students, Clark heads off to Manchester’s Alpine Club, where 100 or so middle-aged people, some well into the evening’s cocktails, await him. The performance reminds me how hard politicking is—the need to give good answers all the time, even if you’ve said the same thing 300 times before. Gay marriage (for it), stem-cell research (for it), the deficit, the war. The next morning Clark will drive 80 miles to a day-care center in Rochester, then to Maine, and then back for a major speech at Exeter.
I lunch with Shelly Uscinski, who as a school-board member and volunteer played an important part in organizing Pat Buchanan’s 1996 victory here. She brings along her new addition, two-year-old Amy, to go with three children, aged 16-28. In her view, Dean has all the momentum, has “sucked the energy from the other campaigns … the others are running—but with no grassroots involved.” She picks Gephardt to place second.
In fact, she rather likes Dean—though not his issue positions. “He reminds me of Pat, very bold, self-confident, his own man. While the others can give one-minute answers, Dean seems to be comfortable with his own positions … always truthful, not like a politician trying to snow you.” A foreshadowing, perhaps, of crossover appeal in November?
That evening, Clark speaks at Phillips Exeter, and there is a buzz as the hall fills on an icy night. For me at least, the venue is historic—ascending the marble steps I trudged up a thousand times in the late 1960s, the steps where Phineas took his final fall.
Soon there are 900 people inside—a crowd of voters, not students. I sit beside a Clark supporter who doesn’t give his name. Behind me, Dr. Jim Tucker, a physician with a twinkle in his eye who is still practicing in his mid-70s, tells me he leans toward Dean. “He’s quick, can think on his feet.”But Clark makes an impact. The audience goes from warm to enthusiastic. Clark talks of a country in crisis, perched at a pivotal point in its history, losing jobs, retreating on the environment, and most importantly, that has launched an unjustified war without allies. He touches all the liberal bases and closes with his strength. “Will all the veterans in the audience stand up?” There are about 50 or 60. He reaches behind him for the flag, and begins to massage it. “The flag we saluted, the flag some of us died for, no Tom DeLay, no John Ashcroft, no George W. Bush will take it away from us.” Applause rolls through the hall. Something about this really works—wrapping opposition to Bush and the Iraq war in the uniform and flag. One nearly forgets that Clark didn’t let out a peep against the war before it began and that in the columns he wrote in March and April he might have been auditioning for the Weekly Standard. My seatmate Dr. Tucker is clearly impressed. “Democrats have to wave the flag,” he says.
The next morning, at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, 150 people—mostly middle-aged—are packed into a small lecture hall to hear Clark. I’m sitting next to David Boothby, a hip software engineer who tells me that his job now consists of supervising 100 software developers in Romania. He is an active Dean supporter. “I shouldn’t even be here,” he remarks. And why is he? Simply “the electability factor.” Boothby has met Kerry, Lieberman, and Edwards without being impressed and has contributed to both Dean and Clark. Dean, he tells me, held a rousing rally of 400 people at this college three weeks ago. “The Dean campaign,” he pauses for emphasis, “is fun.” But Clark is “very electable nationwide.”
At the outset, Clark says that the election will be principally about foreign policy. He begins, as always, with job loss, the environment, the need to put more money into “the global fund” for AIDS, but this is “a foreign-policy election.” The Bush administration believes “the U.S. should stand alone at the top of the world and use force to impose its will. It is ‘all bully and no pulpit.’” It’s a good line, one he hadn’t used in the previous three venues. He touches on the issue of faith and the alleged Republican advantage among churchgoers. But every true faith believes in charity towards the less fortunate, he says. And then, again, the flag. The veterans stand. “Our flag,” intones Clark, turning back towards it. “I’ve served under that flag …”
During the question period, Clark talks about how he will end the American monopoly on the occupation of Iraq and put the U.S. command under NATO. “Only someone who has never seen war would say something as fatuous as ‘Bring ’em on.’” He moves towards his close: “I’m a soldier; soldiers mean what they say. I will end the mess in Iraq … I will defeat the terrorists.” Referring to the Republican National Committee ads airing in Iowa attacking the Democrats’ foreign-policy positions, Clark says, “I’m not attacking the president because he’s attacking the terrorists; I’m attacking because he’s not attacking the terrorists.” The Bush administration engaged in an enormous “bait and switch” to justify an attack on Iraq, he says.
As Clark wraps it up, I turn towards Dean-supporter Boothby. “I think he’s awesome,” he says. “Who would you vote for, if the primary were tomorrow?” I ask. “Clark. Oh my God. What a statement!” Boothby replies, laughing. “I’m going to burn in hell. I have this huge commitment to the Dean campaign. I’ve hosted events for them.”
Voters like Boothby and Dr. Tucker have to worry the Dean campaign. They are a sign that doubts about Dean’s electability, raised by old Clinton hands and several liberal pundits, have begun to trickle down to the most engaged New Hampshire voters. Kerry has failed to impress; Gephardt has little to offer those who believe the war is a tragic mistake and this election’s defining issue. Ditto Edwards and Lieberman. But Clark has an open lane. It may well be, as Clark’s earlier pro-war pronouncements would seem to indicate, that his actual foreign-policy judgment is much worse than Dean’s. But buttressed by his uniform and biography, he makes an informed and compelling antiwar case now—and that may be enough.
Clark began late, and his New Hampshire staffers admit he still has a “Who is Wes Clark?” problem. He won’t have many more occasions like Phillips Exeter to speak for an hour to 1,000 voters. But he has some levers. Eric Massa, in charge of veterans outreach for Clark in New Hampshire, says there are 62,000 veterans who are registered independents and Democrats. That’s a solid quarter of the state’s primary electorate, a good base from which to build. Plainly, New Hampshire voters are willing to turn out to hear him. I left the state convinced Clark would finish a better than expected second—and is well placed to emerge as the main challenger to Dean in the next round of primaries.
Curiously, on most issues other than the war, Clark—though a military man from the South—actually runs to Dean’s left. On affirmative action, abortion, immigration, the cost of health care, he seems to have simply memorized the most liberal pages of the Democrats’ playbook, leavened with the occasional “That’s what I did in the Army.” If the election proved, surprisingly, not to be mainly about foreign policy, he would lose traction very quickly.
On Dec. 8, the race is transformed by news of Al Gore’s impending endorsement of Howard Dean. I head for a round of Dean events in New York that evening—a roast emceed by Rob Reiner, formerly “All in the Family’s” Meathead and now a major Hollywood producer and a fundraising rally ($100 entry fee) at Roseland, a Times Square dance hall. The Dean campaign, which that afternoon picked up several local endorsements, doesn’t have the same buzz it did over the summer. Dean can’t easily be both the insurgent outsider, willing to say bold and interesting things, and the frontrunner, picking up local politicians and major Democratic fundraisers while under constant scrutiny for being too far out of the mainstream.
Both events are undersold—the Roseland rally would have been great if held at Irving Plaza, a dance palace less than half the size, where Dean had a similar rally last August. Nonetheless, according to Reiner, Dean raised $1 million in the city that day—half what the campaign thought it might but well more than any other candidate could.
The Reiner-hosted roast has its moments—the funniest line comes from Dean’s black roommate from Yale, who told the guests that while Dean had asked to room with a black student from a southern state, he had requested a northeasterner with three last names—a reference to someone in the Yale yearbook named Howard Brush Dean III.
A problem is whether the Dean campaign can be edgy and “downtown” and appeal to centrist voters at the same time. After the Roseland rally, I compared notes with an antiwar social conservative who has been an avid Dean backer for several months. She was repelled by the performances of two lesbian comediennes the campaign had enlisted to warm up the crowd. The first routine consisted mainly of mocking heterosexuals who are ignorant about lesbian childrearing and reproductive practices. Sandra Bernhardt then came on to make some crude and cavalier jokes about abortion. “Is that the kind of thing we would have in the White House?” my interlocutor wondered.
That said, the Gore endorsement pushes Dean a long way towards the nomination, and the campaign has ample time to decide whether lesbian comedy should be part of its general-election message. But what is the message now anyway, apart from momentum, endorsements, and fundraising prowess? The stump speech is similar to the one he was using this summer, effective but not—as other candidates have learned to go after both Bush and the war—unique.
A new Dean theme is a stress on community, in which the candidate evokes the ’60s not simply as a springboard for liberal social movements but as evocation of a time when Americans understood they were part of the same country and society. It is a liberal speech, an homage to the decade’s civil-rights pilgrims and the need to care about poor schools, but there is undeveloped potential in it. What does Dean think are the main reasons America is less of a national community than it was 30 or 40 years ago? Two obvious ones are the surge of global capitalism—the mobility of capital and the outsourcing of jobs—and the huge immigration wave. More Americans don’t speak English and weren’t born here than ever before in the country’s history, and mass immigration is continuing to accelerate. No matter how much one resists racism and national or cultural chauvinism (Dean certainly does), it is not really possible to feel as much “community” with people who don’t share your language and culture as with those who do. Dean probably understands this intellectually, but to bring such a point into the political culture of the Democratic Party would be a truly bold move and is probably beyond him.
Yet one looking for some ideological crossover appeal in Dean can always find some glimmer of encouragement. Mine was this: in criticizing Bush at the Gore endorsement event, Dean said he is the “most conservative president …” but then paused to correct himself. “Bush is not a conservative; he’s a radical.”On Dec. 9, Gore and Dean, in matching blue suits and light-blue ties, emerged from their breakfast meeting at a Harlem arts center and shoved past a scrum of reporters into a waiting SUV. The buzz was palpable: Gore’s was a transformational endorsement, elevating Dean from frontrunner to odds-on favorite. He may have really needed it—the campaign has been moving forward, but no longer surging on all cylinders (the half-empty fundraisers), and candidates like Clark are beginning to get their acts together. It is a good move for Gore as well, putting him back in the limelight. Gore’s speech struck me as remarkably good—an example, I suppose, of how war changes things.

January 19, 2004 issue
Copyright © 2003 The American Conservative