A review of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything by Joe Trippi
You Have the Power: How to Take Back Our Country and Restore Democracy in America by Howard Dean
The history of Howard Dean's quixotic campaign was, like all unpleasant histories, bound to be rewritten. After spending the better part of a year being celebrated at every turn as an outsider insurgency rumbling towards a Seabiscuit-esque, against-all-odds triumph, anyone with a heart can understand why the vanguard of "Dean for America" are unwilling to accept the official history. To do so would be to acknowledge that the campaign was an elaborate mirage that vaporized on a cold Iowa night when voters decided they wanted a tall, coolly viable presidential candidate, not an impish, perpetually angry firebrand.
All national campaigns are built on ego. (Aside from an utter egomaniac, who could possibly believe they are suited to lead the entire free world?) But it isn't just the ego of the candidate at stake. There are also those wag-the-dog campaign consultants who these days become celebrities in their own right, and are rarely content to sit back and let a candidate take credit for the genius of a campaign…although responsibility for defeat is always another matter. And so the two supposed mavericks behind the "Dean for America" operation, campaign manager Joe Trippi and Dean himself, have come out with books attempting to spin things their own way for posterity. Ironically, for two guys who throw around the word "revolution" more frequently than a professor of 18th-century history, both books are an exercise in the most basic inside-the-Beltway tradition: hubris, deflection, and self-concern above all else.
In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Trippi casts himself as a sort of mad genius pushing technology on an obstinate, un-savvy world, while "daydreaming" about running a campaign "by the people." Of course, none of the other suckers in the consulting business "get it." They're too busy following "polling numbers, message memos, and news magazines" to see the "multiwavelength optical networks" on the wall, like Trippi does. For the lay reader, proof of this technological prowess seems to hang on Trippi's ability to string together a bunch of techie terms. Here's an example: "I'd finish a meeting with a U.S. Senator about television spots for his upcoming race, walk five blocks to a coffee shop and sit down with a couple of twenty-six-year-olds to talk about why a chip on the southbridge of the motherboard with triple-DES encryption was the best personal computing security solution." This sort of thing dots the entire landscape of Trippi's book. Translation: I run in elite circles, I'm clearly very smart, and, yet, at the same time, I'm so damn hiptwenty-six-year-olds love me!
Sounds like Howard Dean, right? Wrong. According to Trippi, Dean was a true believer and an inspiration, but he was not the "revolution." In fact, Trippi seems to suggest that the only thing that made Dean's skyrocketing candidacy possible was his initial impotency: "That's when Howard Dean came along, an underdog so far out of the race we had no choice but to test this strategy, blending my two passions, bringing to the political world the things I'd learned in the technological world, taking democracy to the last place where democracy stood a chance," Trippi writes. "The Internet."
Trippi spends the next couple hundred pages explaining how he single-handedly began a process that reversed, "fifty years of political cynicism in one glorious explosion of civic re-engagement," what he describes as, "nothing less than the first shot in America's second revolution." Along the way he does say some very nice things about Howard Dean, but at the end of the day, Trippi lays blame for the shortcomings of the campaignaside from the usual, obligatory media-baitingat the governor's doorstep. Trippi's description of Dean during the final days in Iowa is particularly harsh, calling him "an unmitigated disaster on the road" who was "gaffing his way across Iowa." Then, after the loss, comes the money quote: "For the first time in my life, maybe for the first time in history, a candidate lost but his campaign won." And who was the self-proclaimed mastermind of the campaign? Well, Joe Trippi, of course.
Howard Dean's You Have the Power is a very different book with a very different hero. It's the story of a governor from a small state who understood "a general crisis of confidence" in the nation that no one else, "not Democrats and certainly not Republicans," could fathom. "I got it because, as an ordinary American living my life far outside the Beltway, I felt the way everyone else did," Dean, the son of an extremely wealthy Wall Street player, writes. "The only difference between me and most people was I had spent eleven years as a governor." Sort of a big difference, actually, but let's not upset the narrative. On the very first page, Dean recounts a crowd taking in his first major speech, some "weeping softly," while others were "openly sobbing" as their savior, Howard Dean, M.D., spoke the truth. Dean basks in his own God complex by lingering on the scene. "Some came away crying again, my aides later told me, because they'd been able to touch my suit," Dean writes.
I feel compelled to say here that I covered the Dean campaign for more than a year. I was the sole reporter at many of his first campaign events on the New Hampshire seacoast, I fought my way into his events when he was the "it" candidate at the height of his popularity, and I was there the night he lost big in the Granite State. And I never once saw anything approaching what Dean describes here. Excitement? Yes. Tears at the laying on of hands? Absolutely not.
So, alone against the world, Dean decided to go out and face the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy his fellow Democrats were unwilling or too timid to confront. Ostensibly, this book is supposed to be a forward-looking treatise on taking America back, and Dean writes that he believes that "most Americans share my hope for a unified national community." But, in reality, You Have the Power is as divisive and angry as Dean was on the campaign trail. He rails against the "opportunity crushing right-wing." He uncovers the Faustian bargain between Republicans and working-class whites, which Dean boils down to a single sentence: "We won't raise you up, but as long as you don't complain, we'll make sure there's someone down below you." (This begs the question: Who is this supposed to reflect more poorly upon, Southerners or Republicans?) He purports to decode for readers pleasant-sounding phrases such as "family values," "faith," and "personal responsibility" as "lofty rhetoric that seemed to play to our best interests" but, in fact, "was used to cloak the Republicans' mean-spiritedness and appeal to Americans' worst natures." "If you want your country back, you have to take it back," Dean writes, in one particularly inclusive section. "Believe methe right-wingers aren't going to be nice about giving it back."
But even when endorsing his party's nominee, John Kerry, Dean can't help but slip something in there to let you know he would have been the better candidate. When discussing the differences between Kerry's and George W. Bush's tax policies, Dean petulantly adds as an aside, "I would have repealed all of the president's tax cuts, because I'm so conservative about balancing the budget, while he advocated repealing only the tax cuts for the wealthy."
Paradoxically, after all this ranting Dean spends the remainder of the book trying to explain what a nice guy he really is. He just hates Republicans, is all. Oh, and the media, too. There is an entire chapter denouncing the press, in which he claims the "Scream Speech" simply "never did happen." Television distorted the whole thing, he said, just like they took everything he said out of context. When it becomes clear that that will not excuse all the red-faced ranting he did during the campaign, Dean changes course. "I stayed in attack mode long after it accurately reflected how I was feeling," Dean writes. "It became a tactic. A persona. Which in the hands of reporters, gave me the public image of a guy who ate nails for breakfast. I never was that guy." Once again, as someone who spent quite a bit of time with Dean on the campaign trail, he was exactly that guy. He can spin it however he wants, but what I saw was a man who barely tolerated those who agreed with him, and resented anyonereporter, friend, or foewho had the audacity to ask him to explain himself better.
Here's what's really interesting about Dean's book, though: The internet revolution at the core of Trippi's book is nowhere to be seen here. It has been replaced with a heroic, "ordinary guy" candidate who touched people so deeply a revolution broke out. Whereas Trippi wants to credit the success of the campaign to his technological prowess and foresight vis-à-vis the internet, Dean clearly prefers to see it as a result of his "candor" and willingness to speak truth to power. Both The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and You Have the Power read like pleading missives to the future, urging their view to be adopted as the official text. Which way historians will go is anyone's guess. Both Trippi and Dean have written persuasive books. Provided, of course, you weren't there to see what actually happened.