Keene keen on pumpkin-powered Howard Dean
Imagine Howard Dean in your living room. Well, not your living room. Dennis and Kathy Meade's living room. The Meades, of Swanzey Lake, New Hampshire, threw a house party for Dean and his supporters Saturday evening, and Evan and I were there to take it all in as part of our continuing exploration of the culture of the New Hampshire primary season.
To recap our previous adventures in the Granite State, we first visited Senator John Edwards on the Hampton Falls town green. Then we headed to Weirs Beach to see Senator John Kerry at a fire house. The Dean house party was different from the first two events in three major respects: 1.) Howard Dean's name is not John, 2.) Dean is arguably the most talked-about candidate and the front-runner in the state, and 3.) there was really good food.
We had originally planned to observe Dean mingling with the crowd at Keene's popular Pumpkin Festival. However, we arrived too late for that since Keene is not far, but really far away from Maine. And so we proceeded down the backroads of southwest New Hampshire to the Meade residence. It was a more modest structure than expected, a two-story, barn-like house with an attached garage (which contained a partially-assembled racecar) and ordinary landscaping. A college-age campaign volunteer directed us to park on the lawn. We went inside and donned nametags.
The plain exterior of the house gave no hint of the lavish interior, with plush furniture, hardwood floors, and the latest in kitchen appliances. An elaborate fireplace dominated one end of the living room. It could easily have been put to use that night-the door leading to the screened-in porch was left open, allowing a constant reminder of the crisp October mountain air.
The crowd, mostly couples from the Keene area and some local and state politicians, was more sophisticated than those we have encountered. There was also a number of campaign workers, who evidently had come directly from the Pumpkin Festival and were still sporting their specially-designed "Pumpkin-powered Howard" t-shirts. Wayne Miller, who recently moved to New Hampshire after 40 years in New York City, marveled at the up-close nature of the event, something he'd never experienced in his previous hometown. An elderly woman asked me if I was from the Keene State College paper. Another thought I worked for Dean. Evan struck up a conversation with a flannel-clad middle aged man, originally from nearby Bowdoinham and an avid follower of Dean's. He sees Howard Dean as similar to that other left-leaning American presidential candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower-but this is understandable, considering that his preferred candidate this time around is Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who makes everyone else appear right-wing.
While waiting for the candidate to arrive, we explored the house. We found the Meades like to travel, as evidenced by the number of Fodor's guides on the bookshelf. They also have a soft spot for watercolor depictions of the Tuscan countryside, a number of which adorned the walls. The food, including some especially delicious BBQ sausage and (Vermont?) cheddar cheese cubes, made for a nice dinner. There were fudge and pastries for dessert.
After a dramatic chime on the doorbell announced Dean's arrival, those in attendance bunched into the living room and adjoining kitchen to hear the candidate's speech. His remarks featured nothing unexpected, mostly mixing attacks on the Bush administration with calls for changes in policies ranging from childcare to prisons. He spoke with the most fluency on the issues with which he had the most experience during his tenure as governor of Vermont-health care, balanced budgets, and social policies. His thoughts on foreign policy relied heavily on what he thought President Bush is doing wrong and vague appeals for a return of American honor and prestige throughout the world.
The most memorable part of the speech portion of the evening came during the question-and-answer session. In the middle of his response to a young woman's heartfelt question about AIDS policy, Dean's cellphone rang. Answering it, Dean said: "Oh hi, Mr. Rove. No, General Clark is not here." This reference to one of Dean's opponents-General Wesley Clark, who reportedly said that he would have been a Republican had White House adviser Karl Rove "returned his phone call"-gained some laughs, despite its rather crude timing.
There's something about Dean's style that is very endearing, especially in person and especially following such a Washington insider as Kerry. One of Dean's favorite lines is "We're going to do_______, and here's how we're going to do it." There is a lack of nuance and smoothness to his words, which, contrary to the 2003-10-31 president's infamous malapropisms, gives the impression not of incompetence, but rather authenticity. Perhaps this has something to do with Dean's experience as a doctor. Indeed, there is something very "doctorish" about his interaction with people. It's hard to put your finger on it, but Dean lacks the warmth we commonly assoiciate with successful politicians. He certainly lacks Kerry's sense of humor-even his smiles look pained-but he also lacks the Senator's stiffness and statistic-filled Washington-speak. He seeks to separate himself not only from the other Democratic candidates specifically, but the traditional image of the politician as well: "Look," he said at the end of his speech, "the biggest lie people like me tell people like you is that I'm going to solve all of your problems. The truth is that the power to change America is in your hands." Lofty rhetoric indeed, but, listening to Dean, one gets the feeling that he is a man of deeply-held convictions, and even if you disagree with some or all of them, it's hard not to admire him for it.
This feeling carried over to the period when he circulated among the crowd, greeting people individually. One asked him if he fishes (he did, once). Another asked him what he does to relax (he doesn't, he said, but does get home once a week to "take out the trash"). Finally, one told him to stop "going negative," referring to Dean's recent TV ads decrying his rivals' waffling on the war with Iraq (to which he responded, "I'm not going negative. I'm just telling the truth.").
Contrary to our friend from Bowdoinham's conviction that Dean is Eisenhower reincarnate, the candidate likes to see himself in the mold of Eisenhower's predecessor-Harry Truman. According to Dean, Truman wasn't afraid to do the right thing, even if it was unpopular. Dean certainly has his followers, but he doesn't enjoy anything near widespread popularity. Still, he insists that "people would rather be told the truth than what they want to hear." He clearly believes he is doing the former.
But of the (many) differences between Dean and our 33rd president, one stands out. Truman stumbled into the White House after FDR's death-despite his effective leadership, he had little desire to be president. Dean, on the other hand, wants more than anything to be president. He wants, as he puts it, "his country back." Judging from the crowd's enthusiastic response, he found part of it in Dennis and Kathy Meade's living room.