The brouhaha over Howard Dean’s overexuberent speech after the Iowa caucus continues to grow to absurd lengths. The question I want to know is why this story has so many legs? From the right side of the political spectrum I think their is a lot of schadenfrude. Drudge and others are just happy to see Dean self-destruct. But the “mainstream media” has other motives, none of them particularly sinister but crucial to the continuation of the story.

The media has a well defined picture of itself as being above the fray of politics, reporting nothing but the unvarnished truth. Some self-described media virtues are:

  • dispassionate
  • objective
  • fact-based
  • truth-seeking

All of these are the opposites of emotion. Dean’s mistake, or transgression, was that he showed too much emotion, whether it be anger or sorrow, the reaction would have been the same - continuous, inescapable coverage. Dean acted against the internal virtues of the press and the press now feels the need to punish him. Of course, the validity of those very same virtues can and should be called into question.

Furthermore, the media’s default narrative of politics is that every word, every action is premeditated, calculated, polled and tested before it is ever said or shown to the public. On Monday Howard Dean stepped out of that narrative in a big way and he may never recover. Clearly, there was no premeditation on Dean’s part as he let out his yell. He was, as defenders have said, taken away by the moment and the crowd.

The saddest result of this default narrative for politics is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Witness the State of the Union speech by Bush the day after. Clearly, this speech was worked and honed for months, rehearsed in front of audiences and focus groups, until every last word served a political purpose. For his supporters it pushed all the buttons that make them see a competent and trustworthy leader. Opponents don’t trust any of the words and spend hours breaking everything down into details that fail to speak to them. Either way the language avoids specifics, and tries to show a single emotion - that strange state of being presidential.

What is presidential? What is electability? They are code words for maintaining an even keel in public, behind the scenes you can be an ass, but pulling aside the curtain is never allowed - leave it for the memoirs. We all know that George Bush can be just as angry, just as emotional as Dean, every person can be caught up in the moment and forget themself. But the secret of politics is to be angry, conniving, and vindictive when the public isn’t watching. For the opposite effect witness the revelation of the Nixon tapes. The only other option is to create plausible deniability. It wasn’t me, George Bush, who told Dean to take his “ tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading …body piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.” It was somebody else, who has no real connection to me, George Bush.

Follow your bliss is common career fodder but politics has become so debased no electable person would admit they have a passion for power. Every American wants to believe that they could become president some day, or that their children might become president. It’s a default myth. But there is a counter myth that says power should never be exercised in public. It’s both a veneration of humility and a shrewd way of keeping the yokels in their place. If no one ever sees the levers being pulled then they can keep living in the Emerald City of ignorance.

References: George Lakoff - Metaphor, Morality, and Politics; Jay Rosen - Pressthink Weblog

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.