Dean's act in Iowa is over the top

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Candidate's speech raises eyebrows after caucuses

January 21, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Democrat Howard Dean's fiery oratorical style has clearly stirred a devoted core of followers. But as the former Vermont governor attempts to rebound from his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, the question is not: Can he lead the country? The question is: Can he do TV?

Here's what the printed transcript would tell you Dean told supporters Monday night as they waved flags and cheered.

"Not only are we going to New Hampshire," Dean said. "We're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Yeah."

But that fails to capture the alarming energy of the scene. Dean was punching the air as he barked out the name of each state in a raspy voice. And the final word in the quotation above was a surprising barbaric yawp, even from the emotive Dean - more of an extended "yeeeee-arrrghhhh" than a measly "yeah." It fired up the faithful who were processing Dean's third-place finish in the Byzantine Iowa caucuses.

And it inspired almost uniformly bad reviews.

"Television is such a hot medium. It intensifies everything," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who studies media and the presidency. "You look angrier [on television]. Really, what you want to do is cool things down, not torque things up."

For one thing, no one's been that publicly demonstrative about Oklahoma since the last revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

MSNBC news anchor Keith Olbermann says the episode was "goofy-scary - and I don't know exactly why it was scary."

Dean's fevered pitch, while seemingly an effort to rouse a group of his faithful, appeared to outsiders utterly out-of-proportion to his standing in the caucuses, Olbermann says during a telephone interview. "I'm not sure if he was doing Hulk Hogan or if his voice was Louis Armstrong," Olbermann says. "This was not a television issue. This was a political disaster that happened to be on television."

In a caption, CNN invoked "Dizzy Dean," a nice allusion for 1950s baseball fans, while an anchor referred to the "Dean Scream," a desperate effort to rhyme in the absence of alliteration.

"I'm afraid what you saw there is Howard Dean rubbing salt into his own wounds," Clifford May, a former journalist and Republican Party spokesman, said yesterday on CNN. "He was badly hurt. ... Last night, Howard Dean was not presidential." Then, going in for the kill, May resurrected the Cold War-era question: "Do you want that man with his finger on the button?"

On the air, Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron, who reported that many people say Dean looked particularly angry Monday night, remarked that rivals believe the following truism: "The angrier Howard Dean gets, the less popular he becomes." A Fox News anchor posed this question about Dean: "Is he shooting himself in the foot?"

But the media may have been piling on, says Democratic consultant Victor Kamber. "The press is making too much of it," Kamber said on CNN yesterday. "He was exuberant, he was tired. His people in the room loved it. Critics didn't like it. I don't think it'll have one iota of bearing in terms of going forward."

Initially, Dean defended his remarks. But by yesterday afternoon, according to the Reuters news wire, he changed course. "Today, I am going to give a different kind of speech," Dean told supporters in Manchester, N.H. "Those of you who came here intending to be lifted by ... a lot of red-meat rhetoric are going to be a little disappointed."

That's probably overdue. Kumar, the Towson scholar, says people tend to seek leaders with a personality that comes across as moderate. And Dean's Monday-night geography rant will only affirm lingering doubts about his temperament. "Bursts like that of hyperactivity - the public does not look favorably on that," she says. "That kind of exhibition will stick in our minds."

A year ago, Olbermann touted Dean as a plausible dark-horse candidate. Now, Olbermann says of the one-time leader of the pack, "We're not debating if Howard Dean was imploding - we're asking why. And that's not a good place for a professional politician to be."

New face at WMAR

Longtime Washington television news reporter and anchor Del Walters is to join WMAR-TV later this month to head up its investigative efforts.

"He has won more awards than you can count in the investigative area," WMAR general manager Drew Berry says. "Everybody knows how strong he is."

Formally, Walters will become managing editor of the investigative team. He will also serve as an anchor on one of the station's evening newscasts. Walters says he recognizes the station's challenges. Its news shows are perennial ratings laggards, and WMAR is searching for its fourth news director in as many years. But Walters says it is committed to smart, hard-hitting journalism.

"They've got a lot of energy," he says. "They've got a great marriage of what television news should be and what it can be."

Walters, 46, left WJLA in Washington in September after 18 years. "You can't live in the past," Walters says. "This is a great opportunity for the future."

Berry says Walters will work with Tisha Thompson, a WMAR reporter who joined the station last year to do investigative stories.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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