The Dems' lost prophet

August 16, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At the Democratic National Convention last month, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's speech was not even an echo of his tub-thumping indictments of President Bush and his war in Iraq that had made him the early frontrunner for his party's nomination.

Complying with the edict of John Kerry's strategists that the convention low-ball the simmering anti-Bush sentiment in the party, Dr. Dean delivered a bland version of his primary stump speech. The applause he generated was more out of nostalgia than the old enthusiasm.

Dr. Dean wasn't the only attendee who might have basked in the approbation of the delegates had matters turned out differently. Joe Trippi, the chief architect of Dr. Dean's early and phenomenal success, especially in fund raising, could be seen wandering the corridors as a hardly recognized face.

Mr. Trippi's imaginative formula for milking the Internet broke all records until his candidate's implosion in Iowa and showed the way to the Kerry campaign for even greater money success. But he did not receive any calls from the Kerry camp to join the fight against Mr. Bush -- a prophet without honor in his own party.

So Mr. Trippi spent much of his time in Boston giving pep talks to liberal delegate groups and hawking his new book, The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.

Despite the flamboyant title, the book turns out to be not only a candid account of what went wrong in the Dean campaign. It also is a thoughtful assessment of the Internet and other technological developments that Mr. Trippi argues constitute a genuine revolution in politics.

What he calls "a dot-com miracle," Mr. Trippi argues, "was the opening salvo in a revolution, the sound of hundreds of thousands of Americans turning off their televisions and embracing the only form of technology that has allowed them to be involved again, to gain control of a (political) process that alienated them decades ago."

Mr. Trippi describes how that involvement went far beyond contributing money to the Dean campaign to the grass-roots generation of ideas. "This time, it wasn't about the candidate at all," he wrote. "It was about the people. This was never about him. It was about them. An amazing thing happened in the presidential contest of 2004 ... a candidate lost but his campaign won."

That, however, remains to be seen. It's hard to say how much of the enthusiastic reaction to the Dean campaign resulted from the innovative use of the Internet and how much from Dr. Dean's bombastic attacks on Mr. Bush and the war within a party otherwise largely tongue-tied on the issue.

Mr. Trippi links the two in his book. In building an Internet base of "600,000 people passionately committed to our cause," he says, they responded to "the one candidate who actually seemed to have convictions, who rejected the old politics, who took the people seriously by engaging them and empowering them in the one place where they could meet him, the one place where the ubiquitous presence of television couldn't distort his message -- on Internet bulletin boards and Web sites, chat room and Web logs."

Dr. Dean himself conveyed that viewpoint in his rallying cry -- "You have the power!" -- that he roared to crowds everywhere before his political collapse. It turned out they didn't have the power to overcome their candidate's gaffes and excesses that ultimately did him in.

But Mr. Trippi remains upbeat: "This generation of activists is being defined by what they accomplish using the Internet, just as sure as my generation of politicians and strategists was defined by, and eventually chained to, television.

"But while TV was a medium that rendered us dumb, disengaged and disconnected, the Internet makes us smarter, more involved and better informed. The Internet was designed to foster cooperation; it's built on a foundation of shared innovation."

Correction

My previous column inadvertently said President Bush had stated he would begin American troop withdrawals next year; it was Mr. Kerry who made the statement.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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