Nineteen years ago, I found myself in frigid Des Moines, Iowa, with a group that included University of Notre Dame college students, a couple of England expats, and some other politically active South Bend area residents.
This ragtag group had gotten together on a social media site called MeetUp to oppose George W. Bush’s war of choice in Iraq.
With most of the corporate-owned media in full-throated support of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the opinion polls showing a majority of U.S. citizens in favor of those campaigns, I felt pretty lonely in my opposition to the wars. Then I found like-minded Michiana residents trying to get Bush out of office, by supporting Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. One of Dean’s top priorities was ending those twin wars.
For our meetups, we gathered at Mishawaka Brewing Company and The Old Spaghetti Works. It was cathartic to sit down and talk with people who had similar views opposing Bush’s agenda.
We wrote letters to voters across the country telling them about Dean and why he would be a good president. Dean’s candidacy started to catch fire. His campaign excelled at soliciting small donations online. By late 2003, Dean was the leading Democratic presidential contender.
Enthusiastic about our candidate, we traveled by van to Des Moines for the 2004 Iowa Caucus. Some 3,500 Dean volunteers from across the country joined us. Dean’s Iowa headquarters was in a dingy office downtown, just blocks away from the office space of presidential contenders John Edwards and John Kerry.
The office was filled with young people on phones and computers. It buzzed with energy. There were celebrities in our midst: rocker Joan Jett and actress Janeane Garofalo. Every volunteer was given an orange winter hat with the words “The Iowa Perfect Storm — Grassroots for Dean” — and sent out with a list of addresses to “knock doors.”
It was cold in Iowa. We knocked on a lot of doors. Most people didn’t answer. Iowans are accustomed to the caucus frenzy that takes place every four years (although after the 2020 caucus debacle that sank Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy, Iowa may not be leading off the 2024 presidential campaign).
Finally, my volunteer partner and I found a house with a car in the driveway with a “Dean for President” bumper sticker. We were stoked! But when the people answered the door, they spoke little English and informed us that they had just purchased the car and it came with the bumper sticker on it.
That might have been an omen.
Caucus day was Monday, Jan. 19, also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Iowa, whose population is 90 percent Caucasian, did not observe the day as a school or work holiday, so a lot of our doors knocked went unanswered.
An NBC news crew interviewed me while we were door knocking. I gave them a piece of my mind about Bush’s dangerous belligerence in the Middle East and Asia. My final remark was about the weather: “It’s really cold out here.”
I called my wife to alert her that I might be on the national news. But the only clip they used was my innocuous comment at the weather.
Cold and tired, Dean’s volunteers gathered in a ballroom and waited to hear from their candidate. The exit polls did not look good for Dean. Both Kerry and Edwards had done better. Dean had finished a disappointing third.
I found a spot in the front row on the left side of the stage. Media members were on a riser in the back of the ballroom. The room filled up and we waited for a long time. At least we were inside and warm.
Eventually, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, an early Dean supporter, took the stage and warmed up the crowd. Then Dean came on. He knew we were dispirited by the caucus result. His voice sounded hoarse, but he revved us up and it got very loud in the ballroom.
And then came what was to be dubbed “The Dean Scream.” What none of us in the room realized was that Dean was using an isolation microphone, which filtered out the crowd noise but amplified his voice.
The snippet of Dean’s speech used by most of the broadcast media outlets, ad nauseam, made him sound like he was yelling like a lunatic inside an empty room.
None of us in the hall heard anything wrong with his speech. Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi describes the scene well in his 2004 book “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” “Did you ever see the people Howard Dean was speaking to? No. You didn’t see a standing-room-only crowd — more raucous than most victory parties I’ve been to — exhausted but exhilarated people who had come from all over the country to be involved in this thing, true believers who were exhorting their leader to go on believing right alongside them. You didn’t see this because they (sic the media) didn’t show it to you.”
Dean’s campaign never recovered. Political strategist Lis Smith sums it up this way in her 2022 book “Any Given Tuesday”: “It was the first viral moment in American politics, and it hit before the advent of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter.
“To the reporters in the room where Dean spoke, there was nothing off. But it was a different story for the TV executives in New York and Washington, D.C. The audio that was piped back to them was distorted by Dean’s unidirectional microphone. He sounded completely unhinged,”
I was reminded of my Dean experience when I read about the 2022 election kerfuffle involving longtime St. Joseph County Clerk Rita Glenn, who has served our county honorably for decades. Social media was used to amplify accusations that Glenn improperly accessed a locked room where absentee ballots were stored.
The claims, which this week were found by a court to be meritless, were used by Republican candidate Amy Rolfes to defeat Democratic Lana Cleary for the county clerk position. It’s too late to reverse clerk’s election result, just as it was too late for Dean to resuscitate his candidacy, after only one caucus defeat and a landslide of misleading media coverage.
Americans get more of their “news” on social media than from any other source. The results are mostly catastrophic for our democracy.
When candidates label anything they don’t like or disagree with as fake, it’s meant to confuse and divide us. It has done just that. When the losers of elections refuse to concede graciously, it is toxic.
I can’t say I’m proud to have been present for the “first viral moment in American politics,” but the experience certainly clued me in and made me keenly aware of what has transpired since.