In a democracy there's no sweeter sound than the voice of the people, for those privileged to hear it. When Senator John Edwards ran a surprising healthy second in the Wisconsin Democratic primary on Tuesday, he called it a message from the masses. "The people of Wisconsin spoke loudly and clearly tonight," he declared. In truth, most of the 5.1-million people of Wisconsin remained obstinately silent; he received 283,000 votes. But a detail like that never dampened the rhetoric of a charlatan.
Anything less than braggadocio would have disappointed his public. Edwards is famous for his ability to emote, having made his fortune by banking about a third of the gigantic financial awards that his passionate advocacy squeezed out of juries in medical malpractice suits. He prefers, though, to dwell on his "working-class background," a line that's always problematic in U.S. politics. John Steinbeck said that socialism never developed in America because the chronically optimistic citizens never see themselves as workers, just temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
Canadians, being totally without responsibility for the outcome, traditionally enjoy the American primaries as a comedy we can watch from good seats. Years ago we began complaining that the primary season was losing its raffish charm, but this winter the Democrats produced, for our pleasure, a festival of hypocrisy. It would be churlish of us not to express our gratitude. John Kerry, a man of infinite flexibility, capable of changing positions at the drop of a poll, now seems the likeliest nominee, but Governor Howard Dean did more than anyone else to bring back the great old days of windbag arrogance.
He was insufferable, from first to last, in the special way of those who have never questioned their moral superiority. Except for the mean and crafty look in his shifty eyes, he reminded old-timers of Jimmy Carter, who pitched his born-again eloquence at a level far above the rest of us. Dean, even as he quit the campaign on Wednesday, having spent a king's ransom and won not a single primary, somehow managed to look smug. Self-congratulation has been the essence of his style, and it didn't fail him even when he ran a bad third in Wisconsin and decided to forget the pledge he had made 48 hours before and drop out.
He had already acknowledged major defeat with such exuberant pride that no one could imagine how he would respond to victory. After losing in Iowa he expressed his ecstasy with a scream of joy that terrified more Americans than anything since the shower scene in Psycho. And why not? He knew he was good and decent and true, and that his enemies were either bad (the Republicans) or highly imperfect (the other Democratic candidates). He had no program of his own, and from time to time made comments that suggested he wasn't to be trusted with heavy equipment (as when he passed along the rumour that the Saudis warned George W. Bush that Sept. 11 was coming his way). Still, his supporters thought him a hero to the end, and he could only agree.
Certainly he improved the Democrats' money-raising style. The Clinton method, which involved renting out the Lincoln Bedroom like the bridal suite at Best Western, had eroded the party's image. Dean, by contrast, acquired his financing in dribs and drabs through appeals on his Web site. This made him look up-to-date as well as ethical. He was said to have reinvented politics while attracting younger voters to the Democrats. He gathered some US$41-million, most of which he passed on to the TV people who broadcast, all in vain, his commercials. (In the U.S., keeping local TV stations prosperous is a major function of politics.)
For many people his great accomplishment was awakening the opposition to the Iraq war. He established himself as the Anti-Bush, preaching a bring-the-boys-home message that thousands found attractive. His chief handler, Steve Grossman, who abandoned him as a lost cause just before the Wisconsin vote, rightly claimed that Dean defined the debate by putting the war at its centre. He forced Kerry and Edwards into antiwar positions that one of them may well find uncomfortable later this year. He demonstrated that liberal Democrats despise Bush and want him defeated at any cost but of course ignored the fact that there aren't enough liberal Democrats to elect a president.
It will always remain a historical curiosity that this limited and self-pleased man briefly set the American political agenda in the winter of 2003-04. Last year, media people discussed him with the fascination they reserve for every fresh messiah. Six weeks ago he led all the polls and was, many a pundit informed us, the man to beat. The word "invincible" cropped up here and there.
But of course the journalists turned on him when they understood (many suspected it from the start) that he was far too awkward and careless to have a future. He reacted to their cruel disdain with predictable fury, like a lover embraced and then inexplicably scorned. Sadly, he had thought they meant it when they said he was important.