The Enthusiasts

A report from deep in the grass roots

I'm fascinated by political enthusiasm. To me, selecting my democratic representative is a lugubrious duty, more like making a will than cheering the Bruins. For months this past fall and winter signs of enthusiasm for Howard Dean—yard signs of it, anyway—were all over south-central New Hampshire, where I live. In the weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary I talked to Dean campaign staffers and to Dean campaign volunteers. I attended a spate of Dean "house parties" in my town. I'll call the town "Quaintford." (I've changed everybody's name. I have to live here.)

As John Kerry's victory would show, there were plenty of Kerry voters in New Hampshire. But I encountered no Kerry votaries. My neighbors who were partial to Wesley Clark were measured in their partiality. Although John Edwards was held in high esteem, only the most ardent admirers of his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" favored him at the polls. I could have gone to see the avid New Hampshire Lieberman partisans, but I didn't want to disturb Joe and Hadassah at home, in the apartment they'd rented in Manchester. Nuns on snowboards were more common than Al Sharpton boosters. My object was to understand political fervor, as opposed to politics, and it was the advocacy for Howard Dean that was best characterized by the word "enthusiasm."

It's a slightly creepy word, with its Greek root meaning "the fact of being possessed by a god." But other than a Herculean neck, Howard Dean didn't appear to have mythic attributes. Nor did his supporters appear to think he did. I heard a Quaintford volunteer lament the candidate's need to be simultaneously in Iowa and New Hampshire. A second volunteer, a tired-looking veteran of Democratic campaigns in a state where Democrats are outnumbered by independents, Republicans, and, probably, moose, said, rolling his eyes, "Maybe he'll be in both places at the same time." "And," said a third volunteer, "walking on water to get there."

Perhaps the issues were the inspiration. At one house party Lewis, a smiling, serious young campaign worker who came to all the Quaintford events, said to the committed and the prospective Dean supporters, "I think we would all broadly agree on a set of issues." As cris de coeur go, this is on the mild side.

If not the man or the ideas, then what? Margaret, a college senior, volunteering at Dean's headquarters in Manchester, said, "It's the campaign that's such a phenomenal experience."

The headquarters, in an old mill building, was a loft space, ample enough for Claes Oldenburg to work in. The walls were bare brick. The floors were refinished. The heating ductwork was modishly exposed on the distant ceilings. The loft contained numerous computers; several large, friendly dogs; and a lot of people of about the same age.

"This is way better than the beach for me," said Margaret, who was giving up her Christmas vacation. She said, "Just the campaign—not even Dean winning—has given a lot of people the opportunity to talk about our country." She said, "The way our campaign is run is so positive. We're all in it together."

Robert, a fellow student volunteer, said, "We're the fuel for the fire."

"I was always interested," Margaret said, "not necessarily in politics, but in people who can make changes."

"Dean is a change agent," Robert said.

"Change" has a warm, vernal sound at age twenty-two. Then comes a day when all the word brings to mind is "any change in a wart or mole ..."

Connie became a Dean volunteer after Dean's first Quaintford campaign appearance. "He was pissed off," she said. "And so am I." Connie had an old-fashioned-cool North Beach look but belonged to the generation of the Go-Go's and "We Got the Beat," not the Beats and John Clellon Holmes's Go. "What's wrong with being angry?" she asked. "People listened. Young people listened. People," she said, changing the emphasis on the word to indicate a shift from admiration for the masses to exasperation with the general public, "want this cardboard cutout ..."

Connie's house was old and cute, but not cutely decorated. The style was retro-modernism, a second wind of what the up-to-date favored forty years ago. And at Connie's house party, in the mix of guacamole, hummus, Swedish meatballs, earnest conversation, and good domestic wine, there was something else of a lost world of once new ideas.

Lewis, the campaign worker, was just out of graduate school with a degree in political science. He talked about how house parties were pioneered by organizers for the United Farm Workers in California.

People introduced themselves or, mostly, introduced their politics.

Helen was involved with theater. She said, "I shudder to think of Bush in the White House for the next four years and want to see who's best to run against him and beat him."

Jessica was from one of the depressed industrial cities near Boston. She was concerned about depressed industrial cities.

Connie said, "I'm at the house party because it's my house," and giggled.

Drew said, "It's my house too. I'm involved because of Connie." Drew was a musician.

Charles, a visiting artist at a local arts center, said, "After three years of experiencing what I consider a very radical agenda by the Bush Administration, I feel I should get involved in politics."

Alice was leaning toward Dean but undecided. She sighed. She said, "I never vote with the majority."

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Peace Kills a survey of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, will be published this spring.

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