The Enthusiasts

A report from deep in the grass roots

By P. J. O'Rourke

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."

Lewis said, "If you voted for Gore, you did."

"Connie and I," Alice said, "went to college together. Everybody voted for John Anderson. When he lost we were amazed."

Lewis played a video about the Dean campaign. On the television Dean said, "I want more than your vote—I want you." Dean said, "Take America back for ordinary people." Dean said, "The biggest loss since this President took office is our sense of community, that we're all in it together." Dean spoke with a composed solemnity, like a doctor telling you that you have six months to live.

Alice lauded the inclusiveness lauded in the Dean video. "Clark didn't have that. I'd like to help more."

"This is not about peer pressure," Lewis said. Connie laughed.

Helen said, "That video was not for me. It was all about the campaign structure ... I want to know who's going to beat George Bush. Wes Clark is slick. Dean came across as a wet fish on that video."

"Clark was a Republican until September," said Connie. "That says to me somebody put the buzz in his ear: 'You could run for President.' Howard Dean did it because he had something to say." Connie said that until now she had always voted for the primary candidate she thought was going to win against the Republicans. Then she saw Dean speak in Quaintford. "His suit jacket was tucked into his belt. He was so focused that he didn't care about being slick. I commend him for messing up ... I'm tired of voting for people just because they might win. I'm really putting my heart into this."

Charles argued—although not with anyone—that Dean had the campaign structure necessary to win, plus he had the money.

Helen said, "He's also a good guy, huh? Are you going to say he's a good guy? I'm not going to vote for him because he has the money."

Charles went off on a tangent: "We don't have a democracy right now. We never have. We're still an experiment. America has a class system ... It's run by the wealthy ... Clark is a protégé of the Democratic Leadership Council."

Lewis turned to Helen. "Dean has an amazing record of accomplishments," he said. "Expanded health care, conserved four hundred thousand acres of land, balanced budgets. But my involvement comes from ..." Lewis turned back toward the room. He told the guests that he'd grown up in Washington, D.C., in modest circumstances, "raised on Joni Mitchell records and PBS, by 1960s-type parents." These parents had managed to send him to "kind of a fancy Washington private school." Call it Saint Gorgonzola.

"One day," Lewis said, "I looked at the faces in my Government Club at Saint Gorgonzola and I thought, 'This is what Congress will look like in twenty years.' And I didn't like those kids—driving SUVs and getting smashed on the weekends and making fun of the gay kid in class."

He told about going to Yale and getting involved with the College Democrats of America when there hardly were any and how elected officials didn't pay any attention to them except for this obscure governor of Vermont. Then the College Democrats began to get better organized, and the governor of Vermont began to run for President. When Lewis was in graduate school, Dean came back to speak to a crowd of thousands of College Democrats and received a hero's welcome, and Lewis got to introduce him.

Dean said to the College Democrats, "I can't promise that I'll win this election, but I promise you I'll make you proud to be Democrats again."

Lewis said to the house party, "It wasn't about him. It was about other people." Lewis smiled in modest triumph. "It was about us," he said.

Lewis puzzled me. He was the picture of a Saint Gorgonzola old boy—clothes from J. Press, car an unostentatious early-1990s BMW, guacamole dip technique up to Emily Post standards. He was as opposed to politicking-as-usual as he was adept at it. He was affronted by the power elite and had already been recruited by it. What happened at Saint G? Had Lewis's 1960s-type parents, addled from too much Mister Rogers on PBS, sent him to his first meeting of Government Club in a hilarious argyle sweater like the one Wesley Clark wore to New Hampshire?

Charles recounted seeing Dean repeatedly wear an ugly, unfashionable belt, presumably the one Connie saw his suit jacket tucked into. Then Charles had learned that the belt was Dean's dead brother's.

"And you don't think that's a gimmick?" Helen said.

Jessica had become interested in Dean only recently. It was Bush who had been on her mind. "The horror of having him in office, the heartlessness. When will we need a new American revolution? When will it come to that? Then my friend called me and said, 'The revolution is happening—in the Dean campaign. There's a campaign to take America back.'"

Charles nodded approvingly. Lewis looked nonplussed at the talk of revolution. "Everyone," Lewis said, "has a special interest. But it comforts me to know that Governor Dean is not in the pocket of some traditional Democratic special interest—trial lawyers, Hollywood liberals ..."

"I hope," Jessica said, "Dean is as beholden to the people that supported him as the Republicans have been to the people who supported them."

"Anybody running for President is crazy," Connie said, "Dean included. Somebody wanting to run this country—it's bizarre. But ... I feel like he's my neighbor."

Helen remained unconvinced. "Dean obviously has the same values I do," she said. "So does Wes Clark. I don't know enough about the others, like Lieberman."

"Lieberman is a Republican," said Drew.

"Despite my Democratic desire to know all about the issues," Helen said, "I'm tempted to lump them together."

"I do believe Dean's the only hope for the revolution we need to take this country back," Jessica said.

Lewis turned to Helen again. "Do you have questions about specific issues?"

She said, "A more compassionate attitude toward people. The empowerment word. The big get bigger ... The IRS tax code needs to be totally revamped. The big corporations running the country is scary."

Lewis didn't look completely at a loss, but he didn't look completely otherwise. "It's not the guy," he said. "Howard Dean is not the one guy in a million who can change politics. It's our campaign that will change politics. What will it change if Kerry or Lieberman gets elected? The same people at the same Georgetown cocktail parties pulling the strings. Half of everybody who can vote in this country don't vote."

"So," Helen said, "once all these people come out of the woodwork, then what happens?"

"It's not just about winning this election," Lewis said. "We're building networks ... Political systems are a conversation." I'm guessing that was the title of a paper he wrote in graduate school.

"I'm going to get politically involved until things change or I move to Canada," Charles announced. He gave an example of what was better in Canada, something to do with a Muslim civil court for problems in Muslim marriages.

Connie said, "In my lifetime I've never been more afraid of a President. When he, quote, won, I thought, 'He's a dodo-head and what harm can he do?' Boy, was I wrong. George Bush took a knife and made a big cut in your thigh. If you vote for someone other than Dean, they're just going to put a Band-Aid on it." She continued, too fast for me to get it down, about Dean's willingness to slice out the infected flesh, drain the suppuration, stitch the wound ...

"It's the doctor!" Drew said.

The evening was winding down.

Connie said, "I'm sure Dean will be guilty—I'd like to think not—will be guilty of listening to his advisers."

Not much of the wine had been drunk.

Jessica said, "If this government goes on—Republican or Democrat—like it is ... I don't recognize this country. We don't deserve to continue as a country ..."

"The major liberal conundrum," Lewis said, trying to turn the conversation—this being what political systems are—back to practical politics, "is do you vote for the person who'll win and put a Band-Aid on, or do we vote for a person who, if they do get in, things will really change?"

"Seems to me like it's worth a shot," Jessica said.

Lewis said, "Maybe this time it will really happen."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/04/the-enthusiasts/302921/