By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

“The Scream” in real time

The Boston Globe Magazine today publishes a letter that takes issue with Charlie Pierce’s characterization of Howard Dean’s infamous scream. The letter-writer, Carol S. Williams, of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, complains that Pierce falsely described the scream as “real.” She continues:

WILLIAMS: A newsroom tape editor invented The Scream – clip, crop, snip to remove the context of his rally until he looked like a madman – and then it was broadcast over multiple days, hundreds of times. No candidate could survive that, and it worked as planned. So the media, not the voters, selected the Democratic nominee. And here you are perpetuating this myth.

Williams’s view is common among Dean supporters, many of whom continue to believe that Dean’s presidential campaign was done in by the media. But is she right?

First, let’s consider what Pierce actually wrote. In his Dean profile of July 24, Pierce had this to say:

PIERCE: For someone who had driven a lonely road with him from Iowa City to Ottumwa, it was like watching a creation myth in real time. A presidential contest, working through its own curious internal dynamics, was designing a Howard Dean of its very own, one that was beyond the control of the actual Howard Dean. The Scream wasn’t even instantly iconic. Accounts in the next day’s newspapers – including the Globe and The Washington Post – described Dean’s most famous sound bite as merely a candidate trying put a brave face on a surprisingly dismal showing, and fighting to make himself heard over a raucous crowd.

It took a couple of days of relentless repetition for Dean to become defined by the moment. Now, The Scream stands with Edmund Muskie’s “melting snowflakes” in 1972 and George Romney’s 1968 “brainwashing” on the subject of Vietnam in the annals of campaign self-destruction. Suddenly, Howard Dean’s mix of issues was no longer “eclectic.” It was eccentric and risky. His brutal candor was no longer “appealing.” It was mean. He wasn’t energized. He was unhinged. A doppelganger Howard Dean stalked the actual one for the rest of the campaign.

Judging from this, I’d say Pierce’s assessment is identical to Williams’s. It’s more likely that Williams was reacting to the beginning of the subhead – “With one spontaneous scream, Howard Dean went from Democratic front-runner to political laughingstock” – which Pierce, of course, almost certainly didn’t write.

Now to the matter of whether Dean’s scream really was a media creation that destroyed his candidacy. All I can tell you is that Mrs. Media Nation and I were watching coverage of the Iowa caucuses that night, and saw Dean deliver his march-through-the-states rant in real time. And I can report that we both had the same reaction: Oh, my. He’d just had his rear end handed to him, finishing third in a state that he had allegedly led for months. John Kerry and John Edwards were surging, with the battle to take place on Kerry’s turf, in New Hampshire, the following week. And Dean was bellowing like a nutcase in front of a national television audience.

Did the media make too much of the scream over the following week? Of course, and that overcoverage may well have hastened Kerry’s rise and Dean’s collapse in New Hampshire. But on that night in Iowa, Dean came across as a sore and angry loser. That wasn’t a myth. That was reality.

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How 20th century is this?


Not-so-full disclosure


  1. charlie

    I find it strange that folks (supporters included) point to “the scream” as Dean’s demise when he had just had his ass kicked in a state he was supposed to win. I don’t agree with the media’s focus on “the scream” because they tend to have the cause and effect wrong.

  2. tony schinella

    Dan, you and the misses’ reaction to the Dean scream is interesting because there was a completely different reaction at my house and others that I know. I was cheering for the guy not to give up because of what happened to him on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire before the caucus – one of the worst sleaze attacks on a candidate I have ever seen … fake Dean callers ringing people up at all hours of the night and early morning, plants in the audience targeting the candidate and his supporters, going after his 1s and 2s, floating stories, like Dean was getting his supporters to illegally flood the caucus with supporters, etc. … it was a classic Boston attack operation and the media eat it all up and helped sick the guy. That doesn’t even go into the ads – illegally funded by some of John Kerry’s pals, like Robert Torricelli – airing outright lies about the guy. It was a massacre what they did to him. I never really liked Dean. I wasn’t really impressed with him the two times I saw him speak. I didn’t think he was fake or a phony, I just didn’t think he was as genuine as everyone else did. As well, his campaign was disorganized and leaderless, especially in New Hampshire, where more folks were goofing on computers than actually knocking on doors. But, he won my vote after Gephardt dropped out and after seeing what the media did to him. The Howard Finemans of the world destroyed him because they knew if he won, things might actually change a bit. He won my vote because he became the enemy of my enemy … and his wife was adorable. Lastly, for all the talk about Kerry being “winnable,” it was the complete opposite: Rove and the GOP destroyed the soulless yuppie. Windsurfing with the “electricians” and “normal folks” who live on Nantucket? Yelling at the secret service to stay out of his way while he was snowboarding? Kerry didn’t even defend himself against the Swiftboat Liars, which made them look like they were telling the truth. Kerry made Dukakis looked like a tactical genius! At least Dukakis had faith that the American people wouldn’t believe the attacks against him; Kerry just ignored it and the attacks sunk in. Gephardt and Dean wouldn’t have done that. And yeah, Gephardt and Dean would have won Ohio.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    For the life of me, I don’t know why people thought that Dean represented “change.” He was a conservative, pro-business governor in Vermont, and his anti-war stance was clearly the consequence of his not having had to cast a vote that would later come back to haunt him, as with Kerry.Then again, I’ve never understood the whole Dean phenomenon. If the same 10 percent of the party had rallied around Dennis Kucinich, I could have understood it – Kucinich stands for something, and there’s always room for someone like him to appeal to the left wing of the party. But Dean? Why?

  4. sco

    You want to know why? Here are two reasons, one of which the media ‘gets’ and the other that they totally missed. First, after the Iraq war votes and the 2002 elections, thousands of Democrats were just waiting, wondering when someone, anyone was going to point out that the emperor had no clothes. Dean was the first one a lot of those Democrats heard voicing their own opinion in simple language — that the entire administration was full of shit. The Dean phenomenon should never have been measured on a left-right spectrum, but rather a pushback-acquiesce spectrum.Also, and perhaps more importantly was the fact that Dean gave people ownership in his campaign. He used the Internet to create a community that even outlasted his campaign. He told the people on the ground that if they had any ideas, they should run with them and if they were successful, he’d incorporate them in his national campaign. This made people feel like they were a part of something important, and created a lot of the loyalty to Dean.

  5. Anonymous

    As much as I love you Dan, you are being an idiot….Your condescension towards Dean and corresponding lust for Kucinich’s politics is why you never have and never will make it as a great presence nationally and will remain confined to a minority view , EVEN in BLUE New England.As the fair person I imagined you to be, I figured you’d have a fairer view of Dean as a whole package, accomplishments and views etc. You stil manage to pile on the guy.Dean is a decent guy. He is an accomplished physician, who makes great money, comes from money, lives well and doesn’t need much. He comes from ritzy Manhattan and left it to go to a quiet setting in Hickville, USA for a greater quality of life and a closer feel of service and patient relationship. Not too many people do it on principle. People get out of Manhattan because ususally they are priced out. They’d rather be with the Beautiful People. He left his NY partying days behind for a real life.Unlike your OHIO LOony, he balanced budgets, lowered taxes in a New England state on a Democrat ticket- a great asset nationally. He supports both Gun control and gun ownership. Gues what, Dan, if you stuck out your head more often, you’d know what the country at large wants or thinks, regardless of anything. it is just reality. Reality is a huge chunk of Americans out there have been convinced or duped or whatever you want to call it that taxes should always be lowered and guns respected if done legally. It is a big gun owning and hunting country out there for you to discover Dan. I know you want to rule and think on behalf of the nation in terms of your narrrow glasses and political beliefs, ie , maily Liberal leftwinger from the NE. It just doesn’t work that way in the South, West and Midwest. Just check California’s Congress delegation and see how many Reps are R and not D, of all states.Dean has no BS approach, get things done, no sugarcoat, no waste kind of approach. He would have cleaned up how things are done and spent a lot more than any other self-serving politcal carrer hack, incl Kerry and Kucinich.WHat have they accomplished outside of getting elected and having a meazly ONE vote and from Service for Kerry??Kucinich looks like he needs to eat. He looks like a lightweight, a nutcase and a polarizing figure. He is a vegettarian. which is to be respected but how many people are vegetarians? less than 5% if that??? How is he a noraml guy the whole country can identify with and line up behind??He is a joke and your support for him is a worse joke. He may have his heart in the right place, but he is woefully inadequate and unqualified.Dean scared the hillary-loving establishment Dem career hacks and press outposts. in their heart, they knew he was right, but he was going to ruffle to many feathers and change the way things are. Besides not being the freindliest to a Hillary ascension, whether as his running mate or a Dem nominee if he wins one or two terms theoretically. So he had to go. And dishonest mornons who killed and continue to kill him in the press will forever regret it….In budgets, international affairs and sical work.Get out of your shell, dan, learn to respect the fact that there are AMericans that view things differently and spare me that snobby detached establishment tone of yours.Cheers

  6. Mike P

    Wow, that last guy seems to really have a problem with you, Dan, and with Kucinich. Hard to take a person seriously, though, when they attack Kucinich dietary preferences. If you actually look at what Dan said, you’d see that he wasn’t talking about his own preference for the Kooch – if he even has one – he was saying that he thought that he would be the one to appeal to the leftiest of Dems. He’s absolutely right on that, by the way. Impossible for some people to have a serious discussion without resorting to crap like that. Unfortunately not unique to this person – too many people judge politicians now by the score and the strategy (i.e. ‘I won’t vote for Kucinich because he can’t win because he’s a vegetarian’) rather than because you like or don’t like his policy positions. It is a sad state of affairsAnyway. The Dean appeal has been pretty well covered in this thread. I’ll just add that he seemed pretty genuine to me – he was a non-equivocating breath of fresh air, as far as that goes. Some of the reporting since – The NY Times Mag had a long feature on this a few months back – has shown that the Dean campaign had serious organizational problems. That’s certainly not everything, but it is a big part these days. The scream itself is just another in a list of stupid things that shouldn’t mean anything, but do. But try explaining the nuances of sound production (which the scream was really all about) in the context of a political campaign.

  7. Anonymous

    Mike, get your head out of your ….You are twisting my point.I didn’t say that I, you or anyone should vote for Kucinich because he is vegetarian or 7 feet tall or likes wrestling.But my point is, his vegetarian diet, which is a choice not a physical unchangeable trait, is a symptom of him being out of touch from most common people. In the heartland, you know people do look at those things, and snub politicians for being so ‘picky’ like that. Clinton was liked so much because he got to everyones level and felt at home with different family backgrounds in the country, wether as a midwestern Governor or New York city chum. We all know his being vegetarian has no bearing on his ability to govern, and we all wish people did pay attention to those things making elective decisions, but sad reality , it is fact that they do dicriminate partly due to how different or quirky they perceive him.Kerry can tell you about this headache. I won’t list what they held against him.So get your head out of my so-called prejudice or whatever you want to pin on me and focus on REALITY and fact on the ground. Not what you wish the wolrd would look like in your naive immature dreams of idealism, and into real life and what it really takes to earn north of 110 million votes from all corners of the country and its fabrics.Get a brain.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Just to confirm Mike P’s suspicion … yes, I meant that Kucinich struck me as the type who would normally have the most appeal to the farthest-left wing of the Democratic Party. Although I admire Kucinich’s integrity, he is well to my left.

  9. Sven

    For the life of me, I don’t know why people thought that Dean represented “change.”From my conversations with Deaniacs, I think the “change” was more in reference to the previous four years. I also think you’re overestimating how far left most Dean supporters were/are. Again, from my experience, Deaniacs were opposed to the war on a peace/love basis as much as they thought it was a very stupid idea.

  10. Mike P

    Now I’ve been attacked. The point, anonymous, is that you called Dan an ‘idiot’ and now are telling me that I have no brain. Hardly the stuff of respectful discourse. The problem I’m trying to get at here is that everyone in America is an armchair pundit and has been trained to judge politicians based on their ability to score political points, which is a horribly way to pick leaders. I’m not blind to the concept that most Americans won’t ‘get’ Kucinich’s vegetarianism and that this will ultimately hinder him. But, me understanding that doesn’t make it any less stupid.

  11. Ken D.

    It has been extensively reported that the scream was in large part an artifact of electronics in the tv sound system that were intended to, and did, surpress the background crowd noise; and that neither Dean nor the live audience heard it as distinctive, as it sounded on tv or tape. Significant if true.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Ken – It is true. What you leave out is that the first thing a candidate is told is to address the television audience, and not bellow to the crowd in front of him. Dean ignored that advice.

  13. Anonymous

    Mike P,Right on. It’s unfortunate that some folks,(with or without a blog account)amp up their volume under the cloak of anonymity. Dan K. is about as fair a guy as you will find on the web. (This is coming from a right-of-center libertarian). He deserves a lot better than the screed above.Rick in Duxbury

  14. David Amulet

    It is nice to see some folks acknowledging that even those of different political persuasions can be fair. It is all too rare these days– a point I make (from another direction) in a recent post to my wise-ass politics-and-culture blog about the growing tendency for voices of the left AND the right to scream “liar” at their adversaries.Maybe it is not a coincidence that libertarians are largely immune to this disease.As for your original post, right on! I still remember watching “The Scream” that night. (Disclaimer: I was not a Dean supporter, but I loved the way that he rankled the party establishment.)I did not say, “Oh, my,” as you did. Perhaps I utterred a Butthead-esque “Uhhhhhhhhhhhh.” All I recall is sitting there in shock, with my jaw hanging down in morbid fascination. I imagine that an observer would have thought I was James Dobson at a Mötley Crüe concert.I like your writing–keep the good stuff coming. — d.a.

  15. tony schinella

    Per the comment by “sco,” you are dead on. Yes Dan, Dean was a moderate Democratic governor who even received support from the NRA, something that I admire, as both a “liberaltarian” and a gun owner. But that was just it: He was change because he was the only one screaming “The emperor has no clothes!” while other clowns like Kerry were voting FOR that stupid invasion! [I could forgive Gephardt on his war vote because if he was elected, I know the working person of American would have stood a chance, more than anyone can say for the “fighting for us” soulless yuppie Kerry]. Dean was change as well because he was saying other unpopular things that no other politician dared say like, Hey, maybe we should cut some spending so that we can balance the budget; or, Hey, I’m going to go after truck drivers with shotgun racks and Confederate flags on their bumpers just like I would go after any other voter; or, Hey, maybe we shouldn’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars turning the sands of Iraq into glass [actually, that has always been my line, but I digress]. In so many ways, Dean was change in the sense that he didn’t act like other candidates in the race. It was refreshing … and he was massacred for it. 🙂

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