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.