Looking back over the history of politics in the TV age, there are more than a few examples of people dragged into infamy by a single image of themselves. And so it was with Governor Howard Dean this week, whose performance at a spontaneous pep rally in Iowa resonated almost instantaneously around the world. Bob reflects on the media's iconography of the ridiculous, through which the real person is left on the cutting room floor.
BOB GARFIELD: Here's a nice little song you might enjoy. [COLLAGE OF SNIPPETS FROM HOWARD DEAN'S CONCESSION] [HARMONICA MUSIC] [SIREN BLIP]
HOWARD DEAN: [AHHH!] And Oregon, and Washington -- and Oregon, and Washington-- And we're going to South Dakota -- And we're going to South Dakota -- and Michigan -- and Michigan --[AHHH!]
BOB GARFIELD:That's from blogger James Lillick, who was by no means alone this week in fixating on Howard Dean's arm-pumping, phlegm-churning, state-naming pep rally from hell.
HOWARD DEAN: ...Washington, DC to take back the White House-- [CHEERS] [AHHH!]
BOB GARFIELD: The outburst has been described as demonic, but that's not quite right. It was more like a spasm of what Alan Greenspan would call irrational exuberance, performed in the key of Yelp -- half Comanche battle cry -- half getting your hand caught in the garbage disposal. It also bore a striking resemblance to another famous whoop - the movie scream sound effect called "The Wilhelm," which, as we've explored on this show, has been spliced into dozens of movies since its debut in a 1953 western. The Wilhelm: [SCREAM] Governor
HOWARD DEAN: [AHHH!]
BOB GARFIELD: We report. You decide. Now, it just so happens that I have no life, and at 3 a.m. was watching the Dean event in context, in real time. My first impulse was to be impressed, because the churlish Dr. Know-It-All was showing some signs of life for his assembled faithful, and spontaneity, and humility, and leadership. If you're a Russian general at the battle of Austerlitz and Napoleon is about to chase you back to Moscow, it's probably a pretty good time to rally the troops. Then, the media began cutting tape. Within minutes of the live rally, broadcast audiences began witnessing the yelp not in context and in real time, but excerpted for maximum cruelty and endlessly re-run, and what they saw was a man with a media-proliferated reputation for emotional instability becoming entirely unhinged before their eyes. It was one of those defining destructive TV images, like Nixon sweating, Muskie crying, Paul Tsongas in a Speedo, and Michael Dukakis in a tank. Actually, never mind the battle of Austerlitz. USA Today, among others, made Dean the little Napoleon and Iowa his Waterloo -- at least the actual Napoleon faced only exile and didn't have to watch the battle replayed on Prime Time Thursday four times. In that humiliating exercise in damage control, Dean sat with a clenched death grin and explained the circumstances of the moment -- the morale-building of 3500 disappointed volunteers.
HOWARD DEAN: Do I do things that are a little nutty? Sure, I do things that are a little nutty.
BOB GARFIELD: Note the excerpt I chose. An out-of-context image, of course, like an out-of-context quote can entirely mis-represent the larger reality. But it can also transcend context to become its own reality, because the American public is willing to accept a great deal from a presidential candidate, including demagoguery, hypocrisy and deceit. Nutty, however, does not scan. When the TV audience becomes an eyewitness to ridiculousness, history has shown presidential aspirations tend to die-- [THE WILHELM PLAYS] -- a shrieking death.