While I was in New Hampshire volunteering for Howard Dean, I saw him speak at the Palace Theater in Manchester the day before the primary. At the end of his speech, a married couple, both doctors, came on stage to wish him well and present him with a stethoscope. Dean, surprised at their sudden appearance, tripped on his reply: "This campaign is nothing if not scripted," he said, provoking titters in the press section, before he corrected himself.
Also appearing with Dean that day was Martin Sheen, a guy who knows a thing or two about scripted presidential campaigns. Sheen’s endorsement of Dean amused many West Wing fans, who pointed out that Sheen’s alter ego, President Josiah "Jed" Bartlett, was a progressive governor of New Hampshire while Dean was the same for the neighboring state of Vermont.
On this occasion, the lines between Sheen and Bartlett were even blurrier, as the pair happened to be in Bartlett’s home state, casting Sheen in the role of the token local politician (albeit a fictional one) that the presidential candidate appears with on a campaign pit stop. (The previous day Sheen even stumped for Dean at Josiah Bartlett Elementary School in Bartlett, N.H.) They also looked similar, standing on stage side by side. Sheen is five-seven and Dean is five-eight and both look like stout former wrestlers (which Dean is), lending credence to both Dean and Bartlett’s pugnacity.
Their physical similarity betrays the fact that there is much more to this Bartlett-Dean resemblance than meets the eye. And now that Dean has dropped out of the race, Bartlett’s primary campaign can serve as an instructional reminder of how Dean does and does not resemble creator Aaron Sorkin’s vision of a dream president.
Bartlett’s resemblance to Dean is especially evident in a West Wing episode I recently saw rerun on Bravo entitled "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II." It’s mainly about the surgery on Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) to repair a bullet wound, but it includes flashbacks to Bartlett’s primary campaign.
Bartlett has no war to rail against or Internet to utilize, but, like Dean, he comes out of nowhere, riding the wave of his progressive message from obscurity to frontrunner (Bartlett’s arc does, to his benefit, come later in the election cycle than Dean’s did). Bartlett’s staffers tell him that a win in Illinois – a valuable midwestern primary right before the California and New York contests – will put him over the hump. Similarly, Dean made last week’s Wisconsin primary – which was two weeks before the New York and California "Super Tuesday" – his make-or-break state.
On the day of the Illinois vote, Bartlett throws a tantrum when his acceptance speech, written by Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), refers to "my opponent" rather than using his actual name. The incident mirrors three aspects of the popular perception of Dean: his temper, his blunt speaking style, and his aversion to being handled by his staff.
Afterwards, Josh turns to Bartlett’s wife (Stockard Channing), who justifies her husband’s actions, saying, "He doesn’t like to be handled." "I think if he looks around, he’ll see that no one is handling him," Josh says. She replies, "He’s not ready yet."
The stories of how Bartlett’s staffers join the campaign are Dean-like as well. During the primaries, Josh, then a Congressional staffer, sees Bartlett speak and immediately heads to Sam’s law firm where he interrupts Sam’s important meeting, knocking on the conference room window with a "This is the guy" look on his face. Sam promptly leaves the meeting and they join the Bartlett campaign together, much like the Deaniacs who dropped everything to join the thousands of out-of-state volunteers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Later, Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) walks into the New Hampshire headquarters and tries to convince Josh to make her his assistant. Josh correctly guesses that her boyfriend, who she dropped out of college to support, just broke up with her, He says, "This can’t be a place for people to come to find their confidence and start over." She says: "Why not?" Donna’s story seems oddly parallel to the stories in the New York Times Magazine article about how Dean’s webheads left for Vermont after similar unlucky-in-love experiences.
True, the number of such instances was probably not as high as the Dean campaign’s mythical status would lead us to believe. But the campaign structure as a whole did have a very personal feel, as evidenced by the cheery blog postings, the network of volunteers and precinct captains, the support groups with names like "Deadheads for Dean," and "Howards for Howard," the Meetups that reportedly resembled therapy sessions, and generally the amount of freedom given to those at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Plus, Dean himself, more than any other candidate I can remember, let his personal traits show through. Even Bill Clinton, who suffered the ultimate clash between the personal and the political, was so exceedingly charming and hyper-ambitious, with sexual exploits so bizarre, that he didn’t seem human. Dean and his wife Judy, on the other hand, seemed down-to-earth enough to be my parents.
The relationship between the political and the personal is the main theme of much fo Sorkin’s body of work. Michael Douglas’s President Andrew Shepherd in the Sorkin-written "The American President" dodges the threat of election-year character attacks after his wife dies, but he suffers through them once he begins courting the lobbyist played by Annette Bening. When Bartlett’s daughter Zoey returns home after getting kidnapped, he chooses to give the speech that speechwriter Will Bailey (Joshua Molina) wrote in case she didn’t come back alive, one that acknowledges that he’s had a rough few days, rather than one that tries to rally the nation with false optimism. Even in the Sorkin-scripted "A Few Good Men," official navy regulations clash with the unofficial code that ensures that the men get along with one another.
Such conflicts are, of course, what make all good drama tick. Using a fictional president of the United States raises the stakes and brings in the political junkies, but it’s the human element that keeps the audience in their seats and tuning in each week. This is the reason why Dean, the most human of all the 2004 candidates, made such good fodder for news.
And, as with Shepherd in "The American President," it’s Bartlett’s humanity that makes him a better candidate and president. His devotion to those around him parallels his devotion to the American people.
At the end of the episode, before Bartlett gives his acceptance speech in Illinois, he detours over to O’Hare Airport to visit Josh, who’s about to leave for his father’s funeral. Bartlett gives his condolences, apologizes for treating the staff so badly, and even offers to accompany his dumbfounded staffer, who is impressed that Bartlett even remembers his name.
After Josh gets on the plane, Bartlett turns to Leo and says, "I’m ready."
This turn of Bartlett’s – which, the show suggests, leads to his victory in both the primaries and the general election – seems to be the turn that Dean didn’t make. I’m not nearly qualified to evaluate Dean’s relationship with his staff, but pundits have noted that Dean did not let himself be handled until it was too late. He shared many attributes of Sorkin’s dream candidate: a progressive, populist reformer, with a praise-worthy professional background (Dean is a doctor, Bartlett has a PhD in economics), who, in my opinion at least, was motivated far more by moral urgency and than by opportunism. But what Bartlett had, and what Dean did not, is a sense of how to take his message and polish it for a national audience.
As Bartlett and his entourage turn to leave the airport, we hear a voiceover of what is presumably his acceptance speech at the convention. It sounds oddly reminiscent of a certain now-infamous portion of Dean’s Iowa concession speech, but in this case, instead of listing states, Bartlett reminds us that American Revolution was fought by an alliance "of farmers and workers, of cobblers and tinsmiths, of statesmen and students, of mothers and wives, of men and boys." The voiceover perfectly drives home his populist message, as we see him striding triumphantly through O’Hare, surrounded by his staff, receiving the occasional congrats from passersby.
Howard Dean could only wish his campaign had been as well-scripted.