Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The True Story of the Howard Dean Metrosexual quote:

This is the story, if you google “Howard Dean” and Metrosexual you’ll end up getting quite a few hits. Maybe some people remember this week-long story dating from October 29, 2003. Howard Dean had been running high all summer but towards the end and into the fall there started to be a pile on of bad stories about him. I still think a lot of these were non-gaffe “gaffes” that were blown up because the official story was now “take-down” by both Republicans and the other Democratic hopefuls. Dean simply peaked too soon. (I say this without ever being a real Dean sign-on. One the things about running for president is you have to learn how to handle campaign messaging. If you can’t handle the press or your opponents in the primary, you’re not going to be able to handle them in the general.)

Anyway here’s the only national scoop I ever had before anyone else and how I didn’t use it. The Denver Post was the paper that originated the story. They have expensive archives so I can’t link to the original but many other websites repeated the story in its entirety.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean tried to be all things, except George W. Bush, to all voters on fundraising stops in Boulder and Denver on Tuesday.

The pack-leading Democrat hit all the marks, courting fiscal conservatives and social liberals. He bashed the war and pumped up his plans for universal heath care, renewable energy and investments in schools, highways and broadband Internet for everyone.

Dean declared himself a "metrosexual," the buzz phrase for straight men in touch with their feminine sides, as he touted his accomplishments in "equal justice" for gay and lesbian couples.

But then he waffled.

"I'm a square," Dean declared, after professing his metrosexuality to a Boulder breakfast audience with an anecdote about being called handsome by a gay man. "I like (rapper) Wyclef Jean and everybody thinks I'm very hip, but I am really a square, as my kids will tell you. I don't even get to watch television. I've heard the term (metrosexual), but I don't know what it means."

At a luncheon in Denver, Dean surged past the issues and got down to more immediate business, spelling out the main reason for his fourth Colorado visit in the past year.

"This is all about raising money to beat George W. Bush," he told a full ballroom at the Oxford Hotel.

Now being a former reporter (I was in grad school at the time) I noticed something a little funny about this story. The big news is that Dean calls himself a metrosexual but there’s no actual quote where he says it. The reporter paraphrases it. I thought for such a juicy revelation it was rather odd not to have the real quotation. So I tracked down the actual reporter who was there (The Denver Post has their e-mail addresses so its easy to do so) I wrote a fairly short letter…”hey did Dean really say he was a Metrosexual? What’s the actual quote?”

The reporter wrote back to me that “yes” he did say it and that he had transcribed the whole speech, which actually sent it to me.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe his paraphrase; “Dean declared himself a ‘metrosexual’… and then waffled” was accurate. I wish I had the actual transcript to show everyone. All of this went to University e-mail account that is now closed and I never thought to save these e-mails before the account was closed.
The actual quote was something like “People say I’m a metrosexual…I don’t really know what that means.” It might have even been more like “this guy who said I was handsome called me a metrosexual, which I don’t know what that means.” There was definitely no declarative statement as in “I, Howard Dean, say I am a metrosexual.” He used the word, for certain, but as I pointed out to the reporter…do you really think he actually did know what it meant? The reporter agreed with me. Howard Dean probably didn’t have the foggiest clue what Metrosexual meant, but the reporter still nailed him for “pandering” to the crowd by using a word like that.

I hate that term, “pandering” in relation to politics. It’s a word meant to give negative connotations to a fairly natural habit in speechmaking. How much speech is pandering and how much is just good old fashioned showmanship? If a band comes out on stage and says “We’re happy to be here in Cleveland!” does that mean they are “pandering” to the crowd? Or are they supposed to say “Well we’re here in Cleveland which is our 142nd city and we’d really rather be at home with our girlfriends, but here’s our set tonight!”

That would get the crowd moving.

So Dean, who had a natural constituency in gays and lesbians, in a friendly luncheons name-checks a term he’s heard and he’s supposed to be slammed for it? (By the way, raise your had if you actually think Howard Dean is a metrosexual or that he thought he was a metrosexual, a term he admitted he didn’t know what it meant!)
Even if you believe that “pander” is the correct term that should be used to describe Dean’s speech at a friendly fund-raising luncheon…for the reporter to use the loaded word “waffle,” I think is even harsher. Waffle is a very negative term to use in political descriptions; this was even before “flip flop” took over.

The reporter and I went back and forth a few e-mails about this situation and it ended with him not admitting he was wrong but saying I’d make a good spinner. It was about as much of an admission that he was potentially wrong as you are likely to get. That maybe, someone could possibly honestly interpret the situation differently.

The thing is, being a reporter I know exactly why he wrote the story as he did. Covering speeches and luncheons is pretty boring. Everything is fairly canned and, if I may say so, staged. It’s like writing a story about a birthday party “Good time was had by all.” You start looking for disaster like someone lighting the table on fire. (Other story I hate writing, “man-on-the-street” quotes. So pointless.)

So if you have a presidential frontrunner use a buzzword, it’s probably (to the reporter anyway) the most “interesting” thing that happened during the event. Remember that is the reporter’s perspective of what’s interesting at, for him, a naturally boring event. He’s not really the intended audience for these events which are meant for supporters. But the thing about not using the quote as it was…again, I’ve been there. Sometimes you wish people would speak in perfect quotedom. I remember Ken Auletta interviewing Jon Stewart and they played a clip of The Daily Show with a bunch of Dick Cheney lies. And Auletta asked why he didn’t play one where Cheney blames Saddam Hussien for 9/11 and Stewart said that basically the times Cheney made an allusion to this theory, it ran into a 10 minute long speech where it was only suggested but not directly said. So, essentially, it wasn’t quotable but you could paraphrase it.

This metrosexual quote was also probably pretty good for the reporter. It got picked up nationally and became a one-week story which was along the lines of “look, another gaffe made by Dean.” You know, if this is a gaffe, calling or referencing a term like Metrosexual, I wonder what you would call something like what Trent Lott said at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party? One is truly an offensive statement (which was later revealed to have been repeated a lot in Lott’s political life). The other is something, at worst, kind of silly but certainly doesn’t offend anyone.

Anyway I think of this as the one-that-got-away because back in early November 2003 I wasn’t really into reading blogs (it’s a habit I picked up more in 2004 and 2005). If I had I would have tipped off Daily Kos or someone and tried to get the story going. Or written it up myself and gotten some attention. But what I did was try to pass the tip onto Slate’s Jack Schafer and the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, both of which did nothing with it. (Schafer wrote me back that he thought he had seen already seen an explanation of the quote, but didn’t write about it himself or link that to me. I’ve never seen such an expose myself and to this day people will still occasionally rhetorically link “Howard Dean” and “metrosexual” as a gaffe of his. Like that stupid Al Gore internet myth quote.

Again, I agree this would be all the more impressive if I still had the actual transcript the reporter sent me. But the benefit of being a blogger and not a reporter is that I’m free to write about this as an anecdote but not as a news story.

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