How to Rise from the Political Deathbed

Howard Dean’s current bid to chair the Democratic National Committee is a test case of his political viability. It’s his first political quest since a spirited speech, endlessly rebroadcast and lampooned, derailed his innovative and well-funded 2004 presidential campaign.

Virtually no account of Dean’s current candidacy has failed to mention his “I Have a Scream” performance and the subsequent collapse of his presidential campaign. It has seemed that the image of Dean whooping and spinning after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses is so engraved in the national consciousness that there is no chance of Dean’s reputation ever recovering.

History, however, suggests that Dean has a good chance of regaining his position as a widely respected and promising political player. An embarrassing public performance, even one that brings a campaign to a grinding halt, does not necessarily indicate “end of game” for a political career.

What separates forgivable gaffes from unforgivable transgression remains a little fuzzy, but one unofficial rule for possible political resurrection is clear. While Americans may bridle or snicker at an inappropriate remark or even a speech, as long as it remains a singular occurrence rather than part of a larger pattern the speaker’s reputation can be resuscitated.

There are caveats to this rule. The offending event must appear spontaneous rather than planned. The chance for resurrection is also proportionate to the sense that the ensuing scandal was more the result of media amplification than of the offending event itself. Extra points are given if there’s a widespread sense that the event was not intended for broad public consumption, but originally directed at a much smaller audience.

Several politicians provide excellent examples of how the recovery game can be won.

Not recognizing that his microphone was on during a radio sound check in 1984, President Reagan announced that he had outlawed Russia and that a bombing campaign would begin in five minutes.

The seemingly endless repetition of the recording ensured that charges ranging from insensitivity to warmongering ensued. Early assertions that the president had caused serious damage to either international relations or his own reputation, however, did not gain traction. All but his harshest critics acknowledged that the gaffe was essentially an ill-advised attempt at humor by a president celebrated for his congeniality.

The fact that Reagan’s remarks were clearly unrehearsed and intended to be heard only by those in the studio reinforced the perception that they were relatively benign. The staggering number of repetitions contributed to the feeling that the outrage could be dismissed as overblown.

In 1962, after his defeat for the California governorship, Nixon gave a “last press conference,” in which he announced to reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” The announcement was so final that four nights later ABC aired “The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon.”

The American public forgave Nixon for not holding to his word because his remarks were clearly spontaneous rather than a carefully considered statement. They were also a rare departure from his tightly controlled image of sincerity and humility. In addition, Nixon’s barb was clearly directed not at the American people, but at the cadre of reporters he, and many others, viewed as biased against him.

An event foreshadowing “Dean’s Scream” occurred in 1911. As the early support for his presidential candidacy faded, a frustrated and exhausted Robert La Follette gave a disastrous speech to a group of magazine and newspaper publishers. According to one eyewitness, “La Follette killed himself politically. . . . He lost his temper repeatedly — shook his fist at listeners,–was abusive, ugly in manner.”

For days newspapers headlined La Follette’s “collapse” and “mental breakdown.” Rumors circulated that the senator had frothed at the mouth, was incoherent, an alcoholic and terminally ill.

La Follette’s Wisconsin constituents valued his unwavering progressive vision. They forgave his lashing out at members of a press that had long been biased against him and had exaggerated an emotional, unrepresentative performance. La Follette remained a powerhouse in the Senate until his death in 1925. In 2000, the Senate recognized him as one the seven greatest senators in American history.

Howard Dean’s effort to reach a boisterous crowd of supporters in the face of a disappointing loss was tirelessly exploited and sensationalized. His offending speech was not intended for wide distribution, but has been recognized as spontaneous, unrepresentative and absurdly overblown by the media.

Howard Dean has not been disqualified from the game of politics by his spirited speech. Should the Democratic National Committee chairmen elect him as its new head Feb. 12, it will signal the beginning of a whole new round of play.

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).