Dean and the Duke

I've got this Howard Dean problem, and it's not that I think he's George McGovern. Actually, I think he's John Wayne.

And not just any John Wayne, but the Duke in his greatest performances, in some of John Ford's later movies. I know -- it's bad enough to tell my fellow liberals that I still have reservations about Dean, but to say that John Wayne was capable of great performances immediately subjects all my judgment and, perhaps, eyesight, to pitiless scrutiny. Nevertheless.

I have in mind the Wayne characters in "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." In these movies, Wayne plays historically transitional figures -- the ultimate tough guy who defeats the forces of darkness and disorder, in no small part by becoming, or just being, very like them himself, but for whom the forces of light then have no further use. In "The Searchers," he spends five years hunting down a Comanche tribe, and when he finds it, he scalps the chief. The conclusion of "The Searchers" sees Wayne heading off to wander in the desert as the door to his family's home closes behind him. In "Liberty Valance," he guns down bad guy Lee Marvin -- and renders himself obsolete as soon as the smoke clears. With their safety secured, the townsfolk don't need the Wayne character anymore; they go off and anoint the distinctly less rambunctious Jimmy Stewart as their hero.

At first glance the parallels between these Wayne incarnations and George W. Bush may seem more striking. Bush has Wayne's swagger, his contempt for certain civilized norms. He's a president for battle, but when it comes to thinking through how to build a community or a police force after the war is over, he's as clueless as the Duke once the bad guys are dispatched. At this point, as John Ford clearly understood, you send for Jimmy Stewart.

But in Howard Dean, you don't get Jimmy Stewart -- at least, not yet.

You get the Democrats' John Wayne, on a mission to hunt down George W. Bush in no small measure by becoming, or being, the Democratic candidate most like Bush. Dean has the Duke's contempt for all those citified fellers -- the Washington Democrats -- who took forever to realize that Bush was gunning for them and never quite figured out how to fight back.

Alone among the Democratic candidates, Dean understood that the law hadn't come yet to Dodge, that the party needed a tough guy who could unleash its long-suppressed animal instincts. And so Dean has pursued the same strategy that Bush has followed, but that his fellow Democrats have shunned: Cultivate the base. He gave the core Democrats, and the unaffiliated young, a meaningful vehicle to oppose the war and Bush's shredding of the social contract at home and international alliances abroad.

While the Republicans under Bush have consistently catered to the right, Dean is the first Democratic presidential candidate in years to have reached out so clearly to his party's liberal base.

And to that base, Dean's appeal is as much personal as programmatic.

The Deaniacs love him for the enemies he's made and his seeming determination to keep making them. He's as pugnacious as Bush, and just as inclined to shoot from the lip -- less from misspeaking, I surmise, than from a sense that at times he needs to assure the zealots in his ranks. Like Bush, he can alienate millions of people at such moments -- for instance, his refusal to immediately swat down the cockeyed notion that Bush knew about Sept. 11 in advance -- but, like Bush, by so doing he displays a solicitude even to the most feebleminded of his backers.

All this has made for an absolutely brilliant 2003, with Dean soaring into what is likely an insurmountable lead in the fight to become the party's nominee. The Democrats have needed a Wayne of their own, and there are signs -- Nancy Pelosi's increasingly assured leadership of the House Democrats, for one -- that this toughness is beginning to take hold beyond the confines of Deanland. The question, though, is whether Dean can transcend his inner Duke. In 2004 the Democrats need a Jimmy Stewart, too, who can persuade the townsfolk that he's not just good for battle but for building a better social order.

That doesn't mean Howard Dean needs to move to what many in Washington consider the center. Dean's well-grounded misgivings about free trade will certainly stand him in better stead in such key swing states as Ohio than will a New Democrat infatuation with a globalization that raises profits and depresses wages. But it does mean that Dean needs to find some Stewart-like magic that enables him to talk to Ohioans about family and security as though he were more of an old friend -- someone who champions their interests and feels at home in their culture. He doesn't need to cultivate a drawl, but he needs to broaden his repertoire beyond the bark.

Even those of us who defend John Wayne's acting, after all, never say that the Duke had any range.


Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This column originally appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post.

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