Why I Can’t Stand Bruce Dobie 

The Southern argument for Howard Dean

The Southern argument for Howard Dean

Editor’s Note: Last week, the Scene published an opinion piece by Bruce Dobie titled “Why I Can’t Stand Howard Dean,” outlining his reasons as a Southerner for disliking the Democratic presidential contender from Vermont. A Dean supporter fired back this response.

I’m a Southerner, born, raised, educated and employed, and I love most everything Howard Dean stands for. To be sure, former Gov. Dean has a lot more Southerner in him than folks are giving him credit for. He’s certainly no Massachusetts-style New England liberal.

I’ve been to Boston several times. New York City a few times too. I’ll be honest, I don’t care much for either. The people are a bit standoffish, a tad defensive. The pleasure of my visit is clearly expected to be all mine. But over the holiday I made my first-ever trip to Vermont, where Howard Dean has spent virtually his whole adult life. Vermont is a totally different place.

They are serious about their hunting and fishing. They smoke in their bars. Sure, there are pockets of a cultural arts scene, where you can get a strong-tasting beer and go to college (hopefully not at the same time). But that is all nestled in a backdrop of beautiful scenic hills and lakes. In many ways it’s a miniature version of Middle Tennessee (minus about 30 degrees Fahrenheit). So I’m not surprised that I’m drawn to Dean. I was convinced from the time I first heard him, and still am, that he is a Democrat who can win in the South.

Howard Dean is pro-gun rights. He balances budgets even when the law doesn’t require it. He lowers taxes—that’s right, lowers—when there is enough revenue coming in. And he had the good sense not to believe George Bush’s appeal to the threat posed by Iraq.

Doesn’t sound all that different from the Southern ethic to me.

True, Dean doesn’t think through the political, electoral implications of each statement he makes, so he sometimes offers a clumsy first response. It’s also true, as Bruce Dobie points out, that he doesn’t spend his time cozying up to reporters with nicknames or knowing smiles. (Since when did making reporters feel good about themselves become a virtue?) And he’s not the warmest TV personality American politics has provided, though I understand he beams in person.

But let’s face it: Sometimes we in the South, me included, get a little carried away with our appreciation of outward genteel hospitality. We love a little of that old-fashioned surface suck-up. We like to be sold with over-the-top faux-friendliness, whether we’re buying used cars or coffee at a diner or picking a church. When the Waffle House waitress calls me “darlin’,” it doesn’t much matter how the coffee tastes. Most of all, we like our politicians to have a warm handshake, a gracious smile and a little self-deprecating “aw, shucks” in 'em. Doesn’t really matter what they say after that.

But that can be a dangerous and—let’s be honest here—shallow indulgence. Dobie needs it so bad that he’s disgusted by the success of a political candidate who doesn’t gush with external nicety. (Would he be so disgusted if the governor were just an also-ran in the polls?) Dobie would rather his sickness be treated with a good bedside manner than by a good doctor. And he’d rather have a president that made him feel important than one who could most effectively address this country’s woes—and most forcefully counter the president who brought them to us.

I believe that the Southern voter is smarter, and more self-protective, than that this year. In Howard Dean there’s a candidate who believes what we believe, and who will stand up and fight for those things. For that reason alone he’s a candidate worth supporting. But there’s more. Here in Tennessee, we hired the more effective candidate for governor even though he’s not the warmest coal in the fire. I believe we’re ready to hire an effective president with a record of moderate executive leadership—a president who agrees with us and promotes our core Democratic values, even if his coal shoots sparks every which way now and then.

But there’s more to the Dean campaign than that. Dean is not just a policy wonk, and he’s not just waging a political campaign. His is a movement that has carried him, indeed, transcended him. Amid all the bickering for the nomination, the possibility of a powerful Democratic coalition is starting to emerge, bringing the labor movement/blue-collar worker together with the social/cultural/environmental progressive. Far from dividing the party, Dean’s campaign and his vision of America embody the possibility of a unity in the Democratic Party that hasn’t been in place since the Vietnam War—and with the element of new voters and activists thrown in. He’s done this by listening to the pulse of the party, and by allowing the people to have a place at the political table.

If you want a smooth talker and a warm TV personality, Howard Dean is probably not your candidate. But demanding that kind of chumminess, palling it up with the press, a gracious smile and a deferring tone in the spirit of Southern hospitality, that’s a recipe for electing the president we’ve already got. Meanwhile, we continue to lose manufacturing jobs; our schools are declared failing to make way for voucher systems; the tax burden continues to shift from those who can afford to pay it to those who can’t; and the right to organize gets tougher each fiscal quarter. Oh yeah, and soldiers from Fort Campbell get shot at every day.

That’s exactly the recipe Bruce Dobie would have us use in picking a candidate. And that’s why I can’t stand him. We need to own up to that common Southern failing that threatens us: overvaluing that “regular hombre” quality, the overt and mere appearance of an empathetic smile, a nodding head, a gentle but calculated pat on the shoulder. It’s a little defensive on our part, isn’t it—a strange paranoia of elitism—to demand such a production from our presidential candidates? Especially when we know how seldom it results in policies that are that warm and fuzzy.

My fellow Southerners, Dobie may prefer a candidate who cozies up to his press colleagues with more ease. But in Howard Dean there is a genuine person running for president. He got into political life because he saw the connection between government and the people’s quality of life, in the perhaps trivial form of a bike path. He stayed in because of the profound opportunity to improve—dramatically—a citizen’s hope to succeed in life. In Vermont he has done that by any reasonable measure.

Howard Dean is a candidate who, though born in wealth and the city, comes to us now from a place not unlike our own state. He wasn’t exiled to Vermont in his 20s; he chose to live there. His beliefs and values are our beliefs and values. And he’s willing to fight like no other candidate to protect the middle class in this country, and to protect us all by building up middle classes around the world. Bruce Dobie is disgusted because he still believes, as Dean used to, that Bush is a moderate at heart.

I can forgive falling for that with Bush, the 2000 presidential candidate. But insisting on that kind of personal deference now, after all that his administration has done in his name and ours, and lambasting the only candidate who can offer the South a viable alternative we can believe in—just because he doesn’t share those shallow, misleading qualities—is sickening. I for one will cast my lot with a good doctor. Even if Bruce Dobie would have us suffer further under the smile of a warm bedside manner.


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