Mysterious, vanishing Dean

If Howard Dean thought becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) would be a great way to heighten his profile, he made a big mistake. Since he was elected to the top party spot on Feb. 12, Democrats have hidden him like the Clinton staff hid mistresses.

They’ve received a lot of help from a national media blackout. As Mr. Dean traveled the country dispensing gaffe after gaffe, the national networks ignored him almost entirely. On Thursday, June 2, he cracked at a left-wing convention that many Republicans “have never made an honest living in their lives.” ABC, CBS and NBC ignored him for three days, until the Sunday morning interview programs, which have about a quarter to half the ratings of the evening news.

John Edwards distanced himself from Mr. Dean on Saturday, as Delaware Sen. Joe Biden did on ABC Sunday. Then, Monday night, “NBC Nightly News” took up Mr. Dean’s loose lips. Fourteen minutes in, with no promotion at the outset, anchor Brian Williams began: “In Democratic politics, he’s hard to miss.” Wrong. He has been easy to miss on network TV news.

But Andrea Mitchell’s story was pretty tough, featuring a list of Dean gaffes, and a list of horrified Democratic reactions to Mr. Dean, from Mr. Biden and Mr. Edwards to consultant David Axelrod to former Party Chairman Bob Strauss. (Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and an online statement from Mr. Edwards were brought to Mr. Dean’s defense.)

But NBC’s single story is the exception. The rule has been a blackout at the Big Three since the weekend Mr. Dean was elected. CBS hasn’t mentioned the words “Howard Dean” since Feb. 20. ABC and NBC both ignored Mr. Dean for two months until they found his critical comments useful during the mid-April controversy over Terri Schiavo’s death. But Mr. Dean’s gaffes were nowhere to be found. They also ignored Mr. Dean for the rest of April, and then May.

So when Mr. Dean was scheduled for a rare national TV shot on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on May 23, they must have been passing around the Advil for the expected headaches. The truly jaw-dropping moments came when Tim Russert made obvious comparisons of comments from Howard Dean’s mouth.

On May 14, Mr. Dean said Rep. Tom DeLay should go back to Houston “where he can serve his jail sentence.” But in December 2003, Mr. Dean said we shouldn’t prejudge the guilt of Osama bin Laden: “I’ve resisted pronouncing a sentence before guilt is found.” Mr. Russert asked Mr. Dean to reconcile the double standard.

“To be honest with you, Tim, I don’t think I’m prejudging him,” declared Mr. Dean of Mr. DeLay, arguing a reprimand from the House Ethics Committee — which in traffic-cop terms is a warning, not a ticket — is somehow evidence of criminal guilt.

Mr. Dean argued, “I think there’s a reasonable chance that this may end up in jail.” When Mr. Russert followed up by noting even liberal Democrat Rep. Barney Frank found the jail talk out of line, Mr. Dean repeated: “As I said before, we’re not speculating here.” (We’re not?) For giggles, he added: “We’re not going to stoop to the kind of divisiveness that the Republicans are doing.”

Mr. Russert also noted that at an American Civil Liberties Union event, Mr. Dean had joked Rush Limbaugh snorted cocaine between sentences on his radio show. Mr. Russert didn’t note Rush was treated for Vicodin addiction, not cocaine, but did ask if a physician such as Mr. Dean should mock someone undergoing therapy. Mr. Dean unloaded a volley about conservative hypocrites and said — get this — “We ought not to lecture each other about our ethical shortcomings.” What was it he had just said about Mr. DeLay and jail?

It was a disastrous performance. Guess how many news items that night and the next day on ABC, CBS, and NBC focused on Mr. Dean’s meltdown? ABC and CBS had nothing. NBC’s Sunday “Nightly News” used only a bland Dean clip on the filibuster.

Except for Miss Mitchell, the networks also ignore Mr. Dean’s off-camera performance. He is not producing the financial windfall the DNC expected from fiery antiwar left-wingers.

Federal election reports show the DNC raised $14.1 million in first-quarter 2005 versus the RNC’s $32.3 million. Mr. Dean drew about 20,000 new donors, while the GOP picked up 68,200. Republicans have $26.2 million in the bank versus $7.2 million for the Democrats.

If the liberal media wanted to look like they weren’t reporting from inside the DNC press office, they haven’t helped their image with a Howard Dean blackout. Instead, they sound more like Pepto-Bismol. They coat, soothe and protect the Democrats from indigestion due to their fiery, gassy leader.

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