Alas, poor Howard

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(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth had a lot of fun imagining was it must have been like to be an insider in the Dean campaign. Most recently, he’s been imagining being sent in to pick up the pieces.

(Baruth) Every form of tragedy has its caretaker. When a thoroughbred suddenly goes down at the Kentucky Derby, there’s a track vet who gets the call, a man who understands both sympathy and reality.

And when it’s a presidential candidate who goes down inches from the finish line, I’m your man. It’s an odd specialty, and I’m not sure how I got into it. But I got Dukakis on his feet again, and although everyone else will deny this, I was the one who eventually found Al Gore curled up in a little ball at a Red Roof Inn outside Phoenix.

So when the call came through from the Dean camp, I wasn’t surprised. Howard fell a long, long way – further than most of us will travel in our entire lifetimes. And when you fall that far, you break.

A staffer met me at the door of the darkened Dean 2004 headquarters. Not Joe Trippi, not any of the players who once ran this place like a presidential theme park. One low-level Deaniac is all that’s left. His t-shirt says, “The Doctor Is In.”

“Where is he?” I ask.
“He’s in the prep room,” the Deaniac whispers, and I can tell the situation has him nearly freaked. “He’s just sitting there, listening to his music.” I nod and I start to move down the dim corridor.

Every campaign has its official tune, and every candidate has a song that’s private, that tells him or her the moment is now. As I reach the prep room, I hear it, the theme song from the film “Eight Mile.”

“Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted — One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

In the film, the song wins Eminem the battle of the rappers, and I imagine Dean’s campaign playing it as a joke before debates, but during the long months criss-crossing Iowa, that it came to speak to Dean.

He’s just sitting there now, listening to the music. I go and I turn down the volume. And then I come back to his chair and I lean down to his ear. What I say can’t be about him; he can’t go there yet. So I talk about another Vermont boy who had his moment, and then saw it slip away.

“Remember Jim Jeffords, Howard? He left the Republican Party, threw control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. And in year or so, the Republicans took back the Senate anyway, and Jeffords was suddenly just a guy in the minority with a bunch of arrows in his back. But that didn’t mean he didn’t do something fine and brave and true in his moment, because he did, Howard. And that can never be taken away.”

That’s all I say, for now. I turn up the stereo again, and then head into the little kitchenette to make the first of a thousand pots of coffee. I learned during the Al Gore rehabilitation that it’s a long, maybe endless road.

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime. You can do anything you set your mind to, man.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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