The Battle Cry That Backfired on Howard "The Scream" Dean

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Dean, with Sen. Tom Harkin, tries to rev up supporters after a losing night in Iowa.

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It was more of a rallying cry to buoy a roomful of disappointed supporters than the raving of an out-of-control zealot. But it quickly became known as the Scream, and it lives on as a case study of how a brief gaffe, given saturation coverage by the media, can cause deep damage to a politician's image.

The incident happened on the night of the Iowa presidential nominating caucuses, Jan. 19, 2004. Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, had been promoted in the media for weeks as the Democrat to beat, riding a tough antiwar message, an outsider's critique of Washington, and what he described as an army of angry insurgents. But as the returns rolled in, it became clear that Dean and the media had badly overestimated his strength and that the air was leaking fast out of his balloon. In the end, Dean lost with only 18 percent of the vote, behind winner John Kerry and runner-up John Edwards.

That evening, Dean appeared before a crowd of downcast supporters in West Des Moines. He took off his suit jacket, rolled up the sleeves of his blue shirt, and acknowledged, "I'm sure there are some disappointed people here." Then he tried to motivate them to continue the fight. Getting revved up by the crowd's cheers and chants, he promised to take his campaign on to New Hampshire, South Carolina, California, and a string of other states, the names of which he shouted out like a cheerleader at a high school pep rally. His face reddening and his right hand balled into a fist, Dean shouted: "And then we're going to Washington, D.C.—to take back the White House—YEEEEEAAARGH!"

The moment of exhortation was described in the media as the "primal scream" or the " 'I Have a Scream' speech." And it was replayed endlessly on national TV. It immediately became the target of ridicule on the late-night talk shows, adding to Dean's embarrassment. "Did you see Dean's speech last night?" asked Jay Leno. "Oh my God! Now I hear the cows in Iowa are afraid of getting mad Dean disease. It's always a bad sign when at the end of your speech, your aide is shooting you with a tranquilizer gun." Added David Letterman: "Here's what happened: The people of Iowa realized they didn't want a president with the personality of a hockey dad." It all made Dean, normally a very disciplined and strait-laced New Englander, look more than a little bit kooky.

Today, he seems to have no hard feelings. "I came in third," Dean recalled in a recent interview. "That had already happened"—so obviously the Scream didn't cost him Iowa. But it certainly hurt him in the next week's New Hampshire primary, although most analysts say it was still the fact of the loss—which the Scream only called attention to—that derailed him.

Resigned. Dean is now working mostly behind the scenes as chairman of the Democratic National Committee to raise money for the 2008 political cycle. He says "the media did a bad thing" by exaggerating his rallying cry, but he seems to have moved beyond that night four years ago. "It didn't have a damn thing to do with my loss," he says. "I had already lost."

But Dean says other candidates would do well to learn from his mistake and be aware that the media can sensationalize just about anything. Modern campaigns, he says, can change abruptly and "at the last minute," and nothing is a "done deal" until the votes are cast.