back to the Black Table

When Howard Dean took the stage September 30th in his blue oxford shirtsleeves, cuffed up to the elbow, he looked ready to take on all of Washington with his strong doctor's hands. The crowd packed into Los
Angeles's Union Station roared. Behind Dean stood a city councilman, state senator, director/Meathead/mockumentarian Rob Reiner, sign
language interpreter, and former TV President Martin Sheen, all in formal navy blue suits. Against their traditionally-clad (if alternative) tableau, Dean looked particularly casual and hardworking.

And I feel like Fox Mulder, because I want to believe.

I want to believe that Dean cast off his jacket backstage because it was warm, rolled up his sleeves because he was thinking about getting down to business. But it's not like he was there to reach into
a toilet tank and adjust the flapper. Look at him on the campaign trail in Boston, New York, Iowa: no jacket, shirtsleeves rolled up. I want to believe that this visual metaphor is coincidence; but high-stakes
Presidential campaigns calculate their visual metaphors carefully.

The event, a $100-a-head rally at Los Angeles' historic Union Station, was certainly polished and well-planned. A large screen in a corner of the cavernous hall displayed a powerpoint-ish malange of Dean photos, news and advertising to a swelling soundtrack. "It's like a rock show," said Joy Ray of Venice, CA, here to see Dean for the first time. "Except at rock shows nobody holds up signs blocking your view."

In a testament to Los Angeles, a city with a superficial reputation in a state now known as a political freakshow, those sign-waving attendees represented a wide and robust swath of constituents. There were white and brown and black; fathers with daughters; grandmothers, gay boyfriends and divorcees, teenagers, professionals, WTO protestors, union organizers, newly-energized voters.

What do all these contributors expect of Dean? Like Dean, they want the Democratic Party to nominate a candidate that doesn't act like a Republican. They see the other contenders as compromised by their time spent -- and decisions made -- in Congress. People didn't talk much about Wes Clark, except as a possible Dean running-mate.

"You've heard my speech many times, so I'm not going to say exactly that speech again," Dean began, one hand in his pocket, turning easily in the bright lights. In fact, he's the one who had heard it many times, wheeling through Southern California at a heady pace, from one small group meeting to the next. He did a relaxed and casual, if somewhat worn out, version of his stump speech, riffing with audience members who knew his positions as well as Dean himself.

Dean's job here is obvious: he's raising money. With this California trip capping off third quarter fundraising, Dean's total of close to $15 million is triple that of his closest rival, John Kerry. For Democrats, this city is an obvious destination: in 2000, Los Angeles voted 71% for Gore. We're a soft white belly full of cash.

And local supporters are apparently hungry to see Dean. You can't buy a donut in New Hampshire without bumping into a Democratic candidate, whereas spotting Colin Farrell would be a tale for the grandkids.

Around here the hierarchy is reversed. Angelenos are a contintent away from the political action. Dean hasn't stopped by for a rally since a little visit to UCLA in June. Maybe his warm, impassioned yet sane stump style made the crowd gratefully forget the lunacy of the gubernatorial recall. In any event, the desire to reach out to Dean was palpable at Union Station.

"Check everybody," a 73-year old security guard kept repeating to his coworkers as volunteers crowded to get backstage. He's only been a security guard for a year, but he spent 20 in the Air Force. "Check everybody," he said over and over, and yes he remembers 1968. "Check everybody."

Dean did a short lap into the crowd when his speech was done, signing autographsand shaking hands. One woman threw her arms around him, beaming. "I went to school with him," she cried, glowing like a Catholic who's just had an audience with the Pope. Effusive but not dangerous.

In profile against the high arched doorways of this classic art deco train station, Dean looked historic, iconographic. Weighty but not burdened. "I didn't expect it," a hip, thirty-something woman said, "but he seems totally Presidential."