Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Howard Dean, the European Paper Crisis, and how I came to care about politics

I still remember when I fell head over heels for politics. It was my senior year of high school, on the day after the 2004 Iowa Caucus. As the bell rang to start class, our Giddy Civics Teacher exclaimed something like, “Last night, a top candidate lost his bid for the presidency in just 10 seconds.”

Then, he played Howard Dean’s wack-a-doodle, screamy “We’re going to [all the states plus more states], WHOOOOO!” proclamation. The class was in an uproar.

“Yes!” said Giddy Civics Teacher. “Your reaction right now is exactly why this man will NEVER BE PRESIDENT. This soundbite has been played over and over, and it makes him look off-kilter. And he’ll never recover from this.”

We respectfully requested that he play the clip eight more times before discussing the implications.

Quick backstory: It was pretty clear that this man was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. We knew this not because he’d told us, but because he was incredibly passionate about conserving paper in his classroom. Once, he’d teared up when two girls asked him if he'd heard about “The European Paper Crisis,” a fake paper shortage they’d created to stress him out.

“I can’t believe you haven’t heard that they bulldozed the entire Black Forest,” my classmate said sweetly. “It’s such a huge issue, I assumed you’d be really upset about it.”

GCT was in panic mode at this point, and it was hard to watch. I remember wondering how someone so smart could be hoodwinked by these two who — like most 17-year old girls — knew more about bronzer than they did about German forestry.

I digress.

GCT was explaining how Dean was previously considered to be the savviest Democratic candidate, and was by far the party’s best fundraiser. He related Dean’s squealing to the Kennedy-Nixon debate, where Kennedy wore makeup and looked flawless, while Nixon appeared to sweat through the screen.

We spent the rest of the period talking about perception, and how it can be even more critical to a candidate’s success than the candidate’s stance on the issues. And I was hooked — not only at the absurdity of it all, but also by the confidence of GCT to pronounce Howard Dean dead in the water.

I wondered, How do you know the difference between a gaffe and a career-ender? How do you know when something is just that day’s big story, and when it will become an in-joke used for decades?

For example, Todd Akin had said all kinds of terrible things about women over the years but it wasn’t until he talked about “legitimate rape” that people took notice and emptied their coffers to support his opponent.
In the 2012 debates, I remember being delighted as Mitt Romney uttered the words, “I love wind jobs” when discussing alternative energy. But only minutes later, he trumped it with “binders full of women” and the rest is history.*

All of this is to say, we have so many absurd stories to choose from these days. And so while I had blind faith in GCT’s assessment of Howard Dean’s collapse, I’m not sure these falls are as easy to predict as in 2004.

What is clear is that the gaffes just keep coming. This morning, for example, I watched two 60-year men — current and former governors, no less — throw a dual tantrum over the use of a fan during a debate:

I haven’t been able to get that clip out of my head all day, but it doesn't seem like this bizarre series of events is really going to affect either of these yahoo candidates. I'm still not sure how GCT knew so clearly that Dean's shrieking was going to stick.

What I do know is that ten years later, I’m still making connections from one lesson plan. And while things like #FanGate are fun to talk about and obsess over, I'm interested in the complex issues of policy, too.

That was the gift GCT gave us — he first showed us something that was easy to access and dissect, then moved to the more difficult stuff throughout the course.

GCT, I don’t know where you are today. But I hope you’re out there playing a clip about #FanGate to a group of high schoolers. And even if they look apathetic, and even if a few of them are telling you that every California redwood was torched last night to make way for Google’s new headquarters, just know that one future wonk is in the back, listening to every word.

And because of you, she’s going to grow up to pester roommates, cousins, boyfriends and her parents to care about candidates and the big issues. Because of you, she’s going to be the weirdo who cries on election day as she considers the importance of her vote.

Thanks, GCT, for teaching me to be giddy about civics, too.

*Big ups to Kelli S. for prompting this post by telling me today is the two year anniversary of Binders Full of Women.


Kelli Schmitz said...

I love this. I had a similar formative experience with a high school government teacher.
Now I'm going to print this out and put it in my woman binder.