TCS Daily

Crisis Management

By Lee Harris - January 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Is it fair to judge a man by a single shriek?

I am referring to the sound that Howard Dean made the night of his dismal third place showing in the Iowa Caucus -- a sound that National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg has thoughtfully transcribed for those who did not get a chance to hear it on TV as a word beginning with Y, followed by 16 E's, 6 A's, 3 G's, and 6 H's: YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAGGGHHHHH. But even if it the sound Governor Dean made contained 28 E's and 16 A's, still the question remains: Is it fair to judge his entire candidacy by it?

It isn't like Howard Dean is the first man to shriek. I shriek quite a lot myself, and have already done so several times during the current election campaign. But then my shrieks are done in the privacy of my own home, and their reverberation does not pass beyond my walls, whereas Dean's shriek was captured on national television and broadcast to all the world.

Yet even so, shouldn't we still give Dean the benefit of the doubt? After all, it is quite probable that the Governor, on reviewing the videotape of his rousing oration, might well have wished that the shriek had never happened at all, just as many of us wish that we hadn't made that rude bodily noise during an important job interview. In which case, why can't we all just overlook Mr. Dean's shriek, the same way we all overlook the occasional gaffes of our friends and colleagues?

The answer is that we don't always overlook such seemingly minor gaffes, even when they are made by our friends and colleagues -- and this is because there are times when such seemingly minor gaffes are taken by us as inadvertent revelations of the other person's "true" character.

When we first meet someone what we see is the surface of his or her personality -- and naturally this is the part that most people take great care to present in the best possible light. It is the realm of what might be called the short term virtues, by which I mean those features of a person that can be observed in a single interview, such as good posture and pleasant manners, punctuality and an adequate grasp of the rules of English grammar. But these virtues, as attractive as they are, do not tell us the whole story about the other person, since there is also a critically important set of long term virtues that cannot be taken in at a single glance -- or even, in certain cases, after years of familiarity with the person in question.

How long does it take you to know whether a man will panic in a crisis? Well, the answer is simple -- just as long as it takes for you to catch him in a crisis; and often that can be a long time. And the same is true of many other well-known long term virtues, such as loyalty and fidelity. How can you really tell how loyal a person is, if this loyalty has never been severely tested? And how long must we wait before such a test arises?

Yet the process of getting to know a person's long term virtues does not necessarily require a long time. Life is full of those peculiar situations in which a chance event happens to illuminate for us the deep structure of another man's character in a flash. One man sees a child drowning and unhesitatingly jumps in to save the child's life, without a thought for his own, whereas another man, by offering a miserable excuse for his failure to follow suit, forever brands himself as a coward.

Such a chance event happened this week in Iowa: Howard Dean came in a poor third only a week after the conventional wisdom had all but declared him the Nominee-Elect of the Democratic Party for 2004.

Anyone can win, just as anyone can be defeated, and still not give us a clue to their true metal. But for a man to be badly defeated when he expected to win handily, that is certain to be a moment for the revelation of character, and in Governor Dean's case, it offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to let the American voters know whether or not he possesses those otherwise hard-to-detect long term virtues so necessary to lead our nation in a time of crisis -- virtues such steadiness and magnanimity, endurance and wisdom.

This last week, unfortunately for his electoral prospects, Howard Dean revealed the stuff that he was made of and did so in a matter of minutes; and -- fairly or unfairly -- many of those who watched his performance found themselves convinced that they now knew what Governor Dean would act like in a moment of genuine national crisis, and were not assured by the insight that had been inadvertently given them.

We should keep this in mind whenever we reflect on the seemingly irrational method by which we as a people select the man to fill the most important office in the world. For the real purpose behind the superficially bizarre rituals of an American election -- caucuses, primaries, televised debates, concession speeches -- is not to provide an exercise in democracy; it is to test the inner resources and character of the candidates, and to do this by exposing them to a grueling series of artificially induced crises that simulate those that he will ultimately have to face as president. The American electoral process is, in a way, like the simulated testing done by the manufacturers of automobile tires -- we want to know which ones are reliable before we put them on our cars, rather than afterwards, and that is why the American people tend to respond so harshly to those candidates who fail to make the grade during this our national period of candidate testing.

Iowa was Dean's first crisis -- and he blew it; and in doing so he lost far more than the Iowa caucus: he lost the reputation as a man who could be trusted to act calmly and rationally in the midst of adversity. And that is a lesson that the American people will not quickly forget. We do not live in a world where we can afford to.


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