Jumping the shark: Dean take deep-water dive

Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Howard Dean has jumped the shark!

Now, I could be wrong - indeed, all the pundits have been so far - and Howard Dean certainly has a lot of money and staff left to keep going, but he certainly looks to have jumped the shark.

Oh, sorry, you might not know what that term means. There's a Web site called JumpTheShark.com that is dedicated to "chronicling the moments when TV shows go downhill." The name is a reference to the "Happy Days" where Fonzie - played by Henry Winkler - literally jumped a shark on water skis. The Fonze never even took off his leather jacket. The authors of the site argue - and I agree with them - that this dumb plot device signaled the moment the show had reached the critical mass of lameness.

"Happy Days" stumbled along for a good while longer, but on a descending path of less and less quality. To jump the shark, in other words, is to reach that tipping point at which you start hemorrhaging respect, loyalty, fans. It is the moment that signals you've gone past your high water mark.

So how did Dean jump the shark? Well, I think the moment was when he greeted his supporters in Iowa after it was clear he came in a meager third place behind John Kerry and John Edwards.

He ran out to the crowds, waved a flag around, wore one of his campaign's cute yellow hats, peeled off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. "You know something?" Dean asked the crowd. "If you had told us one year ago that we were going to come in third in Iowa, we would have given anything for that."

OK, fair enough. You've got to say something uplifting to your supporters when the voters drop you like a 50-pound bag of Iowa dirt. You can't just mope like a big dog whose food bowl's been moved.

But then the ravages of "Mad How" disease started to show. "Not only are we going to New Hampshire," he exhorted, his voice getting deeper and shriller at the same time. "We're going to South Carolina and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House."

He then let loose what could only be called a primal scream: "YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!"

OK, it could be called other things, too. But whatever it was, he sounded like he meant to go to a proctologist but accidentally visited a chimney sweep instead.

He continued: "We will not give up! We will not give up in New Hampshire! We will not give up in South Carolina! We will not give up in Arizona or New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan! We will not quit now or ever! We'll earn our country back for ordinary Americans!"

Dean then went on to list more states "And we're going to win in Massachusetts! And North Carolina! And Missouri! And Arkansas! And Connecticut! And New York! And Ohio!" These last six happened to be the home states of his Democratic rivals, though poor Dick Gephardt was already in the process of dropping out.

Now, compared to some of the other things Dean has said over the last year, his list of states is not a big deal. Even his bloodcurdling scream probably isn't anything new to the people who know him best.

But it was something new to many Americans. Moreover, at the very moment the voters had declared they wanted more moderate and reasonable candidates, Dean gave them undiluted rage. Disc jockeys like Howard Stern are already - unfairly, it should be said - playing Dean's diatribe against the soundtrack of Nuremberg rallies.

Dean has spent the better part of a year running as the candidate of rage. With his bulging neck and slightly mirrored eyes, he looks like the Hulk in that interim stage in between man and monster, you know right before he rips his clothes and turns green.

Dean may have talked about domestic policy, but his popularity was due to a single issue: his neck-bulging opposition to the Iraq war. Yet three-fourths of Iowa caucus voters opposed the war, but they still dropped Dean in favor of two men who voted for it.

In short, at just the moment Dean should have made it clear he's more than just his berserker schtick, he decided to make a parody of himself. In other words, he jumped the shark.