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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004 01:28 am

Before and after the fall

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"Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on, testing that strange little tug at his shoulder blade, and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!" -- Anne Sexton, To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph

How much did Howard Dean's supporters love him? Enough to request in family obituaries that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Dean for President campaign. Enough for college kids to delay their studies for a semester and senior citizens, caught up in the excitement, to feel like college kids again. One campaign worker, Dana Dunnan, derived more than satisfaction from the experience; he has just published Burning at the Grassroots: Inside the Dean Machine. Dunnan turnsthe story of the little engine that couldn't quite scale the final hill into a discussion of how the Dean team transformed the way America plays politics.

Dean's supporters, remembering the candidate's fateful Iowa primary speech, still care enough to squirm at jokes about their man's being a suspect in the recent art theft of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." Dunnan's discussion of the former Vermont governor's "scream speech" serves as preamble to a broader look at politics and the media, a truly codependent relationship. He explains that it was widely believed that Dean hated the media, and the author himself seems to share a healthy skepticism of the Fourth Estate. Dunnan admits to posing as an undecided voter to draw reporters in at campaign events. Having taught journalism, he has developed a reporter's nose for which way the wind is blowing. For the Dean campaign, the stormy weather began in December 2003. Dunnan's bird's-eye view of the Democratic candidates' debates and the first primaries are dead-on and, in hindsight, offers a fairly clear picture of why U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., became the party's nominee. Dean's message, it seems, was getting lost -- if not in cyberspace, then certainly in Iowa and New Hampshire.

When Marshall McLuhan declared, "The medium is the message," he was talking about television, but as the Dean machine aptly illustrated, his theory also applies to the Internet, a domain the Dean campaign thoroughly dominated. This was an effort run by young computer warriors. Dunnan talks about volunteers who spent all their time e-mailing letters to editors. He describes the process as "write, copy, paste, send, repeat," comparing it to Steven Wright's pastiche of shampooing one's hair, "rinse, lather, repeat. I'm afraid I'll never stop." But all good things come to an end, even high-flying political dreams.

Dunnan is an inveterate researcher, but the 388-page book (50 pages are taken up by charts, graphs and endnotes) reads less like a treatise and more like the passionate memoir of a political activist. It is chockfull of quotes by other politicians, members of the media, and countless bloggers. That it seems choppy at times and repeats a quote now and then is probably a result of its being rushed to press in an effort to be timely. But the underlying ideas in the book, about what constitutes political discussion in this country, are timeless and will be remembered long after the candidates' names have been forgotten.

On his own Web site, www.danadunnan.com, the author says that the book "is about America, and democracy, and our future in the world we have all too often allowed to have made for us."

Dana Dunnan grew up in Springfield, where his father, Donald Dunnan, was the superintendent of schools in the late 1950s and early '60s. A graduate of Stanford University and the University of New Hampshire, he has taught at Harvard University and Phillips Exeter Academy. His "Bookin' for Barack" book tour to benefit progressive candidates stops at the Barnes & Noble in Springfield at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9.

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