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The Soul of a New Machine

     Listen here: Zephyr Teachout may dazzle you (as she does me) with her electrical charge, her theatrical pauses, her whimsical word play–her attempts to invent a better word than “citizen,” for example, or to unpeel the phrase “common purpose.” She may well impress you as the chief of Howard Dean’s Internet operations, the queen of the Dean geek corps and all those improvised Web networking tools known as Dean Space. She may charm you with her own tale of a wiry, wired 32-year old farm girl from Norwich, Vermont who went to Yale as a track star, then Duke Law School, and had 32 jobs before she arrived at Dean headquarters. What transfixes me more is Zephyr Teachout’s resolute, reckless idealism about Dean World. She is a tough-minded zealot about politics as both a slugfest over power and an experiment in expressive, decentralized democracy. Above all she seems committed to the vast, still mysterious organism that keeps spinning still wider, sturdier gossamer wings to keep Dean aloft. She has become my embodiment of a main premise of the Dean campaign–the premise that will see him through merciless media and rival bombardment in Iowa this weekend or else will take a terrible hit with him. It’s the bet that self-willed citizens and their self-scipted “common purpose” are the real force and meaning of the campaign–more vital, more interesting even than the candidate or his latest pronouncement. A second premise comes with all this: that the Dean believers’ can stick to the narrative line about their own uprising, when Newsweek’s cover (“Doubts About Dean”) and a legion of scolds would make a defining issue of his “arrogance” or “anger,” or his wisecracks years ago on Canadian TV. Through our last conversation in Burlington, en route to Iowa, Ms. Teachout was ignoring the umpteenth TV debate, and as usual keeping her mood detatched from the news coverage. She was preoccupied with directing the flow of 35,000 hand-written snail-mail notes to rural Iowans from Dean supporters elsewhere, and then overseeing the descent of 3500 volunteers on Iowa in the last weekend of canvassing before the Monday caucuses. She is so hooked on the line that the real campaign is “out there” that she left Burlington for the last 2 months of 2003 to criss-cross the country by Airstream and car. It was a trip of 16,000 miles, “exhausting, painful, hard.” She wanted to call it “a study of the American family,” because she got to stay in 50 strangers’ homes. The heroes in her rambling saga tend to be impulsive eccentrics, like the “Fire Bush” lady who stands with a placard on a Memphis steet corner, or the lady in Lubbock leading Texans for Dean to Iowa. Zephyr Teachout loves people who refuse to be called mere “voters.” She keeps count of the Dean organizers who are deciding now to run for local office, even perhaps for Congress. She exults in people who are ready to be jolted and bruised in the exercise of power. She wishes we all knew the power and pleasure that comes with self-expression. She observes (as I do) that by far the best, broadest, most boisterous account of the Dean campaign is the lively inside job being compiled in the multidinous Open Thread messages on Dean’s Blog for America. She says that Deaniacs who disagree on many things all nod in unison at the line that “something’s askew in the media.” She bolsters my thought that Big Media, if it does not crush Dean entirely, will be held to account for fear and loathing in their coverage of him. On the eve of crunch time in Iowa finally, the Zephyr Teachout version of the country and the campaign is here.

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