Since leaving his DNC chair earlier this year, Howard Dean has been recovering from a double snub from the president: Not only was he denied the HHS spot he reportedly wanted, he didn’t even get an invitation to the president’s ceremony marking the transition of the chair to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. (Dean was toiling away for the committee in American Samoa when Obama passed Kaine the chairmanship.) Undeterred, Dean has since found shelter in the cozy climes of cable news. He has done some work as a commentator for CNBC. And last night, he got his first shot at primetime stardom, hosting MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” (He hosts again tonight.) How’d he do? Well, it’s probably best to compare him to another cable star/former governor who holds national aspirations but not a national office, Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee, who began hosting his show after he dropped out of the presidential campaign last year, has all of the qualities of a good TV host: He’s charming, affable, and confident in front of the camera. “Huckabee” is a strange hybrid, part “A Prairie Home Companion” and part “The Montel Williams Show.” The program is filmed in front of a barely-live studio audience, viewers in business suits and turtle necks who clap lazily between segments. Typically, Huckabee spends a segment directly addressing the camera, delivering such pseudo-political bromides as “Doctors should make a lot of money,” and “I don’t apologize for America, I thank God for it.”
In my favorite episode, Huckabee has three beauty queens on to discuss the evolution of the Miss America pageant. “A lot of people say this is just a beauty pageant, [but] this is a tough competition,” Huckabee tells the audience. “It’s not only about beauty, it’s about platforms.” Later in the episode, he and the ladies promote music education by rocking out to their own version of “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” with Huckabee on bass and Gretchen Carlson delivering lilting, weirdly operatic vocals. The image of Huck playing the bass is juxtaposed against images of the Capitol building, and watching him play with his band conjures memories of a small town church worship group: an overwhelmingly average group of musicians having way more fun than anyone who has the misfortune of being in their audience. The softballs Huckabee lobs at his guests--cultural luminaries like Joe the Plumber and MC Hammer--are average as talk shows go, but the shameless vote pandering is something to behold. Later in the beauty pageant/sing-a-long episode, Huckabee brings on Rosie Perez, who emotionally explains how her own activism in education inspired her support for Barack Obama. “If I’d gotten to you first maybe I could be president by now,” Huckabee jokes. “Maybe next time,” he adds, not joking, really.
What about Dean? Last night, his delivery was stiff and stunted, and he squinted and struggled through his teleprompter reading. He had awkward questions for Chris Van Hollen, in what was either an attempt to rebrand himself as a hard-hitting journalist or an inadvertent flash of bitterness. “We were promised ‘change you can believe in.’ Are you worried about what could happen to our party if we don’t get [health care] reform?” he asked Van Hollen, as if to test his question-dodging abilities. But even then, Dean wouldn't let up. “How big of an issue do you think this will be in 2010 when everyone is up for reelection?” Dean then stammered through two other interviews with health care experts--good on substance and terrible on delivery (as opposed to Huckabee, who is good on delivery and terrible on substance).
Throughout the 60 minute episode, there were only two moments when you got the feeling you were watching a real, professional pundit: in the blessed few minutes when MSNBC ran a segment of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” and when Dean interviewed The Nation’s Chris Hayes. Later, Dean made sure to mention to both Olbermann and Rachel Maddow that “this is a lot harder than it looks,” but those moments were too filled with pathos to be funny. In fairness, Dean displayed none of the qualities that make Olbermann so irksome--there was no whipping out the college diploma to prove he went to a prestigious university, none of the phony outrage that usually characterizes his “World’s Worst Person” segment. But given the choice between Mike Huckabee’s infinite campaign trail and Howard Dean’s real-time crash-and-burn, the choice is easy. “Some heard Sarah Palin’s farewell speech and thought, ‘that sounds like f-f-fingernails on a blackboard,’” Dean offered, in a poorly delivered attempt at humor. But at least Palin’s speech had a touch of bizarre musicality to it. With a little luck, a cable news exec will recognize her performance art skills for what they are (genius!) and sign her up to host when Greta van Susteren goes on vacation.