The Howard Dean / John Dean Meme

A meme is a self replicating piece of information or in this case, unintentional mis-information. The Howard Dean / John Dean meme refers to the many, unexplained instances in which political commentators refer to 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean as "John Dean". In all cases so far, this appears to be an completely unintended reference to the embittered former Whitehouse Counsel to President Nixon of Watergate fame.

No, I'm not kidding, and no, it's not an isolated slip of the tougue. The meme is becoming fairly widespread, at least in the memepool1 of politics. Consider:

  • "Sen. Harkin didn't seem especially close to the Vermont governor. At the 2002 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner here, he twice called the Democrat John Dean (as Martin Sheen did in a speech here last week)." -- 'Myth needed', by Maureen Dowd, The Rutland (Vermont)Herald, January 18, 2004,, accessed Feb. 4, 2004. Actually, it wasn't just any Martin Sheen speech, it was the actor's formal endorsement speech for Howard Dean. Talk about living in the past!

  • "One of my references to Dean originally said John Dean instead of Howard Dean. I keep doing that, for reasons unknown to me. It isn't about comparisons between the two. It is probably that I started to pay attention to politics not too long before Watergate, and I can't think of a Dean other than John Dean. Talk about showing my age." -- Atlantic Blog entry for January 14, 2004 by William Sjostrom,, accessed Feb. 4, 2004.

  • I personally saw and heard the PBS Newshour's top political commentators, Mark Shields and David Brooks, each say "John Dean" when they clearly meant Howard, during their one of their on-air commentaries during late January, 2004. The Newshour's normally excellent online transcripts appear to have been 'cleaned up' so I can't be more specific.

You can see this meme's remarkable ability to spread from host to host, while resisting the collective mental immune response, in a discussion of the 2003 New Hampshire Democratic primary on CNN's American Morning, air date January 28, 2004. The subjects of the interview, Democratic consultant Victor Kamber and former Republican National Committee (RNC) communications director Cliff May, replicate the meme an incredible three times, in spite of self-correction and correction from the anchor who is named Hemmer:

MAY: ...So, he's got a lot of explaining to do. As the front-runner now, somebody needs to attack him. It won't be Edwards. It may by John Dean, because -- John Dean. It may be Howard Dean, because unless Howard Dean attacks him, I don't see how Howard Dean gets his lead back.

HEMMER: In this campaign so far, that's been the biggest slip of the tongue, by the way.

MAY: I know.

HEMMER: John Dean instead of Howard Dean. You hear it from everyone. Victor, how do you size it up right now? Bearing in mind, we're not trying to get too out far in front of this issue at this point.

KAMBER: Well, I think in many ways Cliff said it, and you said it, Bill, and Kelly said it, too. Howard -- or John Dean is -- John Kerry is...

HEMMER: There you go again.

{A couple of paragraphs go by, then}

KAMBER: I was amazed last night at the pundits and all of the press who seem to think it's over, that Howard Dean has no chance. I think that's wrong. I think this is still an open race with one front- runner clearly, and that is John Dean -- John Kerry.

HEMMER: Cliff, do you see it the same way?, accessed Feb. 4, 2004.
Note how the meme attempted to mutate so it could infect John Kerry, but it apparently didn't take. This is creepy, no?2 The interview concludes without any more hot meme action.

Why has the Howard/John Meme florished thus far? According to Slate's December 10, 2003 'Explainer' column,, accessed Feb 4, 2004, Howard Dean is not related by blood to John Dean. Nor is he related to Deborah Gore Dean, ex Vice President Al Gore's cousin who was convicted in a Reagan-era influence peddling scandal. But, Ms. Gore Dean's mother, Mary Gore Dean, was the "longtime companion" of another Watergate John, John Mitchell. The image consultant who re-invented the respected Dr. Judith Steinberg into "The Incomparable Judy Steinberg Dean" only adds to this fun tangent.

The point was, actual genetic or legal kinship seems too convoluted an evolution to explain this meme. John and Howard may not have shaken hands, even! A more likely transmission vector has to do with pre-conscious cognition. Since the busy mind prefers pattern-matching heuristics over the rigor of rote memory, the mind creates a John Dean. What is the pattern that is triggered? Of the ten official Democratic party candidates, two (John Kerry and John Edward) are named John. Further re-enforcement comes from the re-emergence into the bitstream of two more Johns: Senator John McCain, who's been commenting here and there on the election, and even the actual John Dean, who wrote "More vicious than Tricky Dick", an October 3, 2003 Op-Ed on slamming President Bush, available at, accessed Feb. 4, 2004.

Will the Howard/John Meme persist in the memepool? Epidemiologists tell us that the more virulent pathogens sometimes "burn out" when they kill their hosts more quickly than they can spread to new hosts. But so far no-one's been fired for confusing the two, and political commentators spawn like crazed rabbits, so I don't think that will be what kills it. This meme may meet its biggest challenge when the primary Petri dish meets the incinerator of the national Democratic convention.3

Good luck little meme!


1. Originally, this writeup used the made-up word "memome" in place of the made-up word "memepool". I edited it to use "memepool" because it rolls off the tounge (and the page) much more smoothly, and also because while both are made-up, "memepool" seems to be catching on, at least here on E2 and in the fans of memetics.

2. Perhaps the failure of the meme to spread to John Kerry is indirect evidence that a John Kerry / Bob Kerrey meme is already occupying that niche. Or perhaps I've gotten carried away.

3. On February 18, 2004, Howard Dean officially announced the end of his candidacy. But, because of his huge influence on the Democratic Party, you can be certain people will continue talking about him for quite a while. On February 20, C-SPAN's Brian Lamb called Howard Dean "John Dean" while interviewing a guest, and the PBS Newshour's Mark Shields did the same while discussing the nomination race. It's far too soon to declare this meme extinct.