This Day In History: January 19

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At an energetic rally on the evening of January 19, 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean emits a noise that many will claim ended his career in electoral politics. The “Dean Scream,” as it quickly came to be known, was a unique and revealing moment in early-21st century American politics.

A former three-term governor of Vermont, Dean was seen as the candidate of the Left and was the only Democrat who openly criticized the Iraq War in his campaign for the party’s nomination. He was considered a frontrunner despite conservatives’ attempts to depict his campaign as a “left-wing freak show,” but finished third in the Iowa Caucuses. Despite losing the first contest of the primary to John Edwards and eventual winner John Kerry, Dean took the stage that night with enthusiasm. He ended his remarks by fervently cataloguing the contests yet to come, concluding with a shout of “…and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeah!” His voice cracked on the final “Yeah!,” turning the word into a bizarre yelp that was broadcast and, before long, replayed hundreds of times on news programs all over the country.

Ironically, nobody in the room with Dean noticed anything out of the ordinary—they witnessed what seemed like nothing more than an impassioned speech, with Dean’s famous scream drowned out by the cheers that filled the room. Dean’s audio setup, however, isolated his voice for the television audience, making the “Dean Scream” stand out jarringly and comically. The clip became a sensation on cable news, discussed and replayed countless times over the week between the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary, a perfect gift for Dean’s detractors.

Although the extent to which the incident affected Dean’s performance in the primary is impossible to fully determine—he had already underperformed in Iowa at the time of the speech, and would underperform again in New Hampshire a few days later—Dean’s campaign never regained its early momentum and is now remembered primarily for the “I Have a Scream Speech.” Kerry won the primary and lost the general, giving President George W. Bush a second term.