They put me on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and all I got was an insult from Ann Coulter.
Lauren Popper is, to some, a traitor. To others, she’s a hippy nosepicker. What did she do to deserve this? She talked to a reporter and got her picture on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
On December 7, 2003, Popper entered more than one and a half million houses across America, by way of the Times Magazine. In the accompanying article, “The Dean Connection,” Popper, a 24-year-old area organizer for the Howard Dean campaign, was briefly quoted. She said Dean’s possible election was a “side effect” of his campaign, the real purpose of which was to allow people to come together and tell their life stories.
As a cover subject, Popper was chosen for her age, her looks and her typicality. She was given only twenty-four words in a 4,800-word story. Yet her quote, uttered when Dean was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, with the glare of the media and the burden of expectation upon him, became a line heard round the world—or across the country at least, referenced in other magazines and dissected on Internet weblogs. Casual readers called it idealistic; rival candidates’ camps labeled it naive; and Dean supporters denounced it as treasonous. As a result, Popper’s life was altered in ways she never could have anticipated.
The exposure catapulted Popper from an unknown to one of the most recognizable faces of what people were calling the Dean movement. Within weeks, she was featured in aWashington Post article about Dean and made an appearance in a CNN documentary about the campaign called “True Believers.”
“I was a poster child for the revolution,” Popper later joked. But this newfound fame also made her subject to identity theft, as well as jealousy from other campaign workers. It showed Popper that being an “ordinary” person on the cover of a national magazine could create obstacles as well as opportunities.
Appearing on a magazine cover wasn’t always such a mixed bag. Historically, being a cover girl was chic and glamorous, and women welcomed the attention their covers attracted, as the exposure helped further their careers as models or actresses. The classic 1944 film, “Cover Girl,” in which a nightclub singer (Rita Hayworth) breaks onto Broadway after winning a cover model contest, is an example. Popper, however, was a modern-day cover girl, chosen as a symbol of a cultural movement rather than a generic pretty face.
“Using somebody who isn’t recognizable on a magazine cover makes zero sense,” said George Lois, the famed adman who designed dozens of iconic covers for Esquire in the 1960s, “unless you have a striking idea or a type to describe, and only a person who’s not a celebrity can illustrate it.” In the case of the Times article, where the cover tag line was “To be young, at loose ends and searching for a cause—or anyway, looking to connect with some cool new friends,” Popper’s persona—young, personable and idealistic—mirrored the angle of the piece. “She totally fit the profile of what my editor was interested in,” said Samantha Shapiro, the author of the article. “And she was really articulate and passionate.”
A conversation with the magazine’s photo editor, Kira Pollack, revealed that the cover was put together hurriedly after a last-minute decision made by the art and editorial departments. “It became a cover story overnight, and we had to shoot very quickly,” said Pollack. “Ultimately, Popper made the best cover. She had a great look.”
In person, Popper doesn’t look like a political activist, or even much like her cover photo. She is petite and small-boned, barely five feet tall. Her hair is now lighter and much shorter than it was in the magazine. On this day in March, she wears casually dressy black pants and a sweater, and sports an American flag pin on her coat lapel.
Popper, who had no political experience before she joined the Dean campaign, said the attention she received as a newly minted political figure startled her. She still thought of herself as an actress. Her main pursuits while in high school in Greenwich, Connecticut were acting and improv comedy. She majored in theater at Yale, and after graduation in 2001, she entered the New York drama scene, appearing in sketch comedy, student plays and musicals.
But two years of struggling to make ends meet, living with her parents and, later, her boyfriend, prompted Popper to consider another profession. She said, “I started thinking, what’s another way I could apply the skills and energy I have in some other field while I decide what to do for the future?” She had recently applied to law school on a whim and deferred her acceptance for a year. Intrigued by the upcoming election, she decided she would work on a presidential campaign, choosing Dean because she supported his views on health care, civil unions and the Iraq war. She also admired his “decisive leadership.”
In August 2003, Popper went to New Hampshire to volunteer for a weekend on the Dean campaign and ended up staying for a trial week in the Manchester office. Quickly hired, she relocated from Brooklyn to rural Manchester, where she worked twelve-hour days as one of five grassroots area organizers. “We were in charge of the voters—getting them to come see Dean, getting them to organize themselves and then getting them to the polls on election day,” she explained. In a campaign that received nearly as much scrutiny for its supporters as for its unprecedented use of the Internet for mobilizing and fund raising, Popper was at the forefront of the “People-Powered Howard” movement.
Part of that strategy involved fifty-person house meetings where people mixed with like-minded friends and neighbors. It was at a similar informational meeting, less than a month after she began working on the campaign, that Popper was interviewed for the article. She was selected, she said, precisely because of her inexperience. “The press guy told me that the Times reporter and photographer had come to talk to people who had never been involved in politics before.” David Gringer, a fellow campaign worker who sat next to Popper in the Manchester office, confirmed this. “In Manchester, they talked to Lauren and a few others, including an intern from England named Matt, who didn’t make it into the article,” he said. Gringer’s prior experience working on New York City political campaigns disqualified him from an interview, he added.
At the time, Popper had only slightly more media savvy than political experience. She had never been interviewed for a national newspaper or magazine before. Still, she claims she didn’t give it much thought. “I saw it as an interesting thing, and some people thought it might be helpful to the campaign to have as much to do with the press as possible,” Popper said. “I thought I was doing my part. But I wasn’t waiting with bated breath,” she insisted. Instead, she stayed focused on her job, which she emphasizes was not as laid back as it may have seemed from the Times article or CNN documentary. “It was friendly; we all joked around, but we were also constantly on the phone with voters or on our way to meet with them,” said Popper. “I always felt extremely stressed.”
Despite the hectic schedule, the Manchester office found time to celebrate Popper’s cover-girl debut. On December 7, the Sunday of her cover appearance, Gringer braved a snowstorm with a small group in search of the magazine. They scoured every gas station and convenience store within walking distance and bought all the copies they found— four in all. Back in the office, they photocopied the cover and taped the image onto walls, desks and computers, to surprise Popper. “There was a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “We wanted to poke fun at a co-worker. And our office really needed decoration.” About the same time, a fellow Deaniac posted a link to the article on Dean’s official Weblog, ‘Blog for America.’ “Very nice photo of Lauren Popper on the cover,” he commented.
Popper said all her co-workers gave her “really positive feedback” on the article. Their support, however, did nothing to stop the political backbiting that arose outside the campaign. Still, Popper stands by her now infamous quote: “The thought that [Dean will] be president is a side effect. This campaign is about allowing people to come together and tell their life stories.”
“I was talking about what we were doing in New Hampshire, people inviting their family and neighbors over to talk about politics,” Popper said. “Invariably, people would bring up things that had been really important to them in their life, like when they went to Vietnam. Some of them hadn’t been involved in politics since Bobby Kennedy or JFK or McGovern.”
All that talking, and a full evening of conversation with the Times reporter yielded only a paragraph on Popper, buried deep in the middle of the piece. The great irony of Popper’s experience is that she was a minor character in the article, but the target of most of the negative feedback. And nearly all of the criticism focused on what she said inside the magazine, rather than her appearance on the cover.
The critiques fell into two rough categories, which Gringer terms “the letters to the editor” and “opposition from the conservative right.” The first group included people who supported Dean but were disappointed in the campaign and its workers as represented by Popper. Within a day of the magazine’s publication, someone named “Cogito” posted a message on a political-analysis site, dailykos.com, comparing Popper’s cover look, with her clogs and lack of makeup, to “an advertisement for Unitarianism.” A woman on the same website quoted Popper, and remarked, “There seems to be precious little that’s actually political here.” The woman further described the Dean campaign as a “personality cult.” A letter to the editor, sent to the magazine two weeks after the article appeared, expressed similar sentiments. “I was particularly disturbed by what Lauren Popper, a Dean organizer, said,” wrote a woman from Louisiana. “A side effect? To me this election is one of the most crucial ones this nation will ever face.”
“I totally agree with her. That’s why I went to work on Howard Dean’s campaign,” said Popper with a puzzled look. She recalls reading the letter back in December, but says she is still mystified that someone could have taken her comment to be anti-Dean, given that she was a staunch supporter and admirer. Gringer agreed. “Lauren was considered one of the best organizers in the office. No one who worked that hard could have believed the election was a mere side effect.”
Political watchdogs in opposition camps were less generous in their evaluation of Popper. Many used her image and words as a way to poke fun at the Dean campaign. On December 9, a blogger named I.K. Willard quoted Popper on AlphaPatriot, a Web site whose tagline is “Observations of a reformed liberal.” “Shall we start calling [Dean supporters] the ‘kumbaya, my love,’ party?” Willard joked. Two days later, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter took on Popper in her own article, “Vegan Computer Geeks for Dean.” Despite her casual, earthy style and the Apple laptop visible in her cover photo, Popper is neither a vegan nor a computer geek. As with everyone else, it was her line about life stories that drew Coulter’s attention.
“With quotes like that,” wrote Coulter in her nationally syndicated newspaper column, “it’s not going to be easy to tone down the Republicans’ overconfidence in the coming presidential campaign.” Nor did Popper’s comment about Dean’s becoming president being a “side effect” go unnoticed by the combative conservative. “Cold comfort to the candidate, I imagine,” Coulter remarked in response. Elsewhere in her column, Coulter engaged in more mud-slinging, calling Popper an “impotent nosepicker hoping to make some friends” and a “follower (as opposed to leader) of tomorrow.”
Popper, however, said Coulter’s over-the-top criticism left her unperturbed. “That’s her thing,” she explained. “Actually, it was very funny for all of us in New Hampshire to read it.”
Gringer confirmed that the Manchester office enjoyed the column. “We all viewed it as a badge of honor that Ann Coulter would take time out of her schedule to attack one of us,” he said.
Popper found remarks other people made about her much more offensive, such as a series of comments that supporters of Gen. Wesley Clark wrote on the Clark community Website, forclark.com. On December 6, someone with the user name “beckham” posted false rumors about Popper, claiming she was a former tenant who had stolen property and failed to pay rent. He also questioned her acting ability. “The running joke among local theatergoers was that a performance could be rated from five stars down to one star. Anything below that was known as a ‘Popper.’” In another post, “beckham” quipped, “She made Sally Struthers sound like Meryl Streep!”
Recalling the incident makes Popper visibly upset. “I have no idea who he is. It’s not true,” she said, her voice rising. “I think maybe he was jealous that I was in the article.” She compares the way “beckham” used her name and background for political mudslinging to identity theft. “I was just someone who worked for the campaign, who became a representative of whatever people thought was going on there,” Popper said. “It wasn’t from my own doing, and along the way, I lost control of my own identity.” She singles out the Clark comments as the most negative result of her magazine celebrity.
Did Popper respond? No. “This was my first foray into politics, so I didn’t think I was ready to debate Ann Coulter—or anyone, really— mano-a-mano.”
Within two months of the article’s appearance and its negative fallout, the tenor of the campaign changed. Dean sank in the polls and faltered in the primaries, placing third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. Popper watched his decline from favorite to runner-up with great frustration. “It was really tough after Iowa, because Dean’s message was that we had the power—the voters and the people on the campaign, and we all could change the country.”
By mid-February, Dean had dropped out of the race, and Popper was already in talks with her next employer, New York State Assemblyman Scott Stringer. (Gringer, who worked on a 2001 campaign for Stringer, introduced the two and denies that Popper’s magazine celebrity helped her net the job.) Popper currently works as Stringer’s campaign finance director in a small, ground-floor office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She intends to stay there until she starts Harvard Law School in the fall.
Looking back, Popper struggled to describe her experience as a cover subject, at first offering bland words like “fun,” “interesting” and “exciting,” before admitting she did find it valuable, both politically and personally. “It allowed me to talk to more people about the campaign, both while I was in New Hampshire and once I came back, just because more people brought it up,” she said. She is proud of the honor, and said that her father framed the magazine cover. But she is hesitant to speculate on its long-term impact. “I think people evaluate me based on other things.”
It’s a hopeful thought, especially in this current age of reality television and People and all its imitators, when regular people become celebrities in a matter of days.
“In the past, someone would be featured in a news story and that was pretty much it,” said Anthony Mora, president and chief executive officer of AMC Inc., a media-relations firm based in Los Angeles. “Now you see people who become the story itself, even if this type of media scrutiny is something they don’t want at all.”
Popper is just 24 and at the very beginning of her career. One doesn’t doubt that she will have the opportunity to shape her legacy, political or otherwise. And now that Dean is out of the presidential race, her quote about his campaign no longer seems so outlandish. With Dean’s fall from grace, Popper’s brief, two-line aside has gone from a throwaway line to a prophecy.
NOTE: This article appeared in the 2004 issue of the New York Review of Magazines (NYRM), a publication of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It was, appropriately, the issue’s cover story. Here’s the NYRM cover: