'Is this Heaven? No, it's the Iowa caucus ...'
A native Iowan and veteran political reporter's take on the Hawkeye State's quadrennial political ruckus
It was a typically chilly late fall in Iowa in 1975 when a virtually unknown Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter, who earlier that year had initiated a long-shot bid for the presidency, began traversing the state in hopes of winning the Iowa caucus, the first electoral event of the presidential nominating process, then and still. At the time, I was a high school sophomore and budding political reporter in West Des Moines who was just beginning to learn how politics and the world worked. I sorta liked this guy Carter, but as my fellow young reporters agreed, his bid for the White House was a laugher; we didn't think he stood a chance.
But Carter shocked us when he finished second in that early 1976 Iowa caucus to "non-committed." He actually captured the most votes of any actual candidate about 27 percent and parlayed that "success" into a subsequent victory in New Hampshire and, of course, his eventual election as president of the United States. Ever since, Iowa has been the focus of much national media attention every four years and, especially, this year.
As a native Iowan who moved West and subsequently covered presidential elections, Congressional corruption and a whole mess of other political stories, I still watch the quadrennial media frenzy in the Hawkeye State with a mixture of joy and pain. Print and broadcast types filing their reports from places like Osceola and Keokuk can't help but stereotype the residents of my home state and lazily cast them in their easy American Gothic molds. Journalists typically either perpetrate or denigrate the state's rural mythology: Iowa as a field of dreams, Iowa as America's Middle Earth. The truth, of course, is much hazier. Iowans are too diverse (believe it or not) and interesting to be pigeonholed as mere Grant Wood models.
The most predictable thing about Iowa caucus participants, as they've demonstrated since 1976, is that they're unpredictable. But they are engaged. When this political train comes rumbling in whistle-stop fashion through the state every four years, Iowans stop, look and definitely listen. One other generalization I feel comfortable making about Iowans is that they really are among the truest, fairest, kindest and most responsible folks you'll meet.
Those who complain that Iowa enjoys an unfairly large say in the presidential election process should pipe down for a spell and just observe democracy in action. Arguably nowhere is the American electorate more conscientious and involved than in Iowa. It's a sight to behold. Iowa is a logical and good choice as first arbiter of this long and arduous process.
All the media attention heaved in Iowa's direction as the January 3 caucus nears has even resulted in "Caucus! The Musical," written by fellow Des Moines native Robert John Ford. A clever satirical piece, the play depicts fictional Iowa farmer Eldon Wise and members of his family as they're wined and dined by national media and the presidential candidates who try to get in the family's good graces. Ford's play respects Iowans, typecasting them as intelligent (note the name "Wise") and with good values, while lampooning fictional candidates as ambitious morons.
The musical is a fresh and funny take, but I must wonder what Meredith Willson, Iowa's real musical theater legend, might have thought of the play. In Willson's beloved Americana musical "The Music Man," which this month celebrates the 50th anniversary of its premiere on Broadway, he drew a similarly affectionate if somewhat anachronistic caricature of the folks in his and my home state. And he didn't spare the pols: the mayor of River City, Willson's fictional Iowa town, was a buffoon, albeit a lovable and benign one.
If Willson, who was born in Mason City and died in California in 1984, were alive today, he'd undoubtedly still be a bemused observer of the caucus ruckus and might even be inspired to update his most famous work with the would-be caucus winners each trying, in Professor Harold Hill's conniving fashion, to win over the skeptical but kindly residents of River City by addressing that dreaded new pool table on Main Street.
In Willson's update of his classic musical tale, the candidates would undoubtedly all chime in on that dreaded new pool table, just as Professor Hill did, with Barrack Obama chirping a duet on "Till There Was You" with Oprah Winfrey, and Mike Huckabee trying to charm River Citians by doing a spirited if surreal new version of "Shipoopi" in the town square.
Yes, once again my friends, we got trouble. Yes, we got trouble right here in River City. With a capital T, that rhymes with P, that stands for ... Politics.
Like Willson, I'm an Iowan who moved to California but never let go of my Hawkeye pride, 'specially come caucus time. Interestingly, though, for all of Iowa's political clout, the most famous American politician born in the state was Herbert Hoover, who contrary to popular belief was not entirely to blame for the Great Depression but who was not, by almost any analysis, a great president. In all the years that Iowa has been hosting the caucus, I've yet to see a candidate stump from West Branch, the historic little town about 120 miles east of Des Moines where Hoover was born. I visited West Branch once in third grade on a school field trip. Our principal must have been a Democrat.
Published January 2008