WAVERLY, Iowa When is retail politics not retail politics? When candidates refuse to get off their big buses and go do it.
Fred Thompson rolled into this small town on the Cedar River in north-central Iowa on a giant brown bus Tuesday. He also had a van, an entourage of guys with earpieces and a press aide.
Thompson's public schedule said: "Fred Thompson Tours Downtown Waverly and Drops by Waverly Democrat."
It was not a bitterly cold day temperatures were somewhere in the high 30s and doing a downtown walk would have been a perfectly normal political event.
Such walks are staples of retail politics, the kind of politics conducted in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where people expect to meet the candidates one on one and not just at rallies and speeches.
The Waverly Democrat, a semi-weekly newspaper, is located right on the main street in town, which is called Bremer Avenue. (Waverly is the county seat of Bremer County.)
Waverly has a population of about 9,000, and while Bremer Avenue was not exactly thronged this day, people were in the shops, and potential voters were definitely out and about doing shopping or sitting in the diners.
Mark Halperin of Time magazine and I drove up to Waverly to catch the Thompson walkabout, and since we got there early, we popped into the offices of the Waverly Democrat.
Anelia Dimitrova, the executive regional editor, greeted us in warmly and invited us to have a seat, chat and use the bathroom. She offered Mark a high-speed Internet line so he could upload some video to his website and I sat down with her for a brief interview.
She said Thompson was the first candidate to come into the paper. The paper does not endorse candidates, and maybe that is why the others have skipped it. "He's got a lot of catching up to do," Dimitrova said. "I think it's a sign he is behind. I don't think he necessarily wants to run. Bluntly, I don't know why he is running."
This is the question that has dogged the Thompson campaign from the beginning. While sometimes he displays bursts of energy at a speech here or there, he is often described as "laconic" on the road.
Thompson, his entourage and his wife, Jeri, arrived at the newspaper and after exchanging a few pleasantries, Thompson headed in to his meeting with Dimitrova in a conference room.
Dimitrova invited Mark and me into the interview with Thompson but the Thompson press aide refused. Dimitrova said she had no problem with us being there, but the press aide refused again.
It was no big deal. We waited for Thompson outside the conference room and after a few minutes he emerged, left the newspaper office and headed straight onto his large, brown bus.
But what happened to the "tour of downtown Waverly" that was on his schedule?
Canceled. Not going to happen. He was not going to walk the streets of Waverly in search of voters.
Instead, Thompson rode four blocks to the local fire station. Local fire stations always have captive audiences (unless there is a fire).
Inside, Thompson shook a few hands there were only about 15 people there and then Chief Dan McKenzie handed Thompson the chief's fire hat so Thompson could put it on.
Thompson looked at it with a sour expression on his face.
"I've got a silly hat rule," Thompson said.
In point of fact, the "silly" hat was the one Chief McKenzie wore to fires and I am guessing none of the firefighters in attendance considered it particularly silly, but Thompson was not going to put it on. He just stood there holding it and staring at it.
To save the moment, Jeri Thompson took the hat from her husband's hands and put it on her head.
"You look cute," Thompson said to her. She did.
Jeri took off the hat and McKenzie led the Thompsons over to a fire truck.
The chief invited Thompson to climb up behind the wheel, but Thompson said, "Naw, this is fine." And he stood there looking at the fire truck.
Jeri once again saved the moment by engaging the chief in some actual conversation.
"How many people do you serve?" she asked.
"About 10,000," Chief McKenzie said.
Thompson walked away from the fire truck, posed for a picture or two and the event was over. He and his entourage got on his bus and roared out of town.
Later, his press aide sent Mark and me an e-mail of explanation, though we had not asked for one.
Thompson had skipped going up and down Bremer Avenue after the newspaper meeting because, the press aide explained, "We can't control where the newspapers are. Had it been a more 'main-street' type town, it would have been different."
But Waverly is a "main-street" type town, and the newspaper office was right there on the main street of town surrounded by businesses.
The press aide also claimed that "ice and snow on the streets presented a safety issue," but Halperin and I had no problem walking on the mostly well-shoveled avenue, both before Thompson arrived and after he left. (In fact, we went into a local store on Bremer Avenue, where there were a number of shoppers Thompson easily could have greeted.)
Later in the day, I sent an e-mail to Anelia Dimitrova, asking her about the private meeting she had with Thompson at the newspaper office.
She e-mailed me back that Thompson "was so vague that I would be hard-pressed to write a story. Simply put, there is no news peg other than he came to the newsroom with his model wife and a beehive of staffers. When I asked him specifically what he would do as prez for farmers in Bremer County, he resorted to glittering generalities."
So the sum total of Thompson's day in Waverly was meeting with a newspaper editor and saying nothing and then meeting about 15 people in a warm firehouse and saying nothing.
When he was supposed to go out and find voters in shops and diners, talk to them and answer their questions, he decided to skip it and get back on his luxury bus instead.
That's not retail politics. That's not Iowa. And that's not laconic. That's lazy.