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Jewish World Review Aug. 12, 1999 /29 Av 5759

Andrew Ferguson

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Iowa Gothic --
BELLE PLAINE, IOWA ---- A former two-term governor of Tennessee, a former university president, a former secretary of one of the more worthless cabinet departments (Education) under President Bush–Lamar Alexander is all these things, which is to say he is the very picture of the moderate establishmentarian Republican. So it's surprising to find him transformed, all of a sudden, into a fire-breathing populist. But that's the way he sounds, here in the backyard of a farmhouse outside the tiny Iowa town of Belle Plaine, with the smoke rising from the kettle-drum roasters and the laundry flapping on a line in the evening breeze, and a crowd of two dozen farmers arrayed around picnic tables, gnawing on chicken legs and slurping up a farmwife's special-recipe macaroni salad (extra mayonnaise, heavy on the pickle relish).

"Now you know there's a lot of people back there in Washington, D.C., who want to tell you the Iowa caucuses don't matter anymore," Alexander says, his accent thickening syllable by syllable. "There are some in Big Media, some of these Big Money people, who want to tell you this thing is all wrapped up. They think they're going to elect our president. But since when is it the prerogative of people far away to tell us we can't elect a president on our own?"

Alexander seems genuinely appalled. "Is the price of corn on the front pages of their newspapers every morning? Are they the ones who care about families in Iowa? I don't think so. I'll tell you this. If they get their way, you'll never see another presidential candidate in Belle Plaine. Never. They'll just fly into Des Moines airport, and they'll stack up a couple bales of hay for a backdrop in a big airplane hangar, and they'll give a speech, and then they'll fly off, and the Big Media and the Big Money–the elite will get together and they'll select the president."

He pauses for a moment to let the sheer horror of it sink in, but the truth is his audience doesn't seem too horrified. They gnaw, they slurp, they refill their paper cups at the keg of Bud Light, and Alexander closes: "Well, I don't think it should be done that way. I think we should do it the way it's always been done. I think we should have a contest, and I think it should start right here in Iowa!"

Lamar Alexander has been coming to Iowa regularly since 1993, when he unofficially began running for president. He finished third in the Iowa caucuses in 1996, and then lost the nomination to Bob Dole, of course, and after Dole lost in November, Alexander turned right around and started running again. He's visited more than 60 counties in the last four weeks, shaken more hands than his competitors have ever tried to shake, gnawed on more chicken legs and eaten more tubs of macaroni salad than they could ever stomach. And look: Four months before the Iowa caucuses, two weeks before the suddenly important Ames straw poll, he is a mere blip in the polls, a semi-non-entity crouched with his rivals beneath the giant looming presence of George W. Bush, who has never been to Belle Plaine–who has, in fact, campaigned in Iowa exactly twice. If George Bush runs off with Iowa, or, more accurately, if Iowa runs off with George Bush, it will be a triumph of money, of celebrity, of the establishment.

So you can understand Alexander's frustration, but it comes up from something deeper than wounded vanity. After most of the farmers have gone home he sits at a picnic table in the twilight and talks about Iowa. "This is a very special place," he says. "This is the only place where there's any reality left in the whole electoral process. Here you can come to a small town and spend three hours with real people. You can listen to them and learn from them. They can get to know you. You get in touch with something more real than New York or Washington. "But now"–he sounds wistful, almost sentimental–"I'm afraid all that's about to change. I think we're about to witness the last Iowa caucus." He sighs the deep sigh of a disillusioned man, of a man who fell, and fell hard, for the myth of Iowa, and who sees the myth turning to vapor before his eyes.

In truth, there's no good reason for anyone to care much about Iowa, other than Iowans and their immediate family members. It is a pleasant place, particularly the eastern farmlands rolling down toward the Mississippi River, and it is scattered throughout with perfectly pleasant people. But unlike some other states–New York, for example, or Texas or California–it is not, so to speak, a lapel-grabber; it does not stagger outsiders with claims on their attention. It is a wallflower state. Even its boosterism hints at a lack of self-assurance. One brochure I've seen bragged of Iowa's "famous natives," to wit: John Wayne, who moved to California when he was 9, Herbert Hoover, who moved to Oregon when he was 10, and the man who invented Bufferin, who stayed. While the U.S. population has quadrupled in the past century, Iowa's population is only slightly higher than it was in 1900.

Of course, the reason Iowa draws the solicitations of men like Lamar Alexander, not to mention the sinister elites of Big Money and Big Media, is its custom of holding early political caucuses during presidential election years. Here Iowans gather on an evening in January and express a preference for president by electing delegates to the national conventions. By state law the caucuses are the first to be held in the nation every quadrennial cycle, providing both financiers and journalists with their earliest hard data about the relative strength of national candidates. Like so many American political traditions, the caucuses came about by accident. Specifically, it's all Gary Hart's fault.

Hart and friend
After the debacle of 1968, the Democratic party set about democratizing itself, in preparation for the 1972 convention. A national commission redrafted the rules by which states would choose their delegates, hoping to wrest control of the process from the grubby mitts of bosses like Mayor Daley and restore it to the fabled "grass roots," which the party was just then beginning, with the familiar disastrous results, to romanticize. Under the new rules, state parties were required to give members every opportunity to hold precinct meetings and express their preferences well in advance of state conventions. As it happened, Iowa Democrats had already scheduled their convention for May 1972. This forced them to hold their preliminary state caucuses no later than January.

"Part of the problem was slow printers," a veteran Iowa Democrat, Ron Masters, recently told the Mason City Globe-Gazette. "With all the new rules, in order to get everything printed and distributed before the convention, it was necessary to move up the caucus date." Technological ineptitude turned out to be a godsend for the Iowa Democrats, for without realizing it they had positioned their caucuses as the first real contest in the 1972 presidential campaign.

Iowa Democrats may not have quite grasped the ramifications, but Gary Hart did. Hart was managing the longshot campaign of George McGovern, who was desperate to make a good showing early in the primaries and upend the establishment front-runner, Edmund Muskie. Throughout 1971, Hart concentrated on Iowa. To the national press he extolled the rustic simplicity, the democratic purity, of the caucuses, as though he were tipping them off to a greasy-spoon restaurant with spectacular rhubarb pie. Then he packed the meetings with McGovernites. It worked. The press flocked, as the press tends to do. Muskie was blindsided. McGovern's "unexpectedly strong showing"–a phrase used, for one candidate or another, in every caucus since–weakened Muskie's candidacy, which then imploded in New Hampshire. Within weeks after the caucuses Muskie was a ghost, and McGovern won the nomination.

By 1974, another longshot, Jimmy Carter, was wooing Iowans with an ardor that would have been unthinkable three years earlier. He slept on couches in the living rooms of supporters (imagine waking up to find Jimmy Carter on your couch!), wound his way through the booths of coffee shops in every tiny town he could find, and for two solid years droned his message of trust and honesty in churches and feed lots and courthouse squares. The Iowans weren't stupefied but impressed. Carter didn't win the Iowa caucuses. He finished second, after "uncommitted." But his performance was certified an "unexpectedly strong showing." It launched him toward the White House. And it solidified the Iowa myth.

Already, by the time of Carter's victory, political scientists, New York Times reporters, and other professionally thoughtful people had begun to fret about the impersonality of presidential campaigns. The lament is familiar even today–especially today. Misleading soundbites, negative television ads, and cheap sloganeering have overwhelmed the "process." But Iowa, goes the myth–Iowa is different. In Iowa, as in New Hampshire, the process is virginal. Here politics is one-on-one–retail, to use the inescapable phrase. Iowans, born of the heartland, can spot a phony a mile away. As the candidate woos the rustics in Belle Plaine and Charidon and Monona, in backyard pig-roasts and garden-club meetings, all the decadent trappings of modern presidential campaigning drop away. The advantages conferred by money, fame, and establishment connections are neutralized. High-priced consultants won't help you here. In Iowa all candidates stand on equal footing before the horny-handed sons of toil, who will not be fooled.

Thus in Iowa as nowhere else, a longshot, poorly financed and unrecognized, has a chance to transform himself into a front-runner, as Carter did, and McGovern before him. This is the essence of the myth, and as a result the longshots swarm the state, making for amusing spectacles. At the end of July, the town of Ladora, about a two-hour drive east of Des Moines (in Iowa, every place is a two-hour drive from every place else), got up its annual "Ladora Days Parade," Grand Marshal Pat Buchanan presiding.

The parade assembled on the outskirts of town, though with a population of 388, Ladora is short-skirted. "It never quite recovered from the crash of '29," said one old-timer who now owns the local bank building. Just the building, not the bank. The bank itself closed in 1931. Buchanan led the procession, driving an antique Excalibur roadster that played "Anchors Aweigh" when you tooted the horn, followed by a color guard from the local American Legion post, two more antique cars, several flag-festooned flatbed trucks piled up with kids throwing candy, a fire engine, a truck from the local fertilizer distributor, one go-cart and one tractor, and a convertible Corvair with the beauty queen of Iowa County waving wanly in the back. Local candidates for state senator and state representative brought up the rear, on foot.

As the parade turned onto the main drag of abandoned store fronts, and passed clumps of elderly Iowans seated in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, it quickly became apparent that there were more people in the parade than watching it. After a few minutes the parade turned again, and came to rest where it began. Picnic tables were set out. Volunteers dug up chunks of charred pig from a roasting pit and started breaking them up for sandwiches. From the back of a parked flatbed truck a woman played "Faith of Our Fathers" and "Love Me Tender" on a portable organ. The beauty queen explained to a woman in a Betsy Ross costume-the wife, as it happened, of the man who owned the bank building-that she might have to leave early to start her shift in her mother's ice cream shop in Victor. Buchanan mingled, doing Iowa retail. "You know, don't you," he was saying to the man who had brought the Excalibur, "the Japanese didn't even make cars till after World War Two!"

The state senator, a personable fellow named Neal Schuerer, told me how the economic revitalization of Ladora–in fact, of "all of central east Iowa"–was a-borning. "People are coming here to retire, seeking a semi-rural lifestyle," he said. "You should see some of the houses going up between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. And you're seeing a lot–a lot–of high-tech companies giving us a look. You come back here in five years. You're going to see Silicon on the Prairie, I guarantee you." He gestured extravagantly behind him, where an abandoned grain elevator rose up from a gravel lot.

The crowd never grew larger than 35 or 40, but Buchanan, in his speech, gave them the Full Pat nonetheless. He dwelled, as candidates in Iowa must these days, on the farm crisis now roiling the state. The crisis is caused by four straight years of bumper crops and low commodity prices, which distinguishes it from the 1980s farm crisis, which was caused by three straight years of failing crops and high commodity prices. To Buchanan the solution lies in tougher trade policies.

"My friends," he said, standing on the flatbed, "what's happened to pork and corn in Iowa is happening all over this country. It's happening to apples in Washington state, to dairy in Wisconsin, to cotton in Louisiana. We're going to lose every farm in America if we don't do something.

"And what's the president doing? First he's got some Hollywood lawyer negotiating trade policy with the Chinese, now he's got some academic doing it. But once I'm president I'll tell those Chinese–those Chinese leaders who close off their markets and point missiles at us and persecute Christians–I'll tell them, 'You've got a new American in the Oval Office. And you're going to start buying our crops with that $300 billion trade surplus, or you've sold your last pair of chopsticks in the United States of America!"

Thus goes the magical one-on-one, the retailing of ideas in Iowa. Like Alexander, like most politicians, Buchanan relishes the travel, the ever-shifting landscape, the kaleidoscope of faces and venues that Iowa campaigning entails. He too is a paid-up subscriber to the Iowa myth, and like Alexander he sees it imperiled by the same sinister forces.

"I can sense a growing resentment here," Buchanan said in an interview after his speech, "people starting to sense that maybe the lobbyists and the big money and the Washington establishment have got the fix in. But that's not the Iowa way of doing things. In Iowa, there's always been an openness to outsider candidates. You start early here, you can use a powerful message to reach people directly and you can defeat the establishment. But if you take away Iowa, you might as well just have the establishment ratify the Gallup poll and select your nominee that way."

Buchanan finished second in the Iowa caucuses in 1996, right behind Bob Dole, and his "unexpectedly strong showing" is cited by Iowa sentimentalists as further proof of the caucuses' value. An artifact of late-sixties anti-establishment reforms, the caucuses are considered still to be an outlet for populist passion. Maybe, but even so: Buchanan lost the nomination. And so did Richard Gephardt, the longshot winner of the Democratic caucuses in 1988, and Pat Robertson, the unexpectedly strong longshot who came in second in the 1988 Republican caucus, and Gary Hart, who finished an unexpectedly strong second in 1984. In fact, not since Jimmy Carter, 23 years ago, has an Iowa-propelled longshot gone on to win his party's nomination. Mythologists might wish it otherwise, but with or without Iowa, longshots tend to remain longshots, and front-runners tend to win the big prize.

There are several interested parties that keep the myth alive, however. Among them are the longshots themselves, of course, who cannot be dissuaded from their dreams of grandeur, and Iowans, too, who see in the Iowa myth a confirmation of their own flinty independence, and, perhaps preeminently, the national press corps. The press begins covering the next presidential campaign the day after the last election, and for years reporters go hungry for hard data, for actual votes that they can chew and fight over in the news columns and on the yip-yap shows. This is what Iowa, by holding its caucuses at the beginning of election year, offers them earlier than anyone else.

The caucuses, and the importance ascribed to them, are the inevitable result of too many reporters chasing too little news. The Iowa caucuses select fewer than 2 percent of the delegates to either party's national convention, and so the results are inconsequential on their own terms. They are nevertheless divined to indicate the relative strength of individual candidates. But even some of the reporters recognize this is a stretch.

On the one hand, Iowa is held to be a model laboratory for campaigns. As Hugh Winebrenner puts it in his exhaustive book, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event: "The work ethic and individual self-reliance are still firmly entrenched in the Iowa political culture. Public service is viewed as the duty of citizens. . . . . Those who pursue public service are expected to serve honestly and in the public interest. . . . . The political culture emphasizes issues and public concerns rather than individual loyalties and partisan friendships." This is politics as designed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

On the other hand, its goo-goo tradition is partly what makes Iowa atypical, hence almost worthless as a national temperature-taker. It is the fourth whitest state in the union–fewer than 5 percent of its population is black, Hispanic, or Asian. Voter participation is much higher than the national average. Those who do vote are on average whiter, richer, older, and better educated than voters elsewhere, and those who participate in the caucuses are even more so. The large number of farmers guarantee that issues of absolutely no importance to the rest of the country–ethanol subsidies, for instance-preoccupy the candidates. The large oldster contingent has the same effect: As the journalist Walter Shapiro points out, the issue-fad of "notch babies," which gripped several presidential contenders in the 1980s, was purely a pander to Iowa's hefty cohort of senior citizens.

About 20 percent of registered voters turn out for the caucuses, which are held on a bitter cold night–winter nights in Iowa are invariably bitter cold–in church basements, community centers, and local libraries. By self-selection these are the party's activists, its hard core, and they aren't even representative of the party's rank-and-file–they're the most conservative Republicans, the most liberal Democrats. Thus a marginal candidate like Pat Robertson in 1988, who nationwide would have drawn roughly the same percentage of the vote as KoKo the Wonder Chimp, can finish a strong second in the caucuses at 25 percent. The case that the Iowa caucuses can measure a candidate's national viability is far-fetched indeed.

And now Iowa offers the Ames straw poll, which takes the implausibility to new heights. The straw poll is a fund-raiser for the state Republican party, and it has quickly attained a caucus-like importance-which is to say it is at once bogus and unignorable. But whereas the caucuses are meant to reflect some larger political reality, the straw poll is now taken to be a reflection of the reflection, indicating how a candidate may do in the caucuses, which indicate how a candidate may do in a real election. We are now two removes from a legitimate vote, and the scene promises to be suitably surreal. On Saturday, August 14, voters will flock to the Iowa State University campus in Ames to meet celebrities and watch entertainment furnished by the various campaigns. Then they will pay $25 apiece–provided by the campaigns–to vote for a candidate. More than 500 reporters will be there to broadcast the tally to a yawning world. And as a consequence of Ames, some presidential candidacies will die, and some will flourish.

Ames, in other words, is a function of Big Money and Big Media, celebrity and glitz–the same qualities that allegedly degrade our national politics and to which Iowa was supposed to be immune. No wonder Alexander and Buchanan and the other Republican candidates (all but George W. Bush) are frustrated and gloomy. But the reformist impulse often has such ironic consequences, and a forward-looking do-gooder may someday call for scrapping the whole thing. Or perhaps, as Alexander suggests, the caucuses themselves will soon collapse under the weight of Big Money. It's a tempting notion. And yet. . . .

I mentioned all this to Neal Schuerer, the state senator back in Ladora, the day Pat Buchanan came to town. He looked horrified that anyone could object to the Iowa caucuses.

"Oh, no," he said. "Please. This is Iowa's best shot at national attention.

"You don't know what it's like to be here watching on election night in November every four years. We're sitting in our living rooms, and on TV all the people are talking, and they're waiting for Illinois returns to come in, for New York, for California–all the big states. Nobody cares about Iowa then. This is our little time in the sun. Why would anyone want to take it away from us?"

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


08/0699: Preschool in the Nanny State
08/04/99: Body Slam
07/30/99: End of the Leave-Us-Alone GOP
07/28/99: Madeleine Albright's Vendetta
07/22/99: Bill Clinton, Historian
07/20/99: The Terrorist Next Door
07/16/99: The Empress of the Empire State

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