Herald-Leader Editor (1979-2010)

My friends out here in Washington state are amazed at the outsized influence a small, aging, largely small town and rural state like Iowa can hold over the eventual selection of a president of the United States.

When you say it like that it makes me wonder are we really that representative of an America that has doubled in population since 1983.

Every four years, Iowa, where people come for the small town way of life and stay because their car won’t start in the winter, becomes the center of the political universe. It is not unusual to see bib overalls and tailored suits in the same room at motel reception rooms.

It even strikes me as unreal. I have seen columnists with bylines in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal mingle with people you would bump in to at the dairy case in the supermarket or a high school basketball game.

We are at the crossroads here in Iowa of major policy discussions and outright pandering at times.  John Sununu, former New Hampshire governor, never one to put too fine a point on a jab, said it this way, “Political pandering comes in all shapes and sizes, but every four years the presidential primaries bring us in contact with its purest form — praising ethanol subsidies amid the corn fields of Iowa.”

In an appearance at Maquoketa’s new Comfort Inn, I watched Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry go from talking to locals about local issues to taking a call from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on an international issue.  

The state’s presidential election importance has become so crucial New Hampshire, our only real early primary competition, smarts over the attention lavished on this Midwest farm state. A friend of mine once drove the late Arizona Sen. John McCain around Eastern Iowa.

When Sen. Joe Biden was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination some years ago he stopped long enough one beautiful Sunday morning to attend mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Bellevue. Roger “Shiney” Scholtes passed the word the local press wanted to visit with him.

For 45 minutes Biden and I sat on steel folding chairs in the shade across from the church and visited about his take on the campaign and the key issues he cared about.

Iowa is a tabula rasa, a blank slate, in some ways for presidential hopefuls. It’s not that we are all a bunch of hay seeds fresh off the farm. It’s that we seem pretty normal, pretty average, until you get to know us. If we like you the Iowa advantage is invaluable to campaigns in dire need of voter enthusiasm.

If we don’t like you, as a Republican supporter waiting outside a gathering in Dubuque told former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, go home and stop embarrassing yourself.

This quadrennial event brings the national media’s “A team” to small town cafes where opinionated old men, like me, cement the world’s impression of Iowa.

Even though my dad told me you really can’t visit other people’s lives, that’s exactly what we in the press attempt to do on a regular basis. It’s especially true during presidential election years.

The mystery of the caucus will remain just that to the outside world, a strange ritual where people indicate their candidate preference by standing in a corner of a room. We really do vote with our feet. Our caucus system reminds me of how Hollywood portrays Native Americans. The rest of the country is curious about this strange practice but it takes too much effort to actually understand it.

There will be some thoughtful pieces written by dedicated small town community newspaper reporters. There will be other stories and video clips with real people actually here in Iowa. The rest of us will get the impression the press is all about parachute journalism — get the story, the sound bite, and get back on a plane for deadline.

I have to admit, covering these campaigns for three decades made me sad. It was like watching the circus come to town. The logistics of running a national presidential primary campaign in a country as big as America is daunting. Campaign workers would often have that look of exhausted indifference. The candidate’s stump speech would be so shopworn he could deliver it while thinking about something else.

The humorist Dave Barry wrote once about landing  in Des Moines on the second try after they scared the cattle off the runway. Iowans are used to this and take it with good humor.

There are those moments, though, when you do get to visit other people’s lives. If you didn’t cover all the events you’d miss the glimpse.

I had a young reporter from the New York Times wistfully remark how she thought it might be nice to be me, a small town weekly newspaper editor in a community where you knew most of the people you wrote about.

To be honest, the issues facing us as a state never seem to change that much between these primaries. We have an ongoing surface water pollution problem that is serious. Iowa faces a real flight of youth and talent to our few metro centers and to other states. The cohesive sense of community is failing us as we struggle to keep it intact in small towns and rural communities. We still have not solved the issue of health care. Existential threats to our country, like North Korean nuclear missiles or Russian drone submarines, pale in the face of tariff barriers and falling ag commodity prices.

Some of these issues only we can solve and that means unity, not division. But some of the issues are central to our very future, and you need to be in the moment for once when it comes to picking the next president.

My advice to readers is to attend as many of these candidate events in our community as possible. I had access to candidates because I was the local press, but you shouldn’t be hindered from actually seeing and visiting with presidential candidates. This is as accessible as they will ever be, and it’s just possible one of them might become the chief executive.

Ask an important question and you could find yourself being the focus of a reporter’s or television personalitie’s story.

The extent of candidate access in local communities is surprising in retrospect. I mean, I’ve seen the late South Dakota Sen. George McGovern working the tables and shaking hands at the Riverview Restaurant in Bellevue. Mitt Romney and his wife as well as Michelle Obama at Potter’s Mill. Rudy Giuliani fielded questions at Flapjacks in Maquoketa. Mitt Romney spoke there as well.

As much as the candidates profess interest in all things Iowa, as much as the national press looks for the definitive representative Iowan it’s all very much like a speed date with a flock of butterflies. The candidates pack up and move on, they have to.

Then it’s your obligation to perform some of the most basic tasks of the republic. Go to your precinct caucus. Apathy and cynicism never served a representative government well.