AMES, IOWA A caucus in Iowa is a pretty raucous thing. With political volunteers and members of the press flooding the state, it can be hard to find any actual Iowans to talk to. In an attempt to see democracy in action I came out to Iowa with members of the Maroon staff. The following is a recap of my whirlwind weekend leading up the big event.
Friday: Interstate 80 from Chicago, Illinois to Iowa City, Iowa (then Route 6 to Coralville)
In all seriousness, it was a dark and stormy night. Not at first, but by the time associate news editor Art Kimball-Stanley and I crossed the Mississippi around 10 p.m., it had certainly become one. With the temperature just above freezing, a steady stream of rain on the windshield, and a blanket of fog descending, my first reaction to Iowa was: "Gee, it's pretty dark here."
When we pulled into Coralville's Days Inn around 11, the night manager greeted us warmly. We waited for our key cards and decided that this was as good a time as any to start asking questions. "So," we asked our Day's Inn host, "have you had a lot of reporters or volunteers in for the caucus?"
"The election, the caucus?"
"The election on Monday? Have you had a lot of extra people in here for it?"
"Oh yes, yes, many people from the campus." He was referring to the University of Iowa, a few miles down Route 6 in Iowa City. Art and I hit the hay worried that the drive out here was going to be a waste of time.
Saturday: Route 6 to Cedar Rapids, Iowa
We got up at 7 and made our way down to a complimentary motel breakfast. Three people at another table were enthralled by a CNN reporter talking about John Kerry. We quickly surmised from the Kerry pins on their lapels, jackets, bags, and hats that they were Kerry supporters.
After breakfast we ran into them in the parking lot.
"So, you guys are supporting John Kerry?"
"Yeah, we work for him in D.C. and came up for the weekend to lend a hand."
We decided to see Dick Gephardt speak in Cedar Rapids, but we went the wrong way and ended up taking a route that might be called just a little too scenic. It's about here that I'd like to tell you about the stunning Iowa landscapes I'd seen, but all I saw out the car window Saturday morning was the dense gray fog that had settled over the state of Iowa. For the majority of that drive we were lucky to see the car in front of us, let alone the cows grazing on the nearly frozen fields.
Cedar Rapids, with its funky Little Czechoslovakia, its Quaker Oats building, pretty homes, and amiable people, seems like a nice place to visit, but it's not terribly busy on Saturday at 10 a.m. Sensing that we had missed the story we were looking for, we headed north to Dubuque.
On our way out of Cedar Rapids we stopped at a light. Standing on the divider in the middle of the road were the three Kerry supporters from the Days Inn brandishing their signs.
Saturday: Route151 to Dubuque, Iowa
On the banks of the Mississippi near the Illinois and Wisconsin borders lies the town of Dubuque, where supporters for Howard Dean from the U of C had been sent to lend a hand to the Dean campaign's Perfect Storm project. Having arrived the night before, the Chicago kids had already been trained and sent out to canvass nearby Dyersville. Purely in terms of aesthetics, Dubuque is a great town. With the river on one side of downtown and tall hills on the other, it clearly is a place that made its money from the river on which it rests. Old brick buildings line the street and shops with "local character" seem to be doing OK.
We found both the local Dean and Kerry campaign heads. At the Dean headquarters, we were welcomed. Our questions were answered quickly, and we were allowed to peek around the place and watch as a group of new arrivals were trained to canvass.
At the Kerry headquarters we were told in no uncertain terms that if we weren't going to be helping their campaign, we had to leave.
Saturday: Interstate 20 to Dyersville, Iowa
Dyersville is home to the American Museum of Farm Toys and the titular field from Field of Dreams. It is also one of the places that U of C Deanie Babies were sent to canvass. Art and I met them for lunch at the Dyersville Family Restaurant, a classic diner.
Mandy Burton, a graduate student in the Divinity School, said she likes Dean because of the civil unions bill that he signed in Vermont. "And I'm a huge fan of the fact that he gives every indication of being a nuanced thinker who takes into account, first of all, that situations are complicated and that demagoguery certainly cannot solve the problem."
On the other hand, Lyn Lewis, a second-year in the College, came to Iowa "to see what a campaign looks like, especially one that some people say is a totally different, new way to organize a grassroots campaign I think it's interesting to see that passion that some people have for Dean. And I like road trips."
After lunch we went canvassing around Dyersville with two of the Deaniacs. The temperature had dropped 10 degrees in the previous 12 hours, and the precipitationformerly rainwas now freezing over.
Our canvassers' luck was not good. One potential caucuser was not home (but since her daughter was at the door, there was no need to place a "remember to vote Dean" note on the doorknob). Another was unable to attend the caucus Monday night because she had a doctor's appointment on Tuesday. And another simply didn't care for any of the candidates. So much for a grassroots effect on the political process.
Saturday: Interstate 20 to Waterloo, Iowa
About an hour west of Dyersville lies the larger town of Waterloo, where John Edwards was scheduled to speak at 4:30 p.m. At about 4:15 we pulled into the packed parking lot of the Waterloo Art Center. We followed the crowd into a large room reminiscent of public school lunchrooms, filled with chairs, people, and Edwards signs. Grandparents, parents, teenagers, and even a number of babies made up the crowd of about 600. David Brooks, New York Times columnist and Maroon alumnus, stood towards the back of the room with a group of national journalists. Edwards was running late, and as "Life Is a Highway" began to play on the stereo, a few of the less dedicated members of the audience began to get up to leave. Sensing restlessness in the crowd, former Iowa gubernatorial candidate Roxanne Conlin walked to the podium, announced, "I am not John Edwards," and proceeded to verbally tap-dance for the audience for the next 30 minutes. We were treated to a discussion of why Edwards was not too young (he's 50 though he doesn't look a day over 35), why his book was better than his competition's (he credited his ghostwriter, they didn't), why he was a great man (his humble beginnings, his terrific career as a lawyer and then legislator, his "integrity," his strong family bonds). Finally the Edwards bus pulled up out front and a steady cry of "Run, John, Run" was audible through the door. Suddenly the room was filled with almost 30 college-age kids with Edwards posters chanting for their candidate, standing on tables, and screaming as if Elvis were in the building. Conlin looked relieved, and a voice asked the audience to give a hand for "The future President of the United States." The people did as they were told.
Edwards came on stage and instantly charmed the audience. He raised his hands, they cheered. When a baby wouldn't stop crying, he told the mother, "Don't worry about that, it doesn't bother me a bit. I just left my kids on the bus doing the exact same thing." The people ate it up. As he talked about the problems facing the nation (healthcare, education, debt) the audience visibly swayed in his favor. By the time he ended his speech with exclamations that he was a viable candidate who could win the North, win the South, and in fact win the United States, the spectators seemed completely enthralled, giving him a standing ovation as the kids who had come in the beginning cheered him out of the room with a reprise of "Run, John, Run."
Saturday: Interstate 27 to Cedar Falls, Iowa
My associate needed to find an Internet connection to file a story for a rival paper and, with the public library in Waterloo closed, we followed a lead and went north to the neighboring town of Cedar Falls, home of the University of Northern Iowa. It is a school whose homecoming, unbeknownst to my colleague and me, has apparently been proclaimed the best in the nation by Playboy.
After getting lost around the UNI-dome (home to the UNI Panthers) we found the school copy-shop, which conveniently had Internet access available for the low, low price of 12 cents a minute. After that was done we found a pizza joint/bar called the Stein that was about as empty as any bar I've ever seen on a Saturday at 8 p.m. After eating our slices, which were almost Sicilian and all bad, we talked with the bartender who explained the emptiness as a factor of the band canceling.
"So, are you going to vote in the caucus?" we asked. To which he responded, "I don't know, when is that?"
Sunday: Interstate 80 to Des Moines, Iowa
In Des Moines we met up with another group of Maroon reporters at a coffee shop across the street from the Dean Perfect Storm Center. It was also conveniently located down the block from the Kerry headquarters and the Edwards headquarters. We first went to see what all the fuss about Dean was.
The Dean headquarters was a mass of people in dark coats with bright orange hats. The downstairs of the office was all tired-looking volunteers running around like beheaded chickens. The upstairs, where the staff and interns worked, was a different story. Ethernet cables slinked around every crevice of the room--hanging off of tables, balled up in corners, wrapped around pipes on the ceiling, sticking out from the wood paneled walls and going into the computers that sparsely populated the offices.
After speaking to one of the Dean press agents, we overheard that a group of Northwestern University reporters had arrived, and took that as our cue to move on to the next stop.
The Edwards headquarters was in many ways the exact opposite of Dean's. Clean, white walls covered in signs and pictures surrounded the neatly sectioned and brightly lit office. Where the Deanies had appeared disorganized and exhausted, the Edwardians (probably still high from the Des Moines Register endorsement) seemed calm and collected.
Half of our news team went off to Grinnell to see Kucinich and John Kerry speak, while I went with the other half to hear Edwards speak again and then to go to an event for journalists at the Des Moines Art Center.
The Art Center is a beautiful building with wings designed by I. M. Pei and Richard Meyer. Its small collection is a strong and eclectic one, with paintings by artists such as John Singer-Sargent, Pablo Picasso, and Edward Hopper. The party itself, nicely catered with chips, dips, mini-sandwiches, and an open bar, was a who's who of Iowa, with the governor, lieutenant governor, and a senator attending, along with members of the foreign press, columnists from the Register, documentary crews (apparently Drew Barrymore has decided to produce a documentary on the election), and more.
The highlight of the evening, however, was when Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson quoted Garrison Keillor: "Democracy is like sex. When it's good, it's great. And when it's bad, it's still pretty good."