Adventures in Campaignland: My Saturday in Ames
by Ted Rueter

Dan Quayle looked at the crowd at Iowa State University and quipped, "Just another summer day in Iowa."

Oh, sure: if you think it's normal for 25,000 Republicans to be packed into a parking lot to listen to Debbie Boone and Ronnie Milsap, meet Roger Staubach and Miss Iowa, hear fire-breathing speeches, see the Governor of Wisconsin show up on a Harley-Davidson, drop your kids off at the Gary Bauer Kidz Fun Zone, and wolf down freebie pork sandwiches and sweet corn--all in front of 600 members of the Fourth Estate.

The Iowa Republican straw poll was held on Saturday, August 14--the 156th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau's imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax. The Walden Pond resident would be so proud: voters in this "election" had to pay $25 for the privilege (of course, all but a handful were willing to let one of the nine campaigns pick up the tab). Steve Forbes spent around $2 million on the event (fully-enclosed, air-conditioned tents with French doors don't come cheap). Governor Bush spent around $1 million--including $43,500 for the right to pitch his tent next to the coliseum. Nearly $1 million flowed to the coffers of the Iowa GOP. Rural hicks: 1; city slickers: 0.

I arrived in Ames on Friday night and settled into my motel room. Just as I had hoped, the airwaves were full of political chatter. In a news report, George W. Bush expressed agnosticism on evolution, saying that schools must be "excellent," and that the substance of "excellence" shouldn't matter. Lamar Alexander ran a television ad showing an auctioneer accepting bids for the presidency. In a Forbes ad, his five daughters testified that their Dad "embodies honesty and integrity."

At 6:30 pm, it was time for "A Conversation With Steve Forbes," on channel 5 in Des Moines. The host of the show was Steve Grubbs, Forbes' Iowa campaign manager. There was a middle-aged female co-host who said nothing and didn't seem to have a name, but offered a Nancy Reagan-type gaze.

Sitting in a wood-paneled library, Forbes noted that he had traveled 6,000 miles in Iowa during the last six weeks, and had posed for 4,000 pictures (with fancy digital technology). He complained about the "hollowing out of our military," said that the technology for space-based missile defense "is within our grasp," and called for an end to taxation of pensions and inheritances. Asked by Jon Cooper of Boone, Iowa about the farming crisis, Forbes responded, "Well, as you know, Jon..." (Forbes' solution? Reducing federal paperwork requirements.) Forbes concluded his half-hour broadcast by observing that Iowa voters and students are among the smartest in the world.

Saturday morning: I checked into the registration table and got my press pass, allowing me to linger with the Bold and the Beautiful.

And the gang was all there! There were several dozen television trucks, including the Twin Cities' own KSTP. David Broder of THE WASHINGTON POST sat in the same seat for hours. Bob Novak and Margaret Carlson did a live remote for "The Capital Gang." (I shook Novak's hand!) Joe Klein of THE NEW YORKER expressed disdain for the event, but said, "I'm here for the rhetoric." Walter Shapiro (USA TODAY columnist), Thomas Oliphant (BOSTON GLOBE columnist), and Margaret Warner ("News Hour With Jim Lehrer" correspondent) hung out together at several candidate tents.

Which is where every reporter should have been, because that's where the action was.

My first stop was the Dan Quayle tent, complete with a red carpet and a huge red sign: "America Needs the Family! America Needs Dan Quayle." Each picnic table was adorned with three plastic corn ears, held together with a red ribbon.

I caught the end of Quayle's speech, in which he castigated the "Gore-Clinton administration" and bragged that he had "casted thousands of votes."

Entertainment was provided by the JonBenet Ramsey Singers: five prepubescent girls in curled hair and country and western get-ups. Their favorite song? "Get Down Tonight," by KC and the Sunshine Band ("make a little love, do a little dance, get down tonight"). The Family Values Chorus they were not.

At the Gary Bauer tent, music was furnished by "4Him." The band leader said that "we believe in God, and we believe in Gary Bauer. No matter what happens today, God will be uplifted."

Next up: the Dole tent, the only place with flowers on every table. Above the stage, there were three yellow and blue huge signs: "Let's Make History," "Elizabeth for President," and "Dole Rocks."

I walked by a group of Dole lieutenants discussing strategy. Their meeting was marred by the incessant beeping of trucks as they backed up. It was poetic justice: those annoying, pointless sounds come courtesy of a regulation issued by Elizabeth Dole when she was Secretary of Transportation. More than enough reason not to vote for her.

And then we heard from reason #2: Bob Dole. Or at least we tried to hear from him. Bob spoke for more than two minutes before any campaign staffer had the courage to point out that the sound system wasn't working. Apparently Bob hadn't noticed.

For her part, Elizabeth spent several minutes asking for suggestions on a title for Bob, should she become president. Our choices: "First Man," "First Gentleman," or "First Spouse." Elizabeth said that Bob would be her chief adviser on agriculture: "Thirty-six years on the Agriculture Committee. Doesn't that sound pretty good?"

By then, what sounded pretty good to me was lunch. Dole was offering pork sandwiches, baked beans, and ice cream. In the line, I asked a 10 year-old supporter why he's for Dole. "Because, she's...nice," he said.

Later in the afternoon, I succumbed to the temptation of even more free food. Lamar and Honey Alexander were hosting "The Taste of Tennessee," with BBQ ribs and cole slaw. (Lamar played the piano, and "The Best of Iowa Chorus" sang "This Land is Your Land.") Lunch #3 was provided by Pat Buchanan, who served up pork sandwiches, cole slaw, soft drinks, and ice cream.

I felt mildly guilty about eating all the free food. After all, I wasn't a voting delegate, and I hid my press pass in my pocket. But then I remembered a joke told by members of the Texas state legislature about lobbyists: "If you can't drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and still vote against them, you don't belong in office."

There was other free stuff as well. The Iowa Teamsters, in bed with the Buchanan campaign, gave away t-shirts. I also got a free t-shirt from Citizens for a Sound Economy. It features two sharks, with the inscription, "Please don't feed the lawyers."

Those willing to spend actual cash could choose among numerous bumper stickers:

  • "Nixon 2000: He's Not as Stiff as Gore"
  • "GOP: God's Own Party"
  • "Republican Women...Like Men"
  • "Thurmond/ Helms: Don't Waste 200 Years of Experience"
  • "Gore Would be the Best President...China Ever Had"
  • "Proud Member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy"
  • "Feminist Movements Belong in the Bathroom"
  • "Vote Democrat: It's Easier Than Working"
  • "Bill and Hillary: Guilty and Guiltier"
  • "Jail to the Chief"

Walking to the auditorium, I saw Gary Bauer on a golf cart and an Abe Lincoln impersonator supporting Alan Keyes. I was almost overtaken by an avalanche of Dole enthusiasts accompanying Elizabeth. I overheard a young girl exhort her Dad to "vote for the youngest candidate" and a man announce that he would never vote for a female candidate for president. There were hundreds of Forbes supporters wearing ugly orange t-shirts (like the old uniforms of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers).

At 3:30 pm, I entered the coliseum through a delivery entrance. A guard at the door checked my press pass. I saw George W. Bus by the elevator. I lingered; it was the first time I had laid eyes on him. Another guard said, "May I help you, sir?" I flashed my press pass. "OK. Keep moving," he said.

A sign in the Buchanan section warned that "Bush is a Moderate and a Globalist." An Alan Keyes placard read, "President Keyes. Finally! The Liberals Lose the debate."

It was show time. The lights dimmed. Fireworks exploded. The sound system blasted "Get Ready 4 This" by 2 Unlimited--the theme song of the NBA. Then a dozen cheerleaders appeared to welcome "the next president of the United States!" I half-expected the announcer to scream, "And now, starting at point guard for YOUR CHICAGO BULLS, a man who stops liberal judges in their tracks, SENATOR ORRIN HATCH!"

After the obligatory benediction, we heard from Kayne Robinson, chairman of the Iowa GOP. Robinson, a former Des Moines cop, asserted that Alan Keyes was "a former ambassador to the United Nations" (in fact, Keyes was briefly ambassador to UNESCO, a UN agency). Robinson noted that Gary Bauer is "a frequent guest on public affairs talk shows (now there's an important qualification for the Oval Office!). Similarly, he bragged that Pat Buchanan was responsible for a dramatic rise in the ratings for "Crossfire."

The candidates' speeches contained some good lines. Orrin Hatch said it was "time for Bill, Hillary, and Al to go home--if they can just figure out where home is." Steve Forbes said that "only in Washington would anyone call the IRS a 'service.'" Dan Quayle promised to abolish the inheritance tax, saying there should be no "taxation without respiration."

The most entertaining speaker, by far, was Pat Buchanan. Pitchfork Pat charged that President Clinton launched the war in Kosovo to distract attention from Monicagate. He warned globalists that his election meant that "your New World Order comes crashing down." He pledged to fumigate the National Endowment for the Arts. He said his first act as president--as chief law enforcement officer of the land--would be to turn to his predecessor and say, "Sir, you have the right to remain silent."

Remaining silent--something that one of the other GOP candidates is very good at. George W. Bush's stirring speech contained such platitudes as "a dangerous world requires a sharpened sword," "I will build hope in the heartland of America," "a great country does not live by prosperity alone," and "I will provide strength for our families and vigor for our churches." Bush's speech reminded me of a comment by Steve Forbes: "Money without message equals mush."

At about 10:00 pm, the Iowa GOP chairman came out to announce the results of the straw poll. The victor: George W. Bush, with 31 percent of the vote.

George W. Bush--a man with less than five years of governmental experience, with no Washington experience, with no foreign policy experience, with an erratic personal history and work record--is the front runner for the White House.

How the hell did this happen?

I have two words to suggest: "silver" and "spoon."

And do we really need another president from Texas? The Lone Star State is the land of oil wildcatters and cowboy capitalists and sorority girls and debutante parties and country clubs. It's home to Ross Perot, T. Boone Pickens, and H.L. Hunt. It has the country's filthiest water. In Texas, young boys learn at an early age to shoot squirrels and drive pickup trucks and play left tackle and get drunk on Saturday nights and belch and toss beer cans out the window and wear 10-gallon hats and snap towels and pinch butts. Texas has far more executions and parolees than any other state. In Texas, you can get five years for murder and 99 for possession of pot. In 1980, cops in Dallas shot a jaywalker--to death.

A president from Texas? No thanks. I'd rather have one from New Jersey or Arizona.

Published in Minnesota Law and Politics, September 1999

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