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Fighting for Their Right to the Party

In Iowa this fall, the surviving Democrats are actually trying to talk about issues. But the news media seems interested in nothing but their next titillating blunder

Michael Dukakis

American Democrat politician Michael Dukakis talking to journalists at the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary, Boston, Massachusetts, November 7th,1978

Barbara Alper/Getty

Iowa—

In the elegant Adler theatre, in downtown Davenport, the seats in the audience are filling up. Onstage, the candidates sit in a row of chairs and squint into the television lights. As a group, dressed in “power” red neckties and blue suits, they look like successful alumni who’ve returned to their old prep school to deliver inspirational speeches. The forum is called, optimistically, An Evening with the Next President.

The men onstage are widely known as the Seven Dwarfs of the Democratic party; they were so named by some fourth-estate cynic. The derisive label has stuck, only now there are six. Just hours before the Davenport debate, Joe Biden, the garrulous senator from Delaware, dropped out of the race, admitting plagiarism and exaggeration of his law-school record.

After the debate, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt jokes about the Seven Dwarfs problem. Babbitt, a nondwarfish six-feet-three, sighs, “I saw Mario Cuomo, and Mario kept saying to me, ‘You’ve got to get rid of that phrase.’ I said, ‘Okay, Mario, from now on it’s the Seven Pillars of Granite.’ “

Babbitt insists the Democrats are talking substance, laying out their views in debates and forums on an impressive array of public issues. “The Republicans,” Babbitt says, “are going to wake up at the last minute next summer and find — my God — something important was happening during all those boring debates.”

An aura of earnestness does seem to permeate this debate. The moderator, Ken Bode, an NBC correspondent, apologizes for the questions, which were submitted by local government officials. Bode says they “sound like a final exam in public administration.” A typical one is “What is your policy toward general revenue sharing?” C-SPAN, the cable channel for public affairs, is covering the event live. But aside from Bode, only one television network — CBS — has sent a political correspondent.

The Big Media are unexcited because there is a lack of obvious conflict. On the big questions of domestic and foreign policy, these candidates are mostly in agreement. They are all activists in the liberal Democratic tradition, committed to jobs, education, health, housing and other domestic concerns Ronald Reagan neglected in favor of defense spending. They all articulate a foreign policy that goes far beyond the Reagan administration’s narrow obsession with the cold war. Any one of them would represent a sharp break from the recent past.

Amid the customary campaign platitudes, some sophisticated, original ideas have emerged. Michael Dukakis, who has been governor of prosperous Massachusetts for three terms, talks about stimulating economic development in depressed cities like Davenport. Jesse Jackson, who has tempered his stridency for this audience, mentions his ideas on rebuilding America’s highways and urban infrastructure with capital borrowed from the $2 trillion Americans have invested in pension funds. Babbitt expects to repeal the mortgage-interest deduction on second homes — a tax break for the well-to-do — and channel the money into housing for the poor. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois argues that if Europe and Japan begin paying a decent share of our mutual defense, the U.S. can reduce its defense budget and finance a vast jobs program for those left behind in the 1980s. Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee promises to restore safety to air travel and roll back the monopolizing effects of airline deregulation (a position seconded by all). Richard Gephardt, the St. Louis, Missouri, congressman, delivers an eloquent attack on the Reagan record, particularly the failure to enforce environmental laws.

None of this seems to interest the news media. After the debate, when the candidates gather in an upstairs reception room, reporters swarm over them with questions. But no newsman asks Paul Simon to elaborate on why he voted against tax reform in 1986, though his defense of that position had drawn vigorous applause from the debate audience. No one asks Dukakis to explain his proposed reforms of environmental protection. The reporters want only to talk campaign politics — who gains and who loses from Biden’s withdrawal.

The Democrats would like to run against Republicans, but first they must get past the Big Media. The gauntlet set up by the media resembles a fraternity hazing for new pledges. It’s as though the media had decided that, having failed to hold a popular president to account for his frequent lapses of truth, it will now make up for it by uncovering any foibles of these Democratic fledglings it can find.

Unmasking politicians is always good sport and a valuable part of the process, but there is something grossly uneven here. Has anyone in the media yet looked into the many examples of hyperbolic and sometimes vicious rhetoric from Senator Bob Dole’s political past? (In 1976, Dole declared that all wars of the twentieth century were “Democrat wars.”) Has anyone probed the White House deals of Vice President George Bush, who traded away environmental and safety regulations to reward industries that supported the Republican ticket?

Instead, Bush and Dole are described as “experienced,” and so far they’ve gotten a free pass. (One Republican candidate, the Reverend Pat Robertson, has taken his licks, but he’s an outsider like the Democrats.) This may be because many national political reporters already assume that Bush or Dole will be the next chief executive. David Broder of The Washington Post, who is the bell cow of respectable opinion for the media herd, recently suggested that the outcome of 1988 is already visible, if not decided. The headline on Broder’s column read, THINGS ARE MOVING THE GOP’S WAY. Given the Big Media’s power to influence perceptions, this sort of prediction can easily become self-fulfilling.

But in Iowa there is another presidential campaign under way, one quite different from the campaign of instant scandal covered so assiduously on the front pages and the nightly news. In small towns across the state, on campuses and farms, these politicians are out every day, talking directly with real voters. This is good old-fashioned American-style campaigning, the politicians not only talking but also listening. In its better moments, this kind of quiet campaigning resembles what democracy was always supposed to be about — a conversation between sovereign citizens and those who wish to govern them.

These conversations tell us something about how these men would govern if elected. That ought to be the ultimate question of politics and campaigns, but strangely enough, it bores most political reporters. Instead they are absorbed by their chronic score keeping — who is winning, who is losing?

MICHAEL DUKAKIS IS STANDING BY THE HOG pen on Joe McGrane’s farm, near Manchester, Iowa, asking questions about pork prices and other matters that do not often come up at the statehouse back in Massachusetts. The Duke, as the Boston headline writers call him, peers intently at several dozen muddy little piglets rooting and grunting at his feet. A campaign aide offers him a pair of Western boots and asks if the candidate would like to pose amid the hogs. The governor winces. “I don’t want to hoke it up too much,” he says. “I am who I am.” The governor agrees to pose with twelve-year-old Suzie McGrane while she holds a pig.

The Iowa countryside is cruelly beautiful this autumn. The corn is drying in the fields, thickened acres of burnt brown awaiting harvest, and along the swift little rivers, the leaves on the trees are already turning. Amid the physical splendor, the vast, swelling landscape anchored by the occasional white farmhouse, no one would sense the economic disaster that is taking place here. Iowa seems too beautiful for tragedy.

Joe McGrane’s barnyard is a classic Midwestern setting. In the bright sunlight, it will make a perfect visual for television and will play especially well for an Easterner like Dukakis. The Duke’s face is dark and hawklike, with muscular little lumps of resolve at the corners of the cheeks. Iowans tend toward round, plump and blond. The weathered white barns and sheds, the symphony of barking dogs and bellowing calves, soften the hard edges of the city guy.

But there are no TV cameras here with Dukakis — except for Boston’s WBZ, which follows its governor everywhere, and a lone reporter from a TV station in Sioux City. “The family didn’t want any TV at all,” the Dukakis aide whispers, “because TV would overwhelm everything.”

But without television, I ask, what’s the point?

“That’s the way you and I think,” the aide replies, “but not the way these farmers think. This fellow McGrane is not a Dukakis man. He’s still undecided. These other farmers he invited are the key ‘cue givers’ in this area — they’re the activists that other farmers follow. They just want to listen to Dukakis and look him over.”

The governor, jacket off, hands on hips, stands by a cistern in front of an improvised podium made with bales of straw. He wants to convey his growing familiarity with Iowa’s farm crisis, his experience as governor and, above all, his humanity. About thirty farmers, husbands and wives, are seated in rows of folding chairs. In the rear, women are serving cookies, coffee and fruit salad.

Dukakis describes his commitment to an idea that Iowans care a lot about — developing nonfood uses for corn and grains, of which there is now a glut. Corn can be used instead of road salt on highways in winter, as a raw material for plastics and petrochemicals and as ethanol, a pollution-free fuel for automobiles.

“This fall we’re going to have more than eighty metropolitan areas in this country that are unable to meet EPA standards for clean air,” Dukakis says. “Here we have this wonderfully productive agricultural sector that’s producing more than we can consume. Here we have these cities with polluted air. Why don’t we marry the two and take care of our surpluses and also give our cities healthier air to breathe?” This is hardly an original idea, but it’s important to the farmers, who applaud enthusiastically.

Throwing the meeting open to questions from the audience, Dukakis gets a further education in the mysteries of agricultural economics. One farmer takes him through a sophisticated exposition of international trade problems, from Australian-beef imports to Japanese protection of its own rice market. This leads to some esoteric complaints: big grain-trading companies that mix sand and gravel in the corn they export, giving Iowa a bad name; U.S. officials who allow Canada to import pork that has been treated with chemicals so dangerous that American farmers are forbidden to use them.

Dukakis gamely tries to follow the increasingly complex discussion. “I don’t want to sound naive,” he says, “but I’ve been in politics twenty-five years. How can the U.S. government possibly justify that?” The candidate has said he wants to learn more, and the farmers are taking him at his word.

Then, as often happens in Iowa campaigning nowadays, the talk turns abruptly to the personal suffering of the economic disaster. An older farm woman from Masonville, Mrs. Andrew Riniker, begins reciting the saga of her family’s struggle with the bank. “They called us in default,” she says. “I sent them a letter, certified mail. They wanted my husband to change his insurance, so that would settle the debt if something happened.”

Her voice rises in intensity, and Dukakis tries to ask sympathetic questions. He has already declared himself in favor of reforming farm-foreclosure rules to help struggling farmers, but the details of her grievances are too tangled to understand. Her husband, wearing a white straw hat with a curled brim, nods sullenly. He does not look at Dukakis.

“Why is the bank doing this?” Dukakis asks softly.

“Bigness,” the husband blurts out, still not willing to look directly at the candidate. “They think bigness is good. Every morning, you hear their ad on the radio: ‘We got the land, and we got the money to lend.’ I wrote the bank: ‘If you’ve money to lend, why don’t you give us a chance to work it out?’ “

The farmer’s voice is now quivering, and his eyes are watery. “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. . . .” He stops, right on the edge of losing it. Dukakis is leaning toward him, his pained expression mirroring the family’s plight.

“One thing about campaigning like this, folks, is you remember,” Dukakis says. “Folks, you really do.”

This is the kind of education candidates all over Iowa are receiving this preprimary season, more than a year before the election. Such private moments of human drama, in which real people spontaneously open up about their fears and hopes, may leave their marks on the politicians. Later on, when the candidates are on the larger stage, surrounded by mass media and distanced from the voters by the technologies of modern politics, perhaps their words will reflect what they learned from these moments.

JEFF COX, A YOUNG PROFESSOR OF BRITISH HISTORY at the University of Iowa, is standing on a plastic box in front of the bar at Bushnell’s Turtle, a trendy little restaurant in Iowa City. Cox is the Johnson County coordinator for Paul Simon’s campaign. Even in the early morning, the restaurant is filled with Simon partisans, a mix of students and older, tweedy types, including retired professors. Cox gently scolds the crowd.

“A lot of people are making flimsy judgments about electability,” he says. “You ought to consider electability based on facts, not on media images. Paul Simon has won twenty elections in his career. We in Iowa help decide who’s electable. Don’t give up that power to Pat Caddell or some other media analyst. Make up your own mind who’s the best candidate and go to the caucuses and support him.”

At nearly every campaign stop in the state, candidates or their representatives are making this same pitch: Don’t listen to the pundits and pollsters; don’t try to guess which candidate will look sexy on television or calculate who may run strongest somewhere else in the country. This is your choice. While the vast majority of Iowa voters are as uninterested in politics as most Americans, the intense minority that turns out to hear the candidates takes the process very seriously.

Simon is on the soapbox now, loosening up the crowd. “Where is the woman who gave me that Iowa plum jam?” he asks. “There she is! I’m going to be inspired by that plum jam for the rest of this campaign.”

“Wait a minute,” the woman says. “Tell them to come to the Farmers Market on Saturday.”

“After that commercial, you should be paying for this place,” the candidate replies.

Simon’s problem is that he looks too square to be president. He wears bow ties and glasses and talks in a flat bass voice that sounds churchy. His cheeks have a bright pink glow, as though he just stepped out of a hot shower, and his face is easily caricatured by cartoonists as Charlie McCarthy. Nevertheless, Simon has managed to win a following in the state, particularly among young people. Later, at a noontime rally at the University of Iowa campus, he draws a surprisingly large and enthusiastic crowd of students, who question him closely about the arms race and the war in Nicaragua. After eight years of a movie star in the White House, maybe the students are intrigued by the idea of an anticelebrity politician.

Simon’s old-shoe personality, in any case, provides conservative cover for his politics. Among the presidential candidates who now serve in Congress, he has the most liberal voting record. Without apology, Simon upholds the Democratic party’s traditional commitments to jobs, home ownership, schools, low interest rates, decent health care for all, racial and sexual equality. Attacking Ollie North, he quotes Abraham Lincoln. He invokes Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey and, like both of them, exudes Midwestern optimism.

His meat-and-potatoes positions are illustrated by striking statistics. “We have 35,000 fewer blacks on campuses today than we did four years ago,” he says. “That’s about the size of this university. That is a loss for them and a loss for the nation. We’ve got to restore grants and loans for college students in need.”

The friendly audience peppers him, nevertheless, with a few tough questions. For example: Why is the senator out here in Iowa when he ought to be back in Washington, working on the Judiciary Committee to block Judge Robert Bork’s appointment to the Supreme Court? Simon concedes that a presidential campaign forces hard choices but he insists he’s already worked hard to stop Bork. By late afternoon, Simon has addressed law students, realtors, a high-school assembly and a private meeting of Iowa City’s movers and shakers. Then it is on to Waterloo and the annual Iowa Cattle Congress. As a farm-state politician, Simon knows how to work a fairground. He plows through the crowds, fast and direct. The Cattle Congress smells of livestock and hot cooking oil. People are eating funnel cakes, Tom Thumb doughnuts, corn dogs, bratwurst and shaved Hawaiian ice. They wander though the exhibition halls with dazed expressions, evidently exhausted by the profusion of discount jewelry, miraculous cleaning fluids, fancy sweat shirts, boots and buckles and, of course, animals.

Simon grabs each visitor by the hand, introduces himself, pats the children and passes out brochures. The people seem only dimly aware of who he is and why he’s talking to them. This sort of campaigning takes a strong ego. The general indifference of voters is humbling.

A bearded man, carrying a child, stops the senator and delivers an emotional speech on being unemployed for three years. “I’ve been a scout leader for eighteen years,” Kevin Alexander says. “If I don’t get a job pretty soon, I’m not going to be able to feed these kids or send them to scout camp.” Alexander denounces both John Deere for closing its Waterloo tractor plant and movie actors for entering politics.

“Listen, you’re one of the fellows I’m trying to help,” Simon replies, then explains his own proposal for an immediate national jobs program. “Give us your name and address. I’m going to send you my new book. It’s called Let’s Put America Back to Work.”

“God bless,” the man says.

A few steps away, a prosperous-looking couple engages the senator. “We’re Republicans in search of answers,” the wife announces. “We just changed our registration so we can participate in the Democratic caucuses.”

“We’d love to have you aboard,” Simon says.

As the senator moves on, the husband says to a reporter, “Now, this is off the record, right? We were for Biden, and now we’re looking around. We really think Senator Simon has a lot to say — if he would just stand behind a curtain when he says it.”

By nightfall, Simon is in Cedar Falls, on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa. The senator is addressing a meeting of the Iowa Foreign Languages Association. High-school French and Spanish teachers are not exactly a pivotal force in Iowa politics. Yet Simon has been looking forward to the speech all day. American ignorance of foreign languages is another one of his passions. He wrote a book about it, The Tongue-Tied American, one of eleven books Simon has authored. Simon became obsessed with the issue, he says, while traveling abroad. He was embarrassed by his own inability to speak foreign languages. Americans, he says, still have the same attitude toward foreign languages that H.L. Mencken once skewered: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.”

Learning foreign languages, he believes, is indispensable to solving the nation’s economic problems. “Think about it,” the senator tells the language teachers. “Japan has 10,000 salesmen in New York City, and all of them speak English. We have about 900 Americans in Japan, and most of them cannot speak Japanese. No wonder we have a trade deficit. We don’t speak the language of our customers.”

Simon is also convinced that the language barrier helps fuel the cold war. “Why do we pile up all these weapons?” he asks. “Because we fear each other. Why do we fear the Russians and they fear us? Because we do not understand each other. Imagine if twenty years ago Mikhail Gorbachev had been an exchange student at Ronald Reagan’s alma mater in Illinois, Eureka College, and imagine if Ronald Reagan had studied for a year at the University of Moscow. Now that does stretch your imagination, I admit.”

Among the standard issues of presidential politics, Simon’s crusade for foreign-language education and cultural exchange sounds almost quaint — so simple and wholesome and beyond controversy. Yet with the international economy becoming more and more competitive and complicated, perhaps it’s time to start looking again at the simple solutions.

“You have to stand up,” Simon says. “I can’t emphasize that too strongly. Too many foreign-language teachers are defensive and defeated. Start telling people this is important, and you will be amazed at what can happen.”

The senator’s zeal seems to fire up his audience. They began the evening as meek school teachers. At the end they are on their feet, shouting promises to take on their school board and principals and anyone else who underrates the importance of what they do. In one sense, Simon is test-marketing a new issue, trying it out before a friendly audience. If he survives the early nominating contests that begin with Iowa next February, the rest of America will no doubt hear the same clarion calls for foreign-language education. Meanwhile, the senator’s aides are busy passing out pledge cards. A lot of French and Spanish teachers are deciding to become “political activists” on behalf of Paul Simon.

AT THE HOLIDAY INN OUTSIDE DES Moines, Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee has cornered a different “special-interest group” — several hundred satellite-dish dealers. Gore is their hero in Congress, having introduced legislation, dubbed the Satellite Viewers’ Bill of Rights, to protect dish owners from cable-TV companies who want to monopolize transmission. This is a brand-new political cause, born of the communications revolution, uniting the small satellite retailers and hundreds of thousands of mostly rural families who depend on the dishes for their TV signals. Irreverent congressional aides refer to the new lobby as “the dishheads.”

Gore moves down the rows of the hall, introducing himself to every dealer. “We know who you are — give ’em hell,” says Gene Phagan, a dealer from Albert Lea, Minnesota. “We got the last tape of your Senate hearing. You really told ’em.”

Gore notes with evident pride that the satellite issue really boils down to the “big guys” versus the “little guys,” much like the populist causes his father espoused years before when he was a Tennessee senator. “Al Gore’s done a lot to educate the public that we’re not thieves and pirates,” says Jim Ray, a dish dealer from Pekin, Illinois, as the senator approaches. “We’re willing to pay our fair share, but the cable companies want to drive us out of business.”

As Gore shakes his hand, Ray observes, “Well, senator, if these candidates keep dropping like flies, pretty soon you’ll have it.”

“Yeah, it’s like a crash derby, isn’t it?” Gore says.

“God, let’s hope you haven’t done anything nasty.”

The young senator begins his speech by promising, if elected, to install a satellite dish on the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At thirty-nine, Gore is a bit callow, still finding his range as a speaker. He jokes briefly in an amiable country drawl, but then his tone becomes overheated, as though he’s speaking at an open-air rally.

“I have enjoyed fighting for you,” he declares. “I really have. Whenever you’ve got the facts on your side and you’re fighting for David against Goliath, it’s fun. And it’s fun when you’re winning.”

Senator Gore ends with a hard sell. “I’m not too bashful about asking you — I’m telling you — I need your help,” he says. At a distance, critics might sneer at the smallness of the satellite issue. But the candidates understand that all politics, large and small, begins with just such “special interests” — giving voice to unrepresented grievances. Senator Gore also knows, because he has looked it up, that there are 25,000 dishheads in Iowa.

FIVE DAYS AFTER THE DAVENPORT DEBATE, the six candidates meet again on a floodlit stage in Des Moines. “Sparks fly,” as the news reports put it Senator Gore stages a mild attack from the right, accusing others of softness toward the Soviets. Governor Dukakis tells him to get his facts straight Jesse Jackson proposes his “Jackson Doctrine,” a plan to rebuild third-world economies. Bruce Babbitt calls Reagan’s contra war against Nicaragua “a slow-motion Bay of Pigs.” Representative Richard Gephardt asks voters to contemplate a new campaign question: “Are we safer than we were $2 trillion ago?”

Each of the candidates, in addition to defining himself on dozens of public questions, is trying out campaign rhetoric, practicing the dramatic flourishes and grand phrases they will have to depend on later in the season on national TV, when the audience is much larger.

But while the candidates hone their deliveries, the Big Media pursue the other campaign. One day after the Des Moines debate, another “scandal” is unearthed, and now it is candidate Dukakis’s turn to run the gauntlet. His campaign manager resigns, unmasked as the culprit behind the “attack video” caper, which exposed Biden’s plagiarism. Another aide quits because he lied about it Dukakis apologizes, but the press speculates at great length about what this episode reveals about the governor’s character. The other candidates plead with reporters to focus on the issues. And they all secretly hope that next time it will not be their turn.

The Big Media’s game of trivial pursuits is potentially dangerous — both for the Democrats and the democratic process. If the cheap scandals continue long enough, the Democratic candidates will be indelibly labeled as sleazy and inept. The nation will never get a clear picture of the real choice it is being offered in 1988. The Big Media will win, and the country will lose.

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