A little old Jewish man wearing cowboy boots stood in the lobby of the Sioux City, Iowa, Stockyards. He had gray stubble on his chin, a bit of lunch on his shirt, and the rumor was he’d made a million buying and selling beef on the hoof. He stood in front of the large blackboard which reported the thousands of steers, feeder cattle, hogs and sheep that passed through the stockyard that day.
He looked down the hall toward the entrance, brightened, saw the girl was coming. She was smiling, shaking hands. “Teeth just like her uncle,” the old man thought. “And the nose, too. Just like her uncle.”
She reached out to shake his hand. “Hi, I’m Maria Shriver.”
“I’m Benny Weiker,” said the little old man with a heavy accent. “I loved your uncle Jack.”
“Yes, well, I hope you’re supporting us this year …”
“Oh, of course, of course. I always back the Democrats, especially the Kennedys. It was Roosevelt who brought me over in 1940 …”
“That’s very nice,” she said, trying to move away.
“I was in Dachau. You heard of Dachau? For 33 weeks, I was in Dachau …”
“Oh how …”
“… and then they let me go because I was a lieutenant in World War I. They let us go 250 at a time, alphabetical order, so I was near the last. I lost 80 pounds in 33 weeks.”
The girl was pulling away now, to shake more hands. He reached after her. “I always loved your family,” he said.
In five days, on January 19th, the presidential campaign of 1976 would officially open with an election of sorts in Iowa. Democrats and Republicans throughout the state would go to precinct meetings in their neighborhoods, where they would select delegates to county conventions to be held in March, where they would select delegates to district conventions in April, where they would select delegates to the state convention in May, where they would select delegates to the national convention in July, where they would select a presidential nominee.
It was politics thrice removed at best, but it would be the first time in 1976 that warm bodies actually made their views known. And so Maria Shriver, a politician thrice removed, found herself shaking hands in the Sioux City Stockyards with the Dachau Cowboy.
Sioux City is considered to be so typical of the Midwest that the federal government routinely brings foreign dignitaries to town to show them how Middle America lives. It is located on the northwest edge of Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Nebraska and just to the south of South Dakota. The natives call it Siouxland, and the population hasn’t increased or decreased dramatically in a long time.
Farmers and ranchers come from hundreds of miles around to sell their grain and cattle and hogs in Sioux City. The processing of food is the major business in town and the workers live in modest homes in quiet neighborhoods. There isn’t much unemployment. The most violent local occurrence seems to be the weather, which is totally ridiculous – the wind whips down from the north in winter and routinely drives the temperature below zero; in summer, the sun bakes the prairie and drives the temperature above 100.
Like most places, there is a right side and a wrong side of the tracks. There is an old downtown, slowly being replaced by sterile urban renewal. Still standing, though, are several blocks of dark, hulking warehouses on lower Fourth Street. Harry Smith remembers growing up amid the warehouses when they seemed lighter, more alive. Farmers and cowboys, flush with market money, filled the divey bars along the street. There were tinhorn gamblers, too, conning the hicks. And the prostitutes who worked upstairs from the barber college that Harry’s father owned played “You Are My Sunshine” over and over again on the Victrola.
Harry scratched his way up from lower Fourth Street. He learned how to barber, worked his way through college, played basketball, toyed with the idea of becoming a coach. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. “Harry,” the old man said, “anybody who’s anything in this town is a lawyer.”
So Harry became a lawyer. And while it wasn’t easy for a poor kid to break into the established firms in town, there were groups like the Teamsters union that needed representation. The Teamsters became his first client, for a fee of $25 a month in 1940. After hitches in World War II and Korea, Harry started collecting other unions – the meat cutters in the local packing houses, the building trades – and before long, the AFL-CIO in Iowa, in Nebraska across the river and in South Dakota.