Roger Simon: Looking for the 'real' America in Iowa

SHARE Roger Simon: Looking for the 'real' America in Iowa

An Elvis impersonator sang while GOP presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee played bass at a gathering for the Iowa straw poll in 2007.

If Iowa didn’t exist, the national press corps would have to invent it.

The majority of reporters who cover national politics live in the Eastern time zone. This sometimes nags at them. And every now and then, they feel a guilty need to go out and find the “real” America.


Ordinary people who live in the Midwest and do something for a living that is both alien and fascinating to the East Coast press are automatically “authentic,” and their opinions carry great weight. (It’s almost as good as having a British accent.)

Take farming. Most East Coast reporters have no idea how food gets on their plate. Well, yes, the waiter brings it. But where does the waiter get the food?

That people grow crops and raise animals seems terribly real and much closer to the American mainstream than being a reporter.

So every four years, reporters go to Iowa and squish through piles of cowflop to interview “real” farmers.

The first event of real note is usually the straw poll held in Ames, Iowa. Nobody yet knows how many candidates will compete at this year’s straw poll. Some say at least 17. Though Democrats can attend and even vote at the straw poll, all the speakers will be Republicans. After they speak, a nonbinding vote is held. Because the vote is nonbinding, the press can have it both ways.

We can do stories about how meaningless the vote is, and then we can do stories about who won the vote and how significant that is.

It is like a serial murderer’s scrawling on a subway wall: “Stop me before I kill again.”

The trouble with Ames, however, is that some have felt it is not “Iowa” enough. Ames is home to Iowa State University, which has more than 40,000 students and faculty, none of whom produces cowflop.

Ames wants people to visit and think “sophisticated,” not “bucolic.”

The state of Iowa, on the other hand, actually is bucolic. More than half of its cities have 500 people or fewer.

The second problem with Ames is that it has charged the Iowa Republican Party too much money to serve as the straw poll site.

Ames acted as if it had a lock on the event because it has always been held there. But the straw poll is not exactly something that Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet brought with them in their canoes when they explored Iowa in the 1600s.

The straw poll, which began in 1979, has been held only six times. (I have been to five of them. If I go to one more, they give me a live chicken.)

This year, the Iowa Republican Party did the unthinkable. It turned its back on Ames and announced it is moving the straw poll to Boone, 18 miles to the west.

Eighteen miles may not seem like a long distance, but in this case, it is a world away. Boone practically screams rustic charm. It is the birthplace of Mamie Eisenhower, had exactly zero murders from 2000 to 2012 and has at least two hotels rated as “fire-safe.” The most common first name in town is John, and the second-most common is Mary.

“The bucolic surroundings evoke Iowa’s unique history,” Iowa Republican Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said of the straw poll site, “with a railroad flanking one section and corn and soybean fields surrounding the others.”

And then he brought out the big gun. “You can see farmers in their fields,” Kaufmann said.

Farmers. Right there in their fields. Doing farm stuff.

Listen up, TV news producers: Are we talking America or what?

A lot of people stressed that the site is “flat” — Iowa has plenty of flat — which would make it easier for older people to get around. But I kept looking for one more thing besides bucolic and flat.

The speeches are going to take place under a giant tent. The event will be held Aug. 8. Standing in a tent for seven or eight hours under an Iowa sun in August can be pleasant if there is a nice breeze. Or it can reduce you to a fajita if there is not.

But wait. The press release noted that there are three air-conditioned buildings on the straw poll site. And one of them will be reserved for the media.

Being surrounded by corn and soybeans is bucolic. Making sure the press is happy is sophisticated.

Boone looks as if it’s going to have it all.


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