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After a Year Grooming and Judging the Next President, Iowans Get Back to Work

February 02, 1988|DAVID SCHOENBAUM | David Schoenbaum teaches history at the University of Iowa. and

IOWA CITY — Iowa in winter may not be everyone's idea of fun. But Iowans at least know what to expect.

By mid-January, when millions of Americans in 49 other states looked forward only to their MasterCard bill and IRS forms, one Iowa Democrat had already received nine more-or-less-handsome solicitations from Rep. Richard Gephardt; eight from Sen. Paul Simon, including a personal Christmas card from a Simon constituent in neighboring Illinois; seven from former Gov. Bruce Babbitt; five from Gov. Michael Dukakis, including an impersonal Christmas card from Boston; four from Sen. Joseph Biden before he dropped out; two from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and none from the born-again campaign of Gary Hart. And the fun, it was clear, was only beginning.

He had been interviewed on a 100-degree day last July by a West German television crew. They wanted to know about the Iowa caucuses. The caucuses, he told them, are what happens in America when democracy meets serendipity, and candidates--plus their media managers, of course--meet real people.

Twenty years ago, when the caucuses still took place in March and April, they were an anchorman's graphic and a three-paragraph story on Page 10. This year, when they take place on Feb. 8, the world will be watching.

Yet no one planned it this way. Procedural improvements aside, the caucuses themselves are the same neighborhood meetings they were in 1846 when Iowa became a state. The new rules drafted after the 1968 convention inadvertently put the Iowa caucuses ahead of the New Hampshire primary, advancing Iowa to the front of the parade and unlikely prominence.

In 1972, Sen. George McGovern, the principal author of the reforms, and not-yet-Sen. Gary Hart, his campaign manager, personally demonstrated what the new rules could do even for a candidate who finished third to "Undecided." But it still took the help of the New York Times' R. W. Apple, the only reporter who seemed to understand what the rules accomplished. By 1976 everyone agreed that Iowa caucuses were news and therefore noticed the victory of the then-obscure Jimmy Carter.

Today, a campaigner's-eye view might start with the so-called debates from Des Moines, where the candidates say their piece on national television like kids at a recital. But an Iowa voter's internal scrapbook of the current campaign might start instead with the news photo of Jackson, in bib overalls out of "American Gothic," milking a cow in Winterset last May. It would also include the shot of a visibly self-conscious pig meeting the equally self-conscious Republican candidate Alexander Haig in October.

There should be a page for Dukakis and his conductor father-in-law, Harry Ellis Dickson, last December, at the head of 76 trombones in Mason City, where Meredith Willson, composer of "The Music Man," grew up. Despite his withdrawal, there should also be some souvenir of Biden on a stormy night last summer, warmly endorsing "Moby Dick" before a few hundred people gathered in a picnic shelter.

There should naturally be a representative collection of the economic cant produced by almost all the candidates as they dodge the T-word, whose effect on Iowans is the same as it is on most other Americans. A definitive anthology would include Dukakis' hot pursuit of uncollected taxes, Gore's budget-balancing proposal that would radically cut back the use of redundant chest X-rays, Gephardt's selected tariffs and excises, and Simon's--well, no one is quite sure. But his recent proposal for a 1% surcharge on the 1% of the population who earn more than $100,000 made local front pages.

There should naturally be room, too, for the occasional portrait in courage, and a log of the applause lines. There was no ovation for Babbitt in Manchester recently when he warned 175 listeners against granting tax incentives to get a low-wage, union-busting meatpacker with a bad safety record to locate in their town. There was none for Jackson, either, when he spoke out on Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and American responsibility amid general silence from 12 other candidates.

On the other hand, calls for social responsibility, constitutional government, public honesty, nuclear arms reduction and Central American peace draw consistent and spontaneous applause, even from Republicans, in a state that voted for President Reagan twice.

Is the process sublime or ridiculous? The answer is probably both. But qualified observers since Tocqueville and Dickens have made the same point about American democracy in general. "You know what's wrong with the House of Representatives, Bob?" Vice President Hubert Humphrey once asked an aide. "The trouble is, it's representative." For better or worse, the same can be said for the Iowa caucuses.

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