Let’s be fair. If the candidates for President seem a bit lackluster, it may be because of where they are, not who they are. After six months in Iowa, anybody would seem, well, sort of faded. In the middle of winter even the natives grow dim.
Maybe you saw the recent television clip of Bruce Babbitt, who used to stand tall and handsome against the rugged landscape of his native Arizona. He was delivering a speech inside a diner to three men, a waitress, a 5-year-old boy and a St. Bernard. Two of the men were playing checkers and didn’t look up from their board. The waitress, transfixed by the TV lights, stood dazed with a full pot of coffee in her hands. The boy and the dog listened appreciatively. But Babbitt wasn’t up to form. He appeared to have a cold, and in the low-ceilinged diner he hunched his shoulders. He didn’t look very presidential.
It is very, very difficult for candidates to look interesting in Iowa, because there isn’t anything interesting to do there. They visit farms and pick up squealing piglets, squelch about in mud (or worse) and sample casseroles at church suppers. None of this looks especially heroic on videotape.
In an early attempt to break the mold, Babbitt began his Iowa campaign by bicycling clean across the state. This would have been a nifty ploy had he been running for the presidency of France, but it didn’t make a lot of sense in America. On this side of the water, once we’re old enough to drive, the only bicycle we take seriously is the stationary kind. Babbitt would have done better with one of those. Its speedometer tells exactly what your velocity is when you are standing absolutely stock still; it also has a meter to tell you how many calories you are burning up while going nowhere. And it is easier for photographers to get your picture when you’re not moving.
If I had been on Babbitt’s staff I would have advised him to ride a stationary bike across Iowa. He could have mounted the machine on a flatbed truck and, when coming to a hill, adjusted the resistence of the pedals accordingly. News photographers riding on the truck could have taken countless pictures of him against scenic backdrops of fields, barns and every Main Street from Onawa to Dubuque. This would have been a truly novel approach to campaigning, and it would have earned Babbitt the admiration of dieters from coast to coast.
Not long ago a U.S. senator from Iowa tried a unique means of making himself interesting to his constituents. He visited a massage parlor in the state and paid for his, ah, massage with a credit card. That was interesting. Interesting and inordinately stupid. In a state like Iowa, little mistakes get magnified. Conversely, in Iowa big mistakes can pass for peccadilloes. If, instead of sailing to Bimini with Donna Rice, Gary Hart had driven to Davenport with her in an RV, he would have earned no more than a snicker. He could have said that he brought her along to do the driving while he snoozed in the back. Nobody would have believed him, but the indiscretion would not have exploded in his face.
For those of us who do not have would-be Presidents interrupting our lunches, checker games and church socials, a few basic facts should be kept in mind as we watch television coverage of the benighted men now trying to sell themselves to Iowans as plausible leaders of the Free World. First of all, no one sounds eloquent when speaking into a high-school auditorium microphone. Second, it is almost impossible to inspire an audience that is eating corn dogs. Third, most of those people you see in the background on the news are not Iowans but reporters, demographers, consultants and poll-takers who have been in Iowa long enough to be comfortable in a John Deere cap; real Iowans know better than to stand around in ankle-high slush (or worse).
The candidates could make their pitches just as well in a warm hotel conference room, but consider how much more entertaining it is to watch a presidential aspirant with a runny nose pull up to a high-school gym after a two-hour drive down an ice-crusted interstate. Waiting are a few dozen kids too young to vote and twice as many TV crews and print reporters fresh in from New York. The first question is not about farm policy or the national debt. It is: “What do you think about polls showing that you are 19 points behind Gary Hart, 10 points behind Paul Simon and 6 points down from Albert Gore (who isn’t even campaigning in Iowa, bright fellow), and that 90% of the registered voters in this state still believe that you are a character invented by Sinclair Lewis?”
That will test all sorts of statesmanlike virtues as riding a bicycle across Iowa after a Spam lunch never could. But as a measure of presidential fitness it doesn’t beat the old smoke-filled room.