“IT’S ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA TO GET SOME MANURE ON YOUR BOOTS”
THE IOWA CAUCUSES ARE WASHINGTON’S MAGIC EIGHT BALL; IT’S ALSO THE ONLY STATE WHERE GRASSROOTS POLITICS (AND GOOD DONUTS) CAN MAKE OR BREAK A PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is entirely unremarkable except for the fact that the whole place smells like baked goods. On the street, in the stores, even inside my cherry-red rented Pontiac Grand Am—somewhere, someone in that town is baking something tasty on a majestic scale. Cedar Rapids is also deserted, dreary, and not near anywhere in particular, the last sort of place that you’d expect the bulk of the direct contact between Americans and their presidential nominees to occur. Yet that is precisely what happens, not only in Cedar Rapids but also in Council Bluffs and Burlington and Sioux City and the many winter-bound and snow-covered smaller outposts in between, as every four years a new crop of potential next presidents dives into a long orgy of political courtship all leading up to one tender night.
The caucuses, they’re called, a potluck congregation of a hundred thousand or more people in high-school cafeterias, fire stations, public libraries, community centers, and farmhouse living rooms across the state—where, for the first time each election cycle, real voters cast real votes for the candidates who have been laying the groundwork for their presidential campaigns for one, sometimes two, or even (in the case of Dick Gephardt in 1988) as many as three years. Omens are the caucuses’ appeal: Iowa is the earliest turning of the leaves as another political season unfolds. And so the thing everyone comes to see, besides what colors might appear, is which leaves fall first.
An important spectacle this year, because, if you listen to the activists, the pundits, and many of the candidates themselves, 2004 shall determine nothing less than the future of the Democratic Party. Iowa’s special status means that the candidates spent twice as much time there—nearly a hundred days apiece for the serious contenders—as they logged in New Hampshire, the next most important state in the union around election time. Iowans hog the test drive, and then try to pick the model we’re all gonna drive off the lot. In defense, Iowans will say that they know how to kick the tires, and that if they didn’t do it, someone else would have to, and who should that be? Alabama? Oregon? Who? So Iowa’s place as the Genesis of the presidential creation myth holds, if for no other reason than every story must start somewhere.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.