The winter in Iowa is terrible. The searing cold is something that only great monstrous beasts could survive; the giant piles of snow lying about haphazardly, taunting me with their casual storage of bone-crushing coldness. Giant man-eating snow pushing machines clear the roadways for people, but what is left other than snow-covered huts, filled with freezing men spouting gibberish. Every four years this gibberish turns political, and the sharks invade the state, looking for fresh, innocent minds to corrupt.
I knew something had gone terribly wrong that fateful day, when the weather was decently warm and the ground clear of snow. The belly of the beast was full of fire, indeed.
Howard Dean was Our Man In Iowa, bearing the long-passed banner of the Young People's Great Hope For The Democratic Party. Translated to PunditSpeak, this means The Democratic Candidate Who Will Be Crushed In November At All Costs, or The Next George McGovern. Unsurprisingly, those quivering masses of media had already turned their heat on Our Man Dean, attempting to contort his every word into some sort of rotten, soggy pretzel.
Fox News, who has brought biased, half-assed, unresearched news reporting to a level not seen since yesterday's New York Times, was particularly blatant in this regard. I sat on the couch that morning in my underwear, watching Shepard Smith mumble some stream of disturbing lies. "Our Fox News team is on the ground in Iowa;" I imagine a cadre of stormtroopers, busting out of the woodwork to fire laser beams all those who oppose the Emperor.
I enjoy some orange juice and vodka for breakfast, light on the orange juice, and take account of where things stand right now. I'm supposed to be writing some sort of article about Our Man In Iowa and how today is to be his crowning achievement, in which Howard Dean's procession to Des Moines will be much like Jesus coming into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, throwing the moneychangers out of the temple and putting the carpenter in. It turns out to actually be a quite fine analogy, but that morning, as I threw some cold water onto my face and looked at myself in the mirror, everyone believed that Dean was Caesar and tonight was to be his coronation.
A fine schedule of events was to be found on the campus of Iowa State University: an open "political discussion" held after lunch, then Our Man In Iowa himself, Howard Dean, holding a campaign rally on campus, presumably to get the mobs of borderline hyperactive college-age Dean campaign volunteers to actually go to the caucuses instead of running around trying to hook up with each other, which is what you'd expect college-age men and women to be doing in the arctic tundra of wintered Iowa, where only complete madness would lead people to wander around outside after sunset.
I wandered among the shops and restaurants near the campus of Iowa State, hoping to gain some real On The Ground Political Insight. I stopped into a small barbecue joint called Battle's, in which I could smell the distinctive smell of roasting pork.
I stood around waiting to be seated when three men dressed in suits came in; they were discussing politics loudly, and one of them was making some sort of grand bullshit statement about the "greatness of the electorate" and how "the people really had a voice." This man must have been a Bush supporter; there's no other explanation for his mutant rhetoric. I was there off the coast of Florida when they dumped the ballots on a barge and sent them out to sea, man! I Watched Democracy Burn!
Whenever I hear someone spouting such madness, I am intrigued and usually I find myself joining in the discussion. This time was no different; after the well-coiffed man made some bizarre grand statement about "protecting the interests of the world," the question "What interests?" tumbled out of my mouth like a pair of dice from the craps tables.
We talked back and forth a bit about his massively right wing politics, and I did what I usually am capable of doing early on in a conversation, particularly when I'm sober: I let him lead the discussion down some sort of back road where trolls like Sean Hannity and Michael Savage live. I was invited to dine with the trio, who turned out to be three political science professors from the university.
We began to eat our roasted pork, slathered in barbecue sauce, and the conversation turned to the question of George W. Bush's long term standing among the roster of American presidents. The fellow across from me, who I will call Stevie, seemed to actually think comparing George W. Bush to Abraham Lincoln was a valid comparison, as they both "freed the masses from tyranny." He then turned to me and asked, "Where do you think Bush stands? Who does he compare to?"
I chewed my food for a second and answered, "The only president I can compare Bush to is Lyndon Johnson."
"And why is that?"
"They're both pig fuckers."
Stevie got that "deer in the headlights" look on his face; his smile became some sort of freak house thing, seeming to remain pasted on while the emotion behind it moved from confusion to dislike.
I continued: "It's an apt description of both men. Both came out of Texas, both men were barely educated in an environment where they had themselves a golden ticket to walk right on through, both were so far in bed with the oil men that no level of corruption is enough for them. Both men wouldn't debate issues and would instead would campaign with complete bullshit. Bush is a compassionate conservative? That makes as much sense as Johnson saying in your guts you know he's nuts - it's just more bullshit politics. The oil interest is a big ol' fat pig, and Bush and Johnson were both proud to give it a good nailing from behind, the kind of hot fuck that leaves both of 'em all hot, happy, and sweaty, ignoring the fact that this unholy conjugation left them both smelling like pig shit. Now, if you'll excuse me gentlemen..."
I left our friend Stevie with a completely baffled look on his face.
I wandered around the middle of the Iowa State campus, where student volunteers for most of the candidates were wandering around with posters and signs and so forth. The fellows who were supporting Dennis Kucinich were sitting on the ground eating, so I decided to sit down with them for a moment. I have an admiration for supporters of candidates who simply aren't going to win; they know very well they're supporting a candidate who's not going to take the title, but rather than compromising their perspectives, they stick with their man. The Kucinich supporters, particularly, for me; Kucinich and Dean are the two candidates in the whole debacle who actually have the balls to say that Bush fucked up, that sending hundreds of thousands of troops out in the desert to fight people who are convinced the Crusades are returning might actually be a mistake.
Roger The Kucinich Supporter is eating some sort of porridge. He offers me a taste and claims that the mix contains spirulina, which is the Key To Healthy Life. I try some, and suggest that it needs more honey in it, and amazingly, Roger pulls a jar out of his backpack that contains some honeycomb in it, and proceeds to rip off a piece and mash it into his porridge. I open up my knapsack and offer Roger a taste off of a bottle of homebrew absinthe that I had been saving for a great day like this one; he tastes it and seems to like it. Roger is on his way to becoming my hero.
I ask Roger about Kucinich and he starts ranting about "those fuckers in Seattle" and how the one world economy is a recipe for the destruction of all we hold dear in America. I ask him if this means the end of McDonald's; he looks at me with a grin on his face and says, "Everything will be McDonald's." With that thought in mind, I take several big gulps of absinthe and take a long gaze at the attractive female cadre carrying signs for John Edwards.
I get up to leave, as I don't want to miss the spectacle of this "political discussion," in which people will "discuss the issues," but more likely sit around patting each other on the back for accepting liberal doctrine, believing that this makes them intelligent, free thinkers. I love political science people on college campuses; they're like a giant mass of liberal circle-jerkers, all believing that they have found the true political answers and look down the nose of anyone who is not "liberal," yet if you were to corner many of them and ask them about what would actually work in America, they actually come off more like Goldwater-style conservative libertarians. It's a bunch of goddamn hypocrisy that sickens me to the core. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Roger hands me a pamphlet on Kucinich as I walk away, which will give me something to thumb through during the dull moments of the "discussion."
I walk into the room and am taken aback by the stench of dry cleaning, Old Spice, and Pantene shampoo. Ahh... the distinctive odor of rich Iowa liberals. I notice that my old friend Stevie is up by the front of the room and will apparently be keeping this discussion in order; naturally, that means that I'll be attempting to participate and, if at all possible, he'll be overlooking my grand contributions to the discussion.
The meeting begins, and my early attempts at involvement are met without even a glance in my direction from our esteemed chair. I sit down and begin reading the Kucinich pamphlet, as the meeting thus far has been people making grand statements about "the welfare of all" while being met with the agreeing nods of everyone around. Kucinich plans to completely withdraw from WTO, NAFTA, and Iraq as executive actions if elected president. He wants to be some sort of ultraliberal dictator or something; the pamphlet is complete madness.
I walk out of the "meeting" to go to the bathroom, then I begin to wander over to where the Dean rally is supposed to be held. An exhausted looking young woman is trying desperately to distribute "Dean For America" signs throughout the quickly growing crowd. I climb on a table sitting along the side of the room, drink a big gulp of absinthe, and plan to take a nap until the crowd roar wakes me up, but just after I tip my hat over my eyes, the tired young lady admonishes me and insists that I get down immediately. I wind up finding out her name is Rachel, we hug each other, she discovers the glorious world of absinthe, and eventually I wind up helping her give out the signs and balloons.
The word comes through the crowd: Dean is here. Dean is here! Rachel has gotten pretty giggly from the absinthe, and she seems to have given up on distributing the signs to the mass of people entering the back of the room. Then, almost out of nowhere, a young man quickly introduces Our Man In Iowa.
I met Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign early in the primary season, and I remember the raccoon eyes he had. He looked like some kind of flesh-eating zombie; I had horrorific visions of Bill following me, dragging a leg behind him, mumbling "braains... must have brraaaiinnss..." Dean looked much like this; he looked half awake up there, as though he'd been up drinking tequila shooters for the last thirty six hours.
But the element of this whole thing that made all of this work was still there, somehow, under all the campaign handlers and hangers-on and leeches. There was still this sense of Dean being his own man and actually wanting to fix the problems of America. Dean stood before us as a candidate of hope, hope that you don't have to completely lie to the electorate all of the time in order to pop up your poll numbers a point or two, hope that on occasion a candidate can get away with actually speaking their mind instead of recalling some rehearsed bullshit fed to them by their handler.
The crowd was young and exuberant. One of the young women next to me screamed, "I love you, Howard!" loud enough for Dean to hear and quip, "Better not let Judy hear you say that." He kept the speech short and then wandered through the front portion of the crowd shaking hands. I grabbed his hand, looked into his exhausted eyes, and told him, "I think it's time for a Nap for America."
He looked back at me. "Amen to that!" And he moved on.
I drove south from Iowa State, down to the caucus that I was registered to participate in. This caucus actually took place in a log cabin in the town park of a little Iowa town. Unsurprisingly, the cabin was jammed full of people already, and I arrived fifteen minutes early. There was a large number of farmers wearing Gephardt shirts, I observed.
The caucusing system in Iowa is complete wonderful chaos. You lock a bunch of people in a room, then the group divides up into smaller sub-groups, each supporting a specific candidate. If a group for a specific candidate doesn't have fifteen percent of the total number of people in the room, then that group is required to dismantle and either leave or join another candidate's group. Then, after the groups have settled, a small number of delegates are selected in proportion to the viable groups in the room. So, what you often get is a few small groups for minor candidates getting cajoled to join the groups of viable candidates in all sorts of bizarre ways, in which small town people spout all sorts of nonsensical stories to convince another person or two to join their group. We were to have ten delegates to split up.
I was about to join the Dean group when I noticed that Roger the Kucinich supporter was actually attending this caucus, and he was standing by his lonesome in the Kucinich group. Most of the people seemed to be congregating towards the Dean/Edwards/Kerry portion of the room - for some nonsensical reason, they placed the three largest groups next to each other, leaving most of the room largely empty except for the Gephardt farmers. I said to hell with the chaos and went over and stood with Roger.
It was announced that only the Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, and Kerry groups were viable, leaving only myself, Roger, and an elderly black man with white hair and a cane in the Sharpton camp without a viable group. The shocker, though, was that the Edwards group was by far the largest. Roger and I shrugged; I joined the Dean group and he wandered over to the Edwards camp without much fanfare, but Sharpton's Man In Iowa used his moment as the center of attention to inform all of us that Sharpton was indeed the best man for America before joining the Kerry group. The delegates split up like this: 4 for Edwards, and two each for Gephardt, Dean, and Kerry.
I stood in the parking lot for a bit, reflecting on this with Roger and a bottle of absinthe. Roger had joined the Edwards group due to some sort of "deal" cut between the two campaigns; he speculated that there may be some sort of hitherto unknown Edwards revolution going on right now, and actually postulated an Edwards/Kucinich ticket. I drank my absinthe to keep me warm, and looked at the moon.
I drove another half an hour south to Des Moines to the Dean campaign headquarters. The radio talking heads seemed to have no idea what was going on in the state; I attempted to call in and state that my precinct had gone 40% for Kucinich with the rest split between Sharpton and Lieberman, but I kept getting a busy signal.
I wandered into the Dean headquarters, expecting hordes of cheering plebes shouting plaudits at the new Emperor Dean, perhaps even going so far as to place a crown of olive branches on his head. Instead, there was silence, as people gathered around television sets reporting madness. How is this possible? How did the Least Charismatic Man In America, John Kerry, manage to win this thing? I refuse to even accept the reason that some people are spouting, that the implicit Vilsack endorsement was that valuable. I could have at least comprehended an Edwards win, since the main newspaper in the state had endorsed him, and such an endorsement still carries weight in this state. But John "I Remind People of a Muppet" Kerry?
Word began to go around that Dean was about to speak, and a few others came out along with him to address the crowd. Dean immediately began to deliver one of the most fiery speeches I'd ever seen him deliver, and he got the crowd whipped up to the point that Dean was barely heard in the room, his voice continually rising in a fruitless attempt to stay above the crowd (ed: Ashley Pomeroy has a great writeup about this speech in the Howard Dean node; highly recommended).
The crowd was still roaring when I began to head for the exit, bottle of absinthe already in hand. As I neared the exit, I bumped into Rachel the Exhausted Campaigner, and I invited her to take a stroll with me and take a sip of absinthe with me.
We passed the bottle back and forth and spoke of the shock of the day, then we fell silent. After a bit, she turned to me and asked, "Is it really over?"
I looked up at the moon again. "I don't know."