Twenty-nine floors above the half-empty streets (and it’s morning rush hour) of downtown Des Moines, I am sipping the last of my weak room-service coffee and contemplating a day with virtually nothing I have to do. Such is the one transcendent joy of the justly much-maligned Iowa caucuses–nothing whatsoever happens until 7 in the evening, which frees reporters from the nerve-jangling tyranny of waiting for the first exit-poll numbers, however misleading. My only task for the day is finding a good precinct caucus to attend, preferably within 20 minutes of the hotel, which will help me form a mental image of what Bradley and Gore supporters look like. (Of course, in Iowa everyone looks a little like a Grant Wood painting.)
For the next few months–as the political season hurtles toward the sad-eyed inevitability of a prefabricated Gore vs. Bush campaign, even as long-shot plungers like me still nurture fantasies of Bradley or McCain upsets–I am writing three columns a week for USA Today, adding a Monday column to my normal Wednesday-and-Friday regimen. This new intensified pace leaves me with a sense of awe of how the old-time columnists–a few hardy specimens of the breed still survive–would opine on a dime five days a week.
But even in my current workaholic frenzy, nothing makes me feel more liberated than the knowledge that I don’t have to write in haste off the early returns from tonight’s caucuses. With the traditional chaos of the Iowa Democrats augmented by Talmudic disputes in the press over what constitutes beating expectations, there is far too much danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from fragmentary returns.
Also, if I were writing for tomorrow’s paper, I would be forced to spend the evening in my Marriott hotel room watching television, which, while efficient, defeats the on-the-spot implications of a Des Moines dateline.
One of the frustrations of Iowa is that, unlike sainted New Hampshire, the distances between cities make it difficult to switch from covering one candidate to another. So you’re constantly haunted by the sense that whatever you choose to do, it’s both wrong and irrevocable. Which brings me to how I spent my weekend. (I spent two days in Des Moines last week; jumped to New Hampshire for two days; got stuck by snow in Manchester last Thursday night; had my sailor’s 36-hour shore leave with my wife in New York cut to less than a one-day pass; and flew to Dubuque by way of Chicago.) Saturday afternoon, I arrive at the sprawling multi-terminal Dubuque international airport (in truth, it’s the kind of low-rent facility that dreamed of becoming a regional hub for Valujet) just in time to catch up with Bill Bradley, who is giving a speech at a local Catholic college. But there’s an unforeseen hitch: no taxis at the airport. After calling the local cab company and waiting outside the terminal for 25 minutes, feeling like my life is permanently veering out of control, I have an Iowa Moment. As the last passenger from my flight is being picked up by his wife, I walk over and introduce myself, politely inquiring whether they will be going anywhere near the college. Not really, they say, but we’ll drive you anyway. P.S.: I arrived, heart aflutter, just as Bradley (who in newspaper stories in New York had been portrayed as virtually near death’s door) began an energetic speech on campaign reform.
Campaign reporting has more than a few similarities to high school. And the political equivalent of being dateless on prom night is being forced to have a traveling-salesman dinner alone. I spent Sunday in my hotel room in Cedar Rapids (Bradley’s final Saturday stop) writing my column and hyperventilating that I wouldn’t be able to get back to Des Moines in time for my reservation at 801 Grand, the upmarket downtown steak house that is schmooze central for the Iowa caucuses.
At 9 last night, the entrance foyer at 801 Grand looked like the bar scene from Star Wars. Waiting for my table, I hurtled between conversations with Jeff Greenfield (I had tarried in my room to see myself on CNN in a feature by Greenfield on the sick puppies of the campaign trail who have been doing this for 20 years) and Eleanor Randolph of the New York Times, nearly bumping into Tom Brokaw in the process. Over dinner, various operatives (elusive Bush strategist Carl Rove; Greg Mueller with Forbes) worked the room, tarrying at each table for a few minutes of spin. The buzz: While Bradley was regarded as in full meltdown, Forbes was coming on strong against Bush. (I will confess a muted rooting interest in Forbes simply because two weeks ago, after spending two days with the demi-billionaire publisher, I wrote a column that described him as a far better campaigner than commonly assumed, with the potential to surprise in Iowa. My moral: There is no headier sensation in covering politics than being right, even if only for a brief shining moment until Iowans caucus.)
Let me end with my favorite story that I heard last night. Saturday night in the bar at the Marriott, a table of pundits were loudly opining in voice-of-God tones on the cosmic meaning of the Iowa caucuses, while on the TV screen directly above their heads, another group of armchair experts were making exactly the same conventional-wisdom points. That’s the reality on the morning of the Iowa caucuses–so many reporters, so few fresh ideas.