Ballot Box

The Last Butter

DES MOINES, Iowa–No sooner do I write a few nice words about Lamar than I run smack into him and his red-polo-shirted entourage at the Iowa State Fair. This is the big event in Des Moines this week, and all the candidates have been dropping by to eat corn dogs, drink ethanol, and hand out tickets for the Ames straw poll. Lamar, when I happen upon him, is standing in the Agriculture Pavilion gaping at a life-sized interpretation of the Last Supper–sculpted in butter.

The work was created by an Iowa folk artist named Norma Duffy Lyon who calls herself the Butter Cow Lady. The Butter Cow Lady is locally famous for the big cows she crafts out of butter every year for the state fair. This year’s model, a Brown Swiss, stands in the refrigerated case next to the one containing Jesus and crew. (She has also done a butter Garth Brooks, a butter Elvis, butter Clydesdale horses and a butter bas-relief of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.) The Last Supper took approximately 10 days and a ton of butter to make.

If this piece turned up in the Whitney Museum labeled as an “installation” and funded by an NEA grant, conservatives would rise to decry it on the floor of the House of Representatives. But because it’s at the Iowa State Fair, sponsored by the Midland Dairy Association, Republicans come instead to have their pictures taken with it. Gary Bauer was here yesterday. He was captured in a photograph beaming up at the butter Christ with his arm around the artist.

As Lamar stares, slack-jawed, at the display case, the Butter Cow Lady herself is inside of it, applying more Land O’Lakes to the left shoulder of an apostle who might be Judas. “What do you think?” I ask Alexander.

“Well!” he says. Long pause. “I’m not usually at a loss for words.”

Alexander is the most gaffe-proof of politicians. I can’t think of anything he’s ever said that has gotten him in trouble. This may be part of his problem – the country seems to respond better to risk-taking entrepreneurs than diligent, calculating types like Lamar. Even now, with everyone declaring his candidacy toast, he’s not about to speak his mind just for the sake of it. I try to provoke him a bit more.

“Sort of walks a fine line between religious and sacrilegious, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well!” he starts again. “It’s … it’s … it’s enormously creative.”

Apparently Alexander has not been reading his own obituaries. A reporter from Tennessee told me he had come to Iowa to do a story about “Lamar’s Last Ride,” but that it wasn’t going to work. Lamar wouldn’t go quietly. Having downgraded his expectations, he now says that even a fourth place finish in the straw poll will keep him in the presidential race. Though all but abandoned by the press, he seems determined to hang on. Walking around the state fair, he hurls himself at voters. Anyone who looks at him twice gets invited to eat BBQ and hear the singer Crystal Gayle perform at Alexander’s tent at the straw poll. Encounters with people who recognize Lamar but only vaguely are sometimes a bit awkward.

“What’s your name?” a woman sitting on a bench asks him.

“Lamar Alexander.”

“Are you a congressman?”

“I’m running for president.”

“So you’re not a congressman?”

Lamar moves on. With his remaining resources, he’s running a new TV commercial that takes a witty shot at George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. It opens with a livestock auction–only this one is an auction of the presidency. Dudes puffing on big cigars signal higher and higher bids. Finally a guy with a big cowboy hat takes the prize for 30 million. Then Lamar comes on: “The presidency is too important to be bought or inherited,” he says. “It has to be earned.”

This is his new message: not choose me, but think twice about choosing him. Back at the fair, Lamar tells me that it would be a big mistake to nominate Bush without putting him through the hazing of a hard-fought primary. “I propose a new 12th Commandment,” he says, playing off Reagan’s 11th–Thou shalt not criticize a fellow Republican. “Thou shalt have a contest.”

The scene around George W. Bush’s campaign couldn’t be any more different. When he arrives in Indianola a little before sunset, a crowd of a well over a 100 supporters and perhaps 50 journalists are already in place. Bush has a full-scale traveling campaign entourage with Texas Rangers acting the part of Secret Service. There’s a sense of excitement when the governor and first lady, as the Bush aides refer to them, emerge against a Reaganesque backdrop, the porch of a picturesque farmhouse belonging to Bob and Shirley Lester. The Bushes are positioned in such a way that the fading light infuses them with a honeyed glow. Just behind them, a large American flag undulates in the breeze. It’s morning in America again. Bush’s chief adman, Mark McKinnon, weaves through the crowd with a handheld video camera, shooting scenes he’ll use in future commercials.

Bush is in shirtsleeves despite the fact that it’s rather cool outside, suggesting that he too is keenly aware of his visuals. He delivers an upbeat, Peggy Noonan-esque speech on his already familiar theme of “prosperity with a purpose.” Though he’s pretty smooth, a few Bushisms creep in. “I love America,” he says. “Feel fortunate to be an American!”

Where Bush shines is in less formal situations after he’s done with his speech–greeting well-wishers and taking questions from reporters. He has a hearty, disarming manner, and expresses his enjoyment of the moment with body language that is fluid and comfortable. Grenades don’t faze him a bit. The comedian Al Franken, here on assignment for George, gives him a chance to lose his balance. “Governor, have you ever manufactured crystal meth?” he asks Bush. “In a bathtub or anything?” Bush, not thrown for a second, cracks up. “Are you looking for work?” Bush says, “I’m looking for a new spokesperson.”

The style of his responses is far superior to the substance. Another reporter asks if Bush regrets giving an interview to Talk magazine (in which he repeatedly used the F-word and mocked Karla Fay Tucker, a woman who was about to be executed).

“It wasn’t an interview,” Bush says.

“What was it?” the journalist asks.

“Somebody came in to get a flavor of the campaign. It wasn’t a sit down meeting.”

But before he can pursue this Clintonian distinction any further, Bush’s press secretary Karen Hughes steps in to rescue him. “Governor,” she says, “you need to get back to your guests.”