The Lesson of Iowa’s Chaos

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S1: The following recording may contain explicit language I can’t get more explicit than May with literal say it may.

S2: It’s Tuesday, February 4th, 2020 from Slate’s The Gist.

S3: I’m Mike PESCA. States are not Sinek keys.

S4: The state does not stand for the whole part of the whole, but an arm, a part of the body. The arm does not think the brain and other part of the body does not pump blood. There are no perfectly representative states.

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S5: There are less perfect states. And we clearly are in one given the Iowa rexes sorry caucuses. The blame for the Iowa car crashes can be laid at the feet of an app and a state party hierarchy. And the media and demographics and fried food. No state fair. Gotta eat a corn dog to getting good with the locals. But the real reason why the Iowa caucus as kingmaker is a mess that needs to be jettisoned. Isn’t that the state has too many white people or too many old people? David Lee in Heart of the Times writing today Iowa should never go first again. That should never go first because it is an overwhelmingly white, disproportionately older state that distorts the presidential nominating process. Yes, it should go first, but that’s not why it shouldn’t go first. Not because of demographics, but because of democracy. It doesn’t have too many white people. It has too few properly enfranchised people. Here are some innovations of the vote and voting that people who want to expand the vote and voting, people who believe in democracies adhere to the secret ballot. Motor Voter Mail in voting flexible polling times. Polls open late polls open early. Maybe even days early.

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S6: Maybe polls in many places. Polls where they accurately count every person’s vote. Polls where it doesn’t end in a coin flip. You can’t at the same time think, oh yeah, those are all good traits for a democracy. But then also think, oh, Iowa represents something other than the opposite of the goal of voter and franchise meant and the experiment of expanding voting.

S7: The media is responsible not just for elevating the legitimacy of the caucuses, but fetishizing them. They lose with a eagerness towards the earnest Iowa voter. So serious about his or her responsibility. They slog through these baroque exercises, an inexact voter apportionment. I mean, the very fiction that there is such a thing as a winner in a proportionately decided contest. That alone is maddening. It is a disservice.

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S6: It is an abdication not to air that point at least as often as you talk about blue walls or silent Trump voters or the Bradley effect. And you got to ask yourself, is democracy? Should democracy be only for the most committed among the citizens, the most capable of devoting ample time and resources to be heard? By the way, that’s a Republican argument I listened to. I used to listen to a lot of Laura Ingram on the radio. I remember her saying that that she doesn’t care if there are hurdles to voting. Because what that leads to is a more informed electorate more likely to vote for candidates that she prefers. Hello, Hawkeye State. If elections are decided only by those with the wherewithal to go to the polls and put up with this, then a narrower electorate will be achieved. And that’s what you’ll get. The Iowa caucuses are essentially a poll tax against normal people with jobs and responsibilities and kids and just a human level of frustration at having your time wasted. The Iowa caucuses are a huge conspiracy to disenfranchise sitters. The Iowa caucuses are carcasses that need to be hung upside down and drained of blood. As with the size of beef currently being processed in Postville, Algona or Eagle Grove, Iowa, what a sorry political spectacle. And the shame of it is we have so many sorry political spectacles tonight. It’s the State of the Union tomorrow, the final vote in the Senate, impeachment and very likely acquittal of Donald Trump. And to think the first vote, the first vote in the election that was supposed to be a corrective to this circus has turned into the worst clown car of all on the show today. Okay, great. But who won’t come out? We got it out. So we’ll break down the results, which really are a breakdown of results. But first, let us retreat to a simpler time when a self-aggrandizing celebrity became the Republican nominee for president. Some say he was the first Republican nominee because he was John C. Fremont. Some say he climbed the highest peak in the Rockies. He was the one who said that it wasn’t true, wasn’t even the top hundred. Others say that he and his wife, Jesse are a fascinating example of an enormously important couple who we overlook, even as their name adorns towns and trees and rivers and a hotel casino. NPR’s Steve INSKEEP is here to discuss Imperfect Union How Jesse and John Fremont mapped the West, invented celebrity and helped cause the Civil War.

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S2: Of the many names in American history, several are emblazoned on buildings and monuments and states and cities. And so we usually know these famous men, usually men. But then an odd thing happens. Sometimes a ubiquitous name falls out of favor or out of the public consciousness. There to pick it up and rescue it in this one occasion was Steve INSKEEP. And he has written the book Imperfect Union How Jesse and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity and Helped Cause the Civil War. Hello, Steve. Mr. PESCA, it is great to talk with you again. It is indeed. Usually I don’t like to key off a subtitle. That’s just marketing. But since we’re talking about John Fremont, a consummate marketer, I look at this subtitle and realize you had a choice. There were 17 other things you could have put there that were just as salient and just as interesting. So tell us about a couple of his major accomplishments that went beyond mapping the West, which is what he did, went beyond his relationship with his wife of people know four things about John C. Fremont. What should those four things be? Oh, my goodness.

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S8: Well, the three that I put in there mapping the West, he was a western explorer, went out west. He didn’t discover all that much that was new, but had amazing adventures and came back and wrote best selling books about them, in effect with his wife, which is how they became super famous, which is why, say, they invented celebrity, not the first famous people ever, but used the media, the emerging media in a new and democratic way to publicize their exploits, even as they were having the exploits helped to cause the Civil War because Fremont was the first ever presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1856. And the coming of that party as an anti-slavery party was a big part of the events that led to the civil war just a few years after Fremont ran. Now you said, wow, I could go beyond that. That is completely true. Once the civil war began, this guy was a civil war general. He had a quarrel with Abraham Lincoln. He had a wife. Jesse Benton Fremont, who was arguably smarter than he was and was very politically ambitious. And I mean, ambitious in a positive way. She wanted to do great and significant things that were restricted to men largely in her time. He became the subject of the 1851 version of a documentary film. Mr. PESCA in London. He was so famous through his explorations that in the 1850s, 1850s, 1851, there was a stage show in London where a professor would stand up there and describe Jonsi Fremont’s exploits, exploring the Rocky Mountains in the Sierra Nevada and the deserts, while a giant scroll turned with 80 different paintings depicting Fremont’s adventures.

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S9: And 350000 people in London attended the show over a period of many months. I can’t think of anything more absurd almost than that. These people were absurdly famous. Oh, I didn’t even mention the gold rush. This guy was around for the California gold rush and struck it rich. And I’ll even mention one more thing. Because you asked. Because you asked. Anytime you think of the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, you know the Golden Gate Bridge. John C. Fremont is the guy who gave it that name. And he had a specific reason for it. I always thought the Golden Gate was the golden entry way to the Golden State. Right. But he actually meant it as a golden portal outward to Asia. This is a guy who foresaw the American trade across the Pacific to China and India that is now at the heart of the global economy, or at least it is for now. Who knows how long that lasts.

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S2: So as I talk to you about this book and Jackson Land, as in the same way that I talked to Jake Tapper, who wrote a novel about the McCarthy era, and they talked to Chris Matthews, who wrote about Robert F. Kennedy, there are these people, you guys who are on the news on top of the news every day and you find your respect in the past. And that’s interesting to me. But also, the news of the day has to inform and inflect how you go about interpreting the past and bringing it to readers. And so specifically, I’m wondering, this Fremont and large aspect of his appeal was that he was a showman and a publicist. And we are living in an age when the president is a very good. Say anything you want about him. He’s a very good publicist and he’s always thought about putting his name on things and even branding the thing more than worrying about the substance of the thing. DIA Absent the Donald Trump lesson, how much of that would have struck you as Fremont’s way of navigating the world?

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S9: I think it accentuated it, but I would still be thinking in those terms. I began working on this project before the president was elected, although he was campaigning as I was figuring out. The book that I wanted to write in the year 2016. I think I signed the contract to do it in September of 2016. There are a lot of currents in that story that feel very modern to me. And you’ve hit on a big one the whole question of the media and publicity and shaping information. Freeman is an interesting case because I wouldn’t want to think of him as a, you know, a Cardassian kind of figure that’s just kind of famous for generating fame. And I don’t mean disrespect the Cardassians. They’ve been very successful, but he was doing real things. He was going out and mapping the American West. And it was hard and it was tremendous risk. And it required a lot of persistence and physical courage to do the things that he was doing. But then he was going back and selling his accomplishments as something larger than what they were. And that is something that does feel very modern and also very human. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? We would all like to put our accomplishments, whatever they might be, in the best possible light, but we would like to do it with a degree of honesty. And John Charles Fremont would dance right up on that line and now and again cross over it.

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S2: Another resonance with today is as you look at their marriage, John and Jesse, it was the sort of two for one marriage where people and adoring crowds would, after John offered them a couple of words, would demand that Jesse come and speak, which was unprecedented for the time. So the two for one presidency or the idea of the woman who was so strong, she would in some ways surpass the man. That’s very much like especially when Bill Clinton was campaigning for president the first time. That was a slogan that supporters are the price of white.

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S9: Rice said they would say that this is a remarkable story. There is the comparison with Bill and Hillary Clinton. We could use others. Jesse Benton Fremont was not the only influential woman in Washington. There were lots of them, lots of political wives who you would go behind the scenes to get things done, particularly things having to do with personnel, getting a job, getting out of a job, getting into a military assignment, getting out of a military assignment. And she did that sort of inside work, but she developed this public profile that was very unusual for her time because she was the daughter of such a famous senator, because she had a tendency to sit in on his meetings and appear in newspaper articles about him, because she would appear at White House receptions and talk in foreign languages with ambassadors. She would sometimes write letters in the paper. Newspaper editors knew where she was known. And then she became the wife of a presidential candidate. And it was huge. It was a big deal. And people responded to this in two different ways that again, feel very modern. One of them was extremely positive. Jesse was taken up as a symbol of the anti-slavery movement where women had played a certain role. And even as a symbol of the movement for women’s rights, for women’s suffrage, even though she had not been any notable contender, notable campaigner for women’s suffrage, it’s not even clear to me that she supported women’s suffrage in 1856. Years later, she was approached by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great women’s suffrage campaigner, and asked for a contribution to the cause. And Jesse said, I’m not sure if I want to give the money. I think women in their present condition manage men better. She eventually favored the right to vote, but but she was taken up as a symbol in a positive way by people seeking what we would consider progressive change. At the same time, she was taken up as a threat and she was invoked as a way to diminish her husband.

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S8: One of my favorite quotes about her is from a little bit earlier than that presidential campaign, a man who knew them in California around 1850 said Jesse Benton Fremont was the better man of the two, which sounds like a great compliment, but I think he didn’t like either of them all that much and he was using it as a way to diminish the husband. Jesse would also be described in newspaper articles as supporting these kind of radical feminist causes that she didn’t have anything to do with. And I don’t think the word feminist was in use then particularly. But that gives an idea of what was being described. The idea that women were going to abandon their children and abandoned their parents, their elderly parents and abandoned their husbands and leave them all to fend for themselves while women went off and ran the affairs of the nation.

S9: That is the way that she was described in these kind of trolling articles that maybe you would read them and understand this isn’t like quite literally true, but it’s like one of those conspiracy theories you get, you know, shown on Facebook. It sort of has an effect on you anyway. This was the kind of thing that would be described about her.

S10: Yes. Though at the time they hadn’t yet perfected the algorithm. So you have to go and read your Democratic is at to pick up the next calumny against. Yes, this is every month you would when you write, as you and I both know, when you write for radio, it has to be a little bit different from print. It’s shorter, punchier, dependent clauses are anathema. When you write for print, you could write such phrases as, you know, Jessie Fremont bore his absences and bore him children. I don’t know. If you would say that when you write for radio going back and forth, was it freeing or a problem to get into the mental spaces for each mode?

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S8: I think that each influenced the other. Like you have that line from very late in the book and I appreciate you remembering it. It suggests you actually read the book, Mike.

S10: It does. This is the impression I’m trying to get. Yes.

S9: She bore his absences and his children. She bore two different things.

S8: That maybe is not a sentence I would write for the radio. Exactly. I might simplify the language in some way, but the idea of a parallel construction, there is something that I use a lot on the radio and I would like to think that my radio writing has influenced my print writing and that the reverse is true. Also, I guess the sentences have to be a little bit shorter for the radio, but not always. You just want to make sure that when you write a long sentence, when you uncork a long sentence, that it really earns the time and is really memorable. One of the most flattering things that I’ve heard from some people, I think there was a guy who even wrote this in Time magazine that when he read the book, he heard it in my voice and he felt like I was speaking to him. Oddly enough, people have that same experience.

S9: If they listened to the audio book, because I read the audio of the sentences are longer, the ideas are more intricate. That’s true. But I want to write in that same kind of voice. And I’ll even mentioned, Mike, that the experience of reading your own audio book is a tremendous test of your own writing, because if any of the sentences are bad, you find out when you try to say them aloud.

S10: So, Steve, have you ever been to downtown Las Vegas? Yes. So, yes. So you go there. There’s something called the Fremont Experience because of the Fremont Street. And so listeners know it’s this canopy, not a naturally occurring canopy. It is, after all, Las Vegas. And they essentially project or display through L.E.D. a version of a laser light show. And it doesn’t really have to be connected to anyone. There are few thematic ones. And as far as these, you know, free public laser light shows go, it’s quite good. It’s quite entertaining. But my question for you is, if you were to program for a day the Fremont Experience to reflect your Fremont experience, what sort of images and imagery would you have?

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S8: Oh, I would climb a mountain. That is the thing that I would want to see. I want people to experience, do an actual mountain climb or have one of those kind of cyclorama. Giant video screen experiences where you feel like you’re going up and here and they’re getting into the snowy parts and starting to slide down and nearly going over the edge of a cliff and finally getting to the top and getting a chance to plant the American flag.

S9: But I think I would also want the experience of Jesse Benton Fremont its 1856, and she is working as one of her husband’s campaign managers in a house in New York City outside of Washington Square in Manhattan.

S8: And she’s going through her days. She is reading newspaper attacks on her reading newspaper attacks on her husband. She’s actually hiding the newspaper articles that smear her husband because she thinks he can’t take it. She’s reading them herself, though. She’s reading attacks against her as some kind of radical feminist. She’s working through the day as his campaign manager. And then in the evening she’s going to the shore and catching the last ferry across New York Harbor to Staten Island because one of her children has been sick and they’ve sent the baby out there, this child out there to get the ocean air because they think that’ll be helpful. And she comes and takes her shift with the child from midnight to 6:00 a.m. out of this house on Staten Island and then rides the Staten Island Ferry back to Manhattan again in the morning to begin another day of campaigning and of being smeared. I would like some way to convey that experience in the light show.

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S10: Well, I’ll tell you, that is compelling. I don’t know if it’ll influence the tourists to, you know, pump coins into the nickel slots, but it doesn’t for me. No. There you go. Exactly. You know, you take your chances on the Staten Island ferry, ladies and gentlemen. Yes. Backward. Backwards. Staten Island was a place where you could get the beautiful fresh air. The salubrious effects of the Staten Island, where the Fresh Kills landfill are out there now. You know, it’s still it’s a wonderful place. Come on. I got to get on Staten Island’s case. But anyway, Steve INSKEEP is the author of Imperfect Union How Jesse and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity and Helped Cause the Civil War. Thank you, Steve. You’re welcome. Glad to do it.

S7: And now the schpiel. Back in 2013 and years before, there was a category of college football fan who so hated the imperfect system of picking a college football national champion that he or she rooted for chaos. This system then was dominated by moneyed interests. The primacy of perception, a default to pedigree and a general awareness of an uneven playing field. The more that quirky, weird, illogical or shocking results happened, the likelier it would be that the powers that. He would throw up their hands and say, this is just insane. We should stop relying on traditions built during an earlier time. We should design a fairer system that addresses the needs of today. So this meant that any upset was a good upset because we needed the power brokers to be upset because their constituencies were upset. And only then could we get change. You do see where I’m going with this, right? On the one hand, the Iowa caucus app system was a huge failure. On the other hand, it failed a system that was failing us. So maybe in a way it was a success. Complicating this is that the self-anointed chief agent of change and chaos is Bernie Sanders, who it seems would actually be a big beneficiary of an accurate vote count in Iowa. Then again, there’s Pete Bhuta Jej, who declared victory based on incomplete numbers and a little bit of extrapolation.

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S11: By all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.

S6: And you know what? He was right. Or maybe not right. Just lucky. Just like the only five African-American women who support him in the country just happened to be standing directly behind him as he spoke. But the release of the partial data that we had today around 5:00 p.m., that data do show him in front and state delegates by a tiny bit over Bernie. Bernie had a tiny lead in the initial vote.

S12: Now, look, in a rational world, well, a world so irrational enough as to actually allow Iowa to hold this exalted position, utilizing this execrable method. So in that kind of rational world, the media would say something like it is a tie. They’re gonna each get, it seems, 12 or 13 delegates each and whatever it winds up being. These two guys are now one, two hundreth on the way to the nomination. But the world is not rational. In fact, the world or at least the part of the world called Hild TV dicom invites on rival campaign surrogates to offer some space to embarrass themselves.

S13: All right. So we have zero official results. And yet people a judge gave a victory speech last night is claiming victory today on Twitter and at an event in New Hampshire. What do you make of that move?

S14: Well, it was a big night for Pete in the sense of his last election was won with eight thousand votes in a liberal college town, and he’s just thrilled to have beaten, not national.

S15: You know, I guess hats off for that. But it was kind of premature in the heat of that. I think it showed was that, you know, he banked everything on Iowa.

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S16: It’s hard to imagine a state if you went after Iowa. Our opportunity agreed to just beats the spoiler at this point.

S14: I think this will probably come down to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the end. But, you know, I think Bernie Sanders and also announce some results probably prematurely.

S12: I think in reaction to Pete, which was fair, that smug asshole sorry, that political guru was Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Elizabeth Warren surrogate, whose critique was that one should not jump to conclusions before the data is collected. Prognosticator prognosis oneself. In fact, if anything, should the results hold Pete buthe jej should not be pilloried for proclaiming a premature victory. Absent evidence, he should actually be looked upon as kind of cheated. A clean result with a well-run caucus. Well, as well-run as a process that rests on convincing Konnie from the market to give up on Klobuchar and stand on the other side of the gym. So a clean enough process could have positively said without any ambiguity that Pete Bhuta JEJ did really, really well. He would’ve led the news. He and Bernie would have gotten their fair share of headlines. He would’ve had some wind in his sails. The fact that he has to create his own wind and get called out for it kind of a shame insofar as any salubrious effect from the shameful conceit of a pantomime democracy should be credited and countenanced. The Iowa caucuses belong right up there. Sorry, right down there with disco demolition night. The 2002 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

S17: Altamont, Geely and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge opening in a 40 mile an hour gale Brown reads like a ribbon in a frame. You wouldn’t believe possible unless you could see it.

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S6: I do know elements of all those disasters went into damming the caucuses. There was extra inning intrigue. There was overlooking the basic tenants of construction.

S1: But what I hope will happen is that the caucuses will be damned. And that is why I say, damn them. Now we only need to dam the impeachment process. Damn the Electoral College. Damn. Every last app that promises convenience when it just replaces functionality with PIN codes and multi-factor authentication. Damn the media. Who goes in for this? Auggie’s marveling at a Rockwellian idea of democracy and ignores an obvious glaring flaw in the system. Damn the efforts of Democrats in Iowa, the state party, the state voters. I’ll excuse them if they didn’t believe it yesterday, but they need to believe it today. All of this must end. Your state’s motto are liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain might look good on a seal. It would look better on a gravestone.

S18: And that’s it for today’s show. Priscilla, a lobby is the justice associate producer, she’ll be watching a Quentin Tarantino film about bastards. And all indications are that it will be inglorious. Daniel Schrader produces the gist. He’s looking to buy a monkey. Could be a howler. Could be a mechanic. Indications are that it will be a Borias, the jest. I gotta borrow some money from a friend of my Uncle Nunzio, who works out of the back of an auto shop. All indications are we’ll be you serious? adepero DIPIERRO. Thanks for listening.