Iowa – Dinner with Dennis
West Des Moines, IA
I should have known it would be a weird night when I found out the Vietnamese place was called A Dong. It got even weirder when I saw that the front was plastered with Kucinich signs. And it was downright surreal when I found out I was walking right into a Kucinich rally and that the Congressman from Ohio would be there to inspire the troops.
Wiping the fog off my glasses, I walked in the door and realized how out of place I was with my orange hat and Dean stickers. I didn’t expect to find any friendly faces. I just wanted a table and the biggest bowl of pho I could find, and maybe to hear what Kucinich had to say. The thinking around HQ was that we would try to get their support if Dennis wasn’t viable in the caucus, an idea that was shot down after we read the Washington Post and saw that John Edwards and Kucinich had cut a deal to throw their guys to the other in case of non-viability.
As I walked around, trying to find a table, I saw a small cluster of familiar buttons and hats. I walked up to them, and said, “You guys got room for one more?” I flashed my Dean fleece, and was immediately welcomed into a group from Washington DC. They’d just come off their own primary and were ready to rock Iowa. They were also ready to eat and drink a hell of a lot of noodles and beer, and I knew I was amongst my people. We sat around a table and traded Simpsons quotes and canvass stories, and we learned that our suspicions were all the same: Edwards was going to have a better caucus day than we’d thought.
As we drank our 33’s and ate spring rolls, we watched the Kucinich people around us. It only confirmed what I’d thought all along: there *was* a wild-eyed, vegan, flaming liberal candidate, and his name was Kucinich, not Dean. These were the people who brought giant puppets to WTO meetings. These were the people who liked NPR stories about artisan cheese makers in Outer Mongolia. These were the people who were earnest in every sense of the word, and they were completely oblivious to the fact that they were going to get their teeth kicked in at the caucus. I do not say this as a Dean supporter. I say it as someone who saw the size of the crowd (big, but not overflowing the restaurant, and, now that I think about it, it was a rally in a restaurant. Not a gymnasium or a meeting hall, but Des Moines’s lone Vietnamese restaurant), who saw the pre-speech floor show (a couple wearing hand-made red, white and blue outfits rapping against free trade and globalization, never mind that almost everyone there probably had clothes made in China or the Philippines or Bangladesh), who timed the clapping and chanting from start to decrescendo at fifteen seconds, who heard the candidate’s voice and thinks it would sound annoying coming from a member of a school board, let alone the President. I think the Democrats need a distinct, progressive voice, but that voice isn’t going to be Dennis Kucinich’s.
The Congressman arrived at the same time as our food, so we slurped in silence as he took the mike and talked about bringing US troops home within 90 days, about canceling NAFTA, about creating the Department of Peace. We clapped politely and kept our comments to a whisper. We didn’t leap up to press the flesh as Kucinich came by, and we didn’t engage the other people around us. We were all too damn tired and starting to feel too damn down about the day’s canvass. The best cure for that, of course, was copious amounts of alcohol. The group invited me to join them at Centro, the local upscale watering hole, and I accepted, provided we go back to HQ to sort out my housing.
Again, I did the dance of the yellow caps. No one knew the answer to my housing switch question, and the ones who did know weren’t available. Now, I’m only one volunteer and I knew these people had bigger concerns, but, dammit, it doesn’t set a good tone when the campaign says, “Come to Iowa, we need you, we’ll find you rides and housing, just come to Iowa” and you come to Iowa and find out that you’re probably going to be sleeping on the floor at HQ ’cause no one knows who’s in charge of answering housing questions. I was about ready to give up and tell the DC group thanks but no thanks when one of their friends walked up and offered to share his motel room. He had two beds, and the guy who was supposed to occupy one had gone to another motel. Hell, yes, I said, told the last yellow hat I spoke with that my problem was solved, thanks, and we went out to The Cab.
The Cab was a 1981 Champion Checker that was owned and driven by Larry, one of the DC group. He was extremely proud of his car, which had made the trip from DC to Iowa in record time and was decorated with Dean signs. Piling in, we brushed the condensation off the windows and roared off into the Iowa night.
Centro was a welcome change from empty warehouse feel of HQ. It was right on the corner of Locust and 10th and had giant windows on the street. Staffers from all the campaigns jammed the bar, everyone levitating to their own camps. The TV was on mute, but we could see that every other commercial was for a campaign. Kerry did the traditional montage, though his also had press blurbs superimposed on the images. It was odd, as if John Kerry were no longer a candidate to be President of the United States, but were now a touring production of Starlight Express. (“Experienced! -Des Moines Register.” “A leader! -New York Times.”) I kept waiting to see Gene Shalit give Kerry a rave review and say he was better than “Cats.”
Our ad was simple, and no one liked it. It was just Howard Dean in front of a white backdrop talking to the camera. We all groaned. Yes, it was a positive, “You have the power” message to Iowa voters, but it’s not what Dean’s best at. The man is electric in front of a crowd, and people respond to his message of “Let’s take our country back.” I don’t care what the pundits say about him being too angry; dammit, I want a candidate who’s angry enough to say it’s time for a change. I want someone who’s going to present a clear alternative. I want someone who’s got the onions to say George Bush needs to be given a one-way ticket back to Crawford. Howard Dean’s the only guy I’ve seen to do all that and not come off as manufactured. The guy talking to the camera? Christ, that’s not Howard. The guy working the crowd, putting on the cheesehead like he did in Wisconsin? That’s Howard Dean.
While Larry went off to pick up undecideds (and digits), I talked with the DC peeps, John, Kathy and Craig. Craig, my new roommate, told me about how the DC primary had gone, and then Kathy introduced us to three German reporters she’d met at the bar. All three were from the Washington bureau of their magazines, and we had a great time talking and drinking. I think it was liberating to talk with foreign press because we didn’t have to watch what we were saying. We could sound like raving maniacs who wanted George Bush out because they wanted George Bush out, too.
But we all knew we had to be careful around the American press, and you swing a dead cat without hitting someone with a boom mike, a pressed suit, and a frozen smile. Centro was crawling with press: Robert Novak from the Washington Post was at the table next to ours, and Peter Jennings from ABC was holding court just around the corner. We all resisted temptation to ask Novak how it felt to out a CIA agent and be a tool, and decided it would be better to talk with Jennings, who was able to play the friendly media star with grace and ease. I snapped off a shot with him on my phonecam and showed it to him. “Your head’s bigger than mine!” he cried. ‘You’re in the foreground! Here. Let’s try it the other way.’ So, I showed Peter Jennings how to use my phonecam, and we took another shot, this time making his head the bigger one. I’ll let you make the obvious joke.
By the time we got to the fourth round of drinks and had devoured three pizzas, it was time to go home. We piled into the cab, and Larry, who was diabetic and didn’t drink, brought us to West Des Moines, which is different from plain ol’ Des Moines in that it’s a little farther west.
As we walked into the Motel 6 lobby, we met a couple in their late middle ages who were covered with Kucinich buttons and stickers. Craig, who was in the mood to spread a little We’re-All-Democrats cheer, walked up to them and said, “Hey, Dennis! He’s a good guy! We all dig him!” Which is true; we Dean people may think Kucinich is a bit of a fruit loop, but we also think his heart is in the right place. We also figured there’d be a natural fit between their camp and ours. When it came time for realignment in the caucus, we were hoping to pick up Kucinich people.
This couple, however, was having none of that. “You should come to caucus for Dennis,” the woman said, poking Craig in the shoulder. “Dennis represents real change for the Democrats. He’s the one to win.”
Craig smiled and repeated that he liked Kucinich, but that he was a Dean guy. This only wound the woman up more.
“Dean is Bush lite,” she said. “He’s not going to bring about the same changes as Dennis will. He’s more of the same. Dean’s only going to take baby steps.”
I wished I’d had a video camera so I could’ve recorded the event and played it back for anyone who thought Howard Dean was a raving lefty loony. I also wished we could wrap this the hell up and get to sleep.
Craig smiled again and repeated, a bit friendlier and firmer, that he liked Kucinich, but that we were all here to support Dean. Besides, we couldn’t go to caucus. We’d all signed pledges saying we were keeping away from the main event in order to avoid any possible impropriety. This only got our friend to change her tack.
‘You need to come with us and find people who’re caucusing for Dennis. Forget Dean. Come with us.’
I’d had enough. I grabbed Craig, who I’d just met a few hours ago, and said, “Craig. Let’s go. We got a big day tomorrow. Must get sleep.” And I dragged him to the waiting elevator.
The next night, after we’d heard about Edwards and Kucinich cutting a deal to back each other up, I’d hoped I would run into that woman again, just to ask her how it felt to see the man who was going to bring about real change hook up with the junior senator from North Carolina. I have the feeling I’d have gotten into the same discussion that Craig had had with her on Sunday night, and there wouldn’t have been someone around to drag me to the elevator.