NOT IN DES MOINES
Four years ago today, we walked down the hall from our hotel room in Ames, Iowa, and heard the governor of Iowa introduce the next president of United States.
OK, Hillary Clinton didn't win the White House. But the introduction didn't seem crazy. Clinton, the front runner, was still four days from losing the Iowa caucuses to an upstart Illinois senator named Barack Obama.
We left the Clinton event and drove a few blocks to Iowa State University where Elizabeth Edwards was introducing another Democratic presidential candidate, her husband, the former North Carolina senator John Edwards. (We didn't know then that she was dying of cancer, and he was concealing his affair with a campaign videographer.)
For political junkies, Iowa is hog heaven. As one Iowan told me, you can't throw a snowball without hitting a candidate.
One couple managed to have their 7-week-old son photographed with nine candidates for president, one future president, one former president (Bill Clinton) and one president's daughter (Chelsea Clinton).
At Democratic Caucus 53, at Des Moines' Thomas Jefferson High School, the chairman asked how many experienced a face-to-face conversation with a candidate. More than half raised their hands.
In a few days, we saw up close Democrats Clinton, Obama and Edwards and Republicans Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. We also attended both Democratic and Republican caucuses.
We went on a whim.
"It would be fun to be there," my wife said.
"We can go if we want," I said.
Three days later, we were waiting with several hundred people for a New Year's Eve appearance by Obama. He was late, but no one seemed to care. The next morning's paper would report he was leading in the latest poll, and in that moment, everything changed.
All this talk of Iowa leads, inevitably, to friends asking: Why aren't you there this week?
I asked my wife, "Why aren't we there this week?"
She replied, "Are you crazy?"
I think it was a rhetorical question.
The New York Times columnist Gail Collins last week made fun of the nice people of Iowa and called the Iowa Caucuses "really ridiculous."
It would be ridiculous of me to argue with anyone smart enough to write for the New York Times. Even in tiny Iowa, only a small percentage of the registered voters participate in the caucuses. Iowa is about as diverse as mashed potatoes in a snow drift. And Iowa has about as much in common with California as the North Pole has with, say, Palm Desert.
It's really cold in Iowa. When we checked into the hotel in Ames on our first day, it was about 20 degrees and the wind was howling.
"It's really cold," I said to the hotel clerk.
"Oh, no, sir," he replied, "Tomorrow will be cold."
He was right. A day later, the high temperature was in the single digits, and we could walk across the Iowa State campus without seeing another human being.
Turns out Iowans aren't stupid enough to be walking outside when it is so cold your face hurts.
In what will have to pass for a defense of Iowans, I will say the locals take seriously their role in choosing (or not choosing) the next president. We could wish more Americans took the same approach to citizenship.
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