From Iowa to Inauguration: A Retrospective on the Precariousness of Primary Politics

01/29/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

As 2008 ends with Barack Obama heading to his new pad on Pennsylvania Avenue, my thoughts keep returning to what was happening at this time a year ago, when I ventured to the Iowa caucuses to find out why a bunch of farmers deserved to pick our president. While I remain pleased with the outcome of the election, I'm still not convinced that this system is the most effective way to select our nation's leaders. Inevitably, the issue will fall to the wayside behind our struggling economy and the third intifada, then rear its ugly head again in four years, just in time for a routine round of lipservice before the status quo is sustained.

As such, in an effort to remind people of the absurdity that dictates who makes the most important decisions on planet earth, this week I am publishing my private emails from the time I spent in Iowa last winter while making a video about the caucus process. I went as a concerned citizen who felt marginalized by the process looking for answers. What I discovered was quite complicated: a struggle to preserve grassroots political discourse in a humongous nation versus an inherently exclusive and precarious system. Please enjoy my stories from the road, where antics and adventure were certainly abound for my posse of newly-mobilized millennials.


DISPATCHES FROM IOWA (VOL. 1) December 28, 2007

Intern Jillian and I are stranded in Denver Wednesday, waiting in line at the United Airlines customer service counter, when suddenly I am the victim of a right-wing conspiracy, clandestinely dressed as a cuddly granny.

Our flight to Omaha, Nebraska, where we will be camped out at a (rockin') roadside La Quinta Inn until Jan. 4 after the election, has been delayed by 3 hours, and we are grumpy that we'll now be arriving at circa 5am. So, chatty-as-usual, I start a casual conversation with the elderly couple behind me. Randomly, they are from Encinitas, my hometown in San Diego. Under the impression I'm bonding with kindred spirits, I share that Jill and I are volunteering for Barack Obama and we are trying to make an 11am training session in Iowa the next morning.

The color in Cuddly Granny's face drains, and aghast, she says: "Ba-ROCK O-BOMB-A? Why, I hope he burns up in flames!"

Taken aback, I search for words as she continues, "He's one of those ... what do you call 'em, honey? [slaps dozing husband on the elbow] ... AY-rabs. Yes, AY-rabs! Obama? Osama? He's a terrorist!"

My reporting skills are obviously getting rusty, as I missed some telltale warning signals: Jill later tells me that she'd already noted a Bill O'Reilly book peeking out of Cuddly Granny's tote bag, as well as a "Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season" pin on her lapel.

I pause to prepare a measured response. As much as I want to shake her until her beauty-salon bob curls unravel, I want even more to channel the subtle, thoughtful respect Barack would likely give her, despite her wretched ignorance. To retort with my innermost thoughts or even spark a fiery debate would only fuel a knee-jerk, circuitous affirmation of her hateful attitude.

"Well, he's definitely not a terrorist," I say. "Obviously, I strongly disagree with that, since I'm such a big supporter that I've flown from California to help him win the election. Presumably you're a conservative?"

"Oh, God, yes! All stupid people are Democrats."

I shrug.

"I suppose I could respond to that, but I'm not sure that I'd like to push beyond casual airport conversation and harass you with my personal beliefs."

My dig flies over her head, the husband (now fully alert) grins at me and chuckles.

Some other amusing exchanges ensue until fortuitously, we are able to solve our problem over the phone and are whisked out of line to our gate. As we leave, I put on my fakest, my-grandma-Sallye-taught-me-to-kill-evil-people-with-kindness smile and doe eyes and say, "You all have a lovely trip; I wish you the best of luck and safe travels."

But for an hour I'm fuming. I grab a notepad and write furiously. I say to Dad on the phone, "We are NOT in Los Angeles anymore. Welcome to the election!"

Our time in Iowa has been uneventful by comparison. Well, except for when our rental car was attacked by excitable dogs the one time I dared to drive up an icy lane during our door-to-door field outreach. Unfortunately, Brett isn't coming with the camera until Monday. But the experience involved some shrieking, swearing, and a 20-minute attempt to drive in reverse back down the 300-yard lane while not running over said beasts, with me in a full-blown anxiety attack and the interns rolling in laughter. Needless to say, we marked that house, "NOT HOME," and fled!

Tomorrow we will go to Des Moines to scope out the buzz and media scene. We'll be seeing Michelle Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Barack speak over the weekend. We're hoping to also see Hill & Bill (mostly Bill!), which I'm sure we'll be able to accomplish.

Mostly we've just been getting situated and raiding the local Wal-Mart for Cheez-Its and Diet Coke. (I thought about storing it in the car until I remembered that the cans explode when they're frozen! "Oops! Sorry, Hertz Lady!") We had a fantastic dinner at Applebees last night, and now we're heading out for a real-life Omaha Friday night.

I'm sure I'll have some more intellectual updates over the course of the week. My initial reaction is: I can't believe this is what it takes to be elected President!