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Iowa Then and Now

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The chaotic jumble of holding the Iowa presidential caucuses on January 3rd is now fully apparent. With rampant confusion about who will actually participate, and yoyo-ing swings in support -- all playing out against a bizarre backdrop of the holidays, millions in disembodied attack ads, and Barack Obama pondering a US-Iran showdown in the Strait of Hormuz -- the folly of the accelerated nomination calendar is clear.

It didn't used to be this way.

When I was Senator Gary Hart's political director for the first-in-the-nation contest, the Iowa presidential caucuses were held on February 20th, 1984. There was plenty of time for those who voted in the caucuses to consider the candidates and in a great many cases to actually meet them.

Unlike the situation this year, when most have campaigned from TV studios, barely deigning to sweep through Iowa behind carefully controlled facades, the candidates then spent ample time in the state, with voters able to get a measure of them.

Then there were campaign spending limits which were largely adhered to. I say "largely" because campaigns found ways to scrimp and save by renting cars across the state line, a minor dodge which seems quite quaint in today's post-Citizens United decision milieu of anything goes spending.

And there were no shadowy "independent" campaign groups spending megabucks on TV ads which those in the know understand are actually very much part of the campaign, but fool most voters, such as the Mitt Romney super PAC "Restore Our Future"run by Romney's aides from his first presidential campaign and funded by Romney backers at his old leveraged buyout firm Bain Capital.

Let's just say things have not improved.

In January 1984, I was fortunate enough to be on hand for Steve Jobs's first public unveiling of the Macintosh at Apple's annual meeting in Silicon Valley, just four weeks before Iowa, as guest of Silicon Valley's marketing PR/guru Regis McKenna, a big Hart backer with whom I later worked.

From there, I went to the airport and flew to Des Moines for the four-week stretch run of Hart's Iowa campaign, coming on as political director, joining a state coordinator, Keith Glaser, who had moved over from a choice spot on the Senate staff when the Iowa campaign imploded a few months earlier to inherit what looked like a moribund booby prize. We were in fifth place.

It proved a spectacular and adrenalized experience, running flat out. Which nearly became derailed due to my Californian footwear. Hart himself pointed out that I would likely come down with pneumonia if I didn't ditch my Mediterranean climate loafers and wear something suitable for the Midwestern winter, something like his trademark Western boots. Suitably shod, it was time to roll, after having a lunch with Hart's new chief strategist Pat Caddell to discuss strategic imperatives and how they could be translated into tactics.

Today Caddell, an old friend, is best known as a sort of professional anti-Democrat, turning up on Fox News and other outlets to rail against the party and predict doom and gloom. But in those days, before his visceral dislike of many pols got the better of his judgment, he was the rock star consultant/strategist, having cannily established himself as a polling guru. From there, he was able to invoke his knowledge of "the numbers" to push hard for the strategies he favored.

It was an intriguing situation, in that Hart had in many ways invented Caddell's career by hiring him after he left Harvard in his very early 20s as the McGovern for President pollster. Caddell went on to become President Jimmy Carter's pollster. And now he was back with Hart, in an uneasy relationship which their mutual friend Warren Beatty worked to make work, to help Hart vault from the back of the pack to the front.

In truth, as faulty as many of his ideas are today, his ideas then were often quite brilliant -- though his deep dislike of frontrunner Walter Mondale did have to be watched -- and we hatched ideas to demonstrate how Hart represented a new and better version of a party whose tired out establishment was all too accurately epitomized by the former vice president.

Hart had already developed a strong policy framework. But he had not yet found the groove to gain traction in the race. He's an intellectual. I remember a speech he gave, following a rousing warm-up Beatty introduction, at a fundraising dinner in the 20th Century Fox commissary. It was about developing new vehicles to end our fateful addiction to Middle Eastern oil and save the environment. That was 29 years ago, well ahead of the curve as, right now, we contemplate both a showdown in the Strait of Hormuz and accelerating climate change.

It was also about 45 minutes. Went right over the heads of most people who wanted to hear why Ronald Reagan was bad. So there was that. Hart just wasn't fitting into the rather cliched categories which were gaining support.

He was not politically correct enough for the left-liberals who flocked to George McGovern, whose 1972 presidential campaign Hart had managed and whom one kept running into in the lobby of Des Moines' famed old Savery Hotel where he held forth from a comfortable sofa like a Yoda on the loose from imperial storm troopers.

He was not reflexively pro-labor enough for the unions who formed the core of Walter Mondale's support and, when he'd gone past permissible campaign spending limits later on in the midst of the primaries and was about to come crashing to a halt, carried his candidacy by funding "delegate committees" supposedly separate from his campaign to keep him afloat.

He was not peace-oriented enough for the nuclear disarmament folks who had gravitated, more than a little incongruously, to Alan Cranston. A fascinating character who appointed me to the Air Force Academy, which I did not attend, founded the California Democratic Council, of which I was later a vice president, which had spurred the California Democratic resurgence of the late '50s, and as a U.S. senator championed a nuclear weapons freeze and a peace treaty with the Soviets while at the same time backing big ticket California-based weapons systems.

And he was not famous enough for the first wave of trend voters who flocked to the legendary John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

Since Hart didn't fit in the conventional molds, that became the mold. He had strong and unconventional yet pragmatic ideas (I trust the room isn't spinning too much!) which he could talk about at length with voters in meetings and condense for other voters at rallies to build a sense of momentum as the big day approached.

Not a few big rallies, but small rallies, all over the state. No 45-minute rally speeches, either, or even 15 minutes. A seven-minute time limit before I cued the band. Which only happened once. That left more time to take questions as he met people in the crowd.

And, of course, he needed a dramatic moment to turn the campaign into a contrast with the frontrunner.

The most striking thing about the Sioux City debate, last before the Iowa caucuses, was how predictable it all was. No one had a gambit to alter the equation or unravel an opponent. No Sun Tzu, just a lot of flailing and attacking and running in place.

In 1984 with Hart, we carefully set up something to begin loosening the former vice president's seemingly iron grip on the primaries. To reveal his his utter conventionality, and to define himself as a "think different" Democrat, Hart -- who was also pro-labor, but not as reflexively so -- would ask him to name one thing on which he had ever disagreed with the AFL-CIO.

So in all the debate negotiations I worked on, timing, positioning on stage, everything was designed as set-up for The Question.

Naturally, it all nearly fell apart at the last minute. Flying in the morning of the debate because of Caddell's schedule, Hart found his flight to Des Moines diverted to Omaha, Nebraska because of a big winter storm.

So I had to get the Secret Service to move the motorcade at high speed, and had to get the start of the debate delayed by 15 minutes.

When Hart arrived, he immediately swept into the dressing room to see his old friend Jesse Jackson, who was not unhelpful. Once he'd arrived, everything worked. Hart achieved his needed dramatic definition and distinction to begin emerging from the depths of the pack, and was on his way to what David Halberstam -- author of The Best and the Brightest on the geniuses who got us embroiled in Vietnam -- called "the most famous distant second place in American political history."

On the day of the voting, after our last minute barnstorming tour of the state, bidding Hart farewell at the airport as he flew off to New Hampshire to take immediate advantage of what was suddenly about to become his hoped-for Iowa second place, the path to success was clear.

Hart asked me if I thought he would finish second and I told him he would. If so, he said, he would win New Hampshire and become the frontrunner for president.

All that happened. But he did not become president, not in 1984, when he won a near sweep on Super Tuesday and came from behind to win big in California. And not in 1988, when he was the clear frontrunner not only for the Democratic nomination but against George Bush.

There are many pitfalls along the path that the wild "2 Live Crew" which constitutes the Republican presidential field is on now.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive

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