Memories of an Iowa Caucus Voter

The Iowa Caucuses will be held tonight. I was a caucus voter in that state one presidential election, in 2004, so my experience that long-ago January night can perhaps illustrate what we will see unfold.

Certain rules are different this caucus night compared to that one a lifetime ago, but the core principles inside the experience remain the same: 1. A caucus is not a primary, in which one votes with a ballot; it is an hours-long town meeting, and, 2. Caucus night is the climax of a year in which there are more presidential candidates in Iowa than Iowans.

Return with me to 2004, when TV was in black and white, movies cost a nickel, and a Republican president was up for re-election: George W. Bush.

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In 2004, the Democratic Party, my party, offered a buffet of candidates, many of them U.S. senators, like this year. I did not plan to take action or even speak at my caucus, but history forced my hand.
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Pam Bondi: Where Quid Meets Pro Quo

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (pictured above with the president) will join the team tasked with the defense of the president in his upcoming Senate impeachment trial, according to the Wall Street Journal today, January 17. The team will be led by current White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

Bondi’s role in the impeachment trial has not been delineated in public. She joins a team of specialists that includes former Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr; occasional constitutional-law professor Alan Dershowitz; Jay Sekulow, a personal lawyer to the president; and Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr in the Whitewater inquiry.

Before she joined the White House staff in its impeachment preparations in November 2019, Bondi was a registered foreign agent for the government of Qatar and a lobbyist for a Kuwaiti firm. The more famous members of the Trump legal team have long histories as public figures, but Bondi’s history is more entwined with the current president’s public life than theirs are so far.
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The Myth of ‘The Other’

[He] sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. … As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, [he] is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.—Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine

The above passage was not written recently. It does not describe anyone in the news right now. It was written in 1964 and published the month of the Presidential election that year. Its title is “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter was an historian who found himself concerned with the angry political rhetoric that was emerging that year and re-discovered that there was little new to it, that in fact a “style” of rhetoric could be identified that regularly emerged and re-emerged in our history.

The “paranoid style” is back this year in America.
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Disagree to Agree

“I am wrong about almost everything.”

“Heh. You’re right about that.”

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If you are interested in the horse-race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington-DC portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the entire year before Election Day. That means this year is a good year to move to Nashua, New Hampshire, or Des Moines, Iowa, if you are a politics addict.

The reasons for this are obscure and boring, unless you live in either state. In that case you might be passionate about your community’s role in selecting our next President. In our game of politics, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes … uh, often … well, usually … that party’s candidate for the national election in November.) Because Iowa and New Hampshire vote in January, and because these are the first two contests (albeit in two very sparsely populated states), undue attention is paid to the voters in those states for most of the year before January. This year, both parties are going crazy.

The candidates and the news media descend on the states like a plague of locusts with thick wallets. They rent rooms, cars, restaurants. The local business owners love the year before election year.
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#RaifBadawi Remains a Prisoner

For the eighth week in a row, Saudi writer, blogger, and activist Raif Badawi was not publicly flogged fifty times today for insulting his home country’s state religion. His official Twitter account broke the news as soon as it was confirmed:

No one is breathing a sigh of relief that this counts as sparing him, or that he is about to be freed. The 31-year-old husband and father has now spent 1000 days and two weeks in jail with little to no contact with the outside world. According to news reports, there was no reason given by Saudi officials for the delay.

Worse, his family is reporting that Raif may be about to face a re-trial on the charge of apostasy (renouncing one’s religion). If found guilty, he is to be publicly executed. Beheaded. He has been found innocent of this charge in the past, which is how and why weekly updates about his punishment for insulting his religion can even be written. Elham Manea, a passionate writer about human rights abuses, released a statement on behalf of his family:

Amnesty International’s press office also reported today that it has been denied access to Raif Badawi:

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1000 Days

For the sixth week in a row, Saudi writer, blogger, and activist Raif Badawi was not publicly flogged today for insulting his home country’s state religion. Amnesty International broke the news as soon as the organization could confirm it:

No one is breathing a sigh of relief that this counts as sparing him, or that he is about to be freed. The 31-year-old husband and father has now spent 1000 days in jail with little to no contact with the outside world. According to news reports, there was no reason given by Saudi officials for the delay.
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‘A tomar las armas compañeros’

I do not often write until I am certain—or self-deluded into thinking—that what will come out will present my thoughts clearly. When I gush, I feel embarrassed that I am using anyone’s time with an indulgence of self when others deserve a reader’s time more. I don’t deserve a reader’s time just because I’m here on a soapbox. Feel free to move on …

Sometimes I am confused. Are there are too many soapboxes in this world and not enough people reaching out to help people up and expand understanding, or are there too few soapboxes from which to proclaim love, describe help, and attempt to expand understanding?

You already know what took place today in Paris. The fact of a soapbox was addressed with state-less mass murder. It was a terrorist attack on the right to write, to publish, to think, to feel, to love. The right to be jerks, which the cartoonists who were killed today declared for themselves. Each of us, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, has a soapbox from which we can expand understanding, even by expressing shock, revulsion, confusion.

Today is not a day for pretty sentences and confidence in metaphors; it is a day for assuring one another in plain terms that there is a right to write, a right to love, a right to be shocked and confused. A right to hate hate.

The idea that an idea, a clever cartoon, a spoken sentence, is to be met with bloody murder is one that can only be addressed with more ideas and sentences, because the attack is bizarre proof of power of the written word. Murderers are murderers, but murder is not an idea. It is not a political statement. It is not criticism. It empty and totalitarian. Anyone who believes that their God demands blood to defend him/her/it does not understand their own God, and any God that truly can not defend itself from a mere human’s verbal insult isn’t much of a God.

The universe is indifferent and entropy is a reality, but alongside entropy, the universe possesses—or was given—creativity. There is no indifference in creativity. Totalitarianism, of whatever stripe, pretends to be political, but it is a political declaration of being pro-entropy, which is an untenable stance.

We live in an increasingly neurotic era, globally. America, my home, has spent more than a decade (some would insist the number is more like six decades) attempting to strong-arm the world into agreeing with our own self-regard. No one will be taking me and my cane from my desk for typing that sentence and hitting publish.

Murder is murder. It is not an idea. It is a vacuum, and vacuums are totalitarian in their lack of purpose. History teaches us that ideas fill the vacuum, the murderous vacuum. More ideas, please. Love is stronger than hate. That’s one.

The photo-cartoon above is by a Chilean cartoonist named Francisco J. Olea. I cried when I saw it. The caption, “A tomar las armas compañeros,” can be translated to, “Grab your weapons, friends.” More ideas, please. Write them and draw them and hit publish. More ideas, please.

The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War by soldiers on the nationalist side, the Francoists. In “Fable and Round of the Three Friends,” he foresaw, in his surrealist fashion, his own end:

When the pure forms sank
under the cri cri of daisies
I understood they had murdered me.
They searched the cafés and the graveyards and churches,
they opened the wine casks and wardrobes,
they destroyed three skeletons to pull out their gold teeth.
Still they couldn’t find me.
They couldn’t?
No. They couldn’t.
But they learned the sixth moon fled against the torrent,
and the sea remembered, suddenly,
the names of all her drowned.

More Lorca for a sad day:

City That Does Not Sleep
In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the
street corner
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the
stars.

 
Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of a dry countryside on his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

 
Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth
or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead
dahlias.
But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist;
flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths
in a thicket of new veins,
and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever
and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.

 
One day
the horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the
eyes of cows.

 
Another day
we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats
we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.
Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention
of the bridge,
or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes
are waiting,
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.

 
Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is sleeping.
If someone does close his eyes,
a whip, boys, a whip!
Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.
I have said it before.

 
No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the
night,
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.
—translated by Robert Bly

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 7 asks, “A sanctuary is a place you can escape to, to catch your breath and remember who you are. Write about the place you go to when everything is a bit too much.”

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Listen When I Tell You Not to Listen to Me

My gut instincts are mistake-prone.

If you are interested in the horse race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the year before Election Day. This is because, for reasons I could bore you with but will not, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes, often, usually that party’s candidate for the national election in November.)

These two states fight very hard every four years to hold their place as first, fight so hard that both states always claim to be first every time, even a week apart, because Iowa uses one type of voting system and New Hampshire a completely different one. So they are both always first. It comes down to money: because they are first, both states receive a quadrennial economic boost unlike any other, with political candidates and their support teams and journalists and their support teams needing food, shelter, television time for months before January. Some nationally famous politicians have rented houses in Iowa to live in and signed year-long leases for the year of door-to-door campaigning they will do. Other states would love to be first in the nation, to attract those millions of dollars, but these two small-population states put up a winning fight with both the Democratic and the Republican parties every four years and get to be first in the nation to cast ballots.

From 2000 to 2004, I lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city of about 125,000 in a state of three million. A state that is larger than New York State but with one-sixth of the population. So that means that in 2003, I was in the second-largest city in the first of the two “First in the Nation” vote-casting states for Election 2004: Bush v. Kerry. With George W. Bush running for re-election unopposed, it meant that almost every Democrat elected to any office anywhere in the country was campaigning in Iowa.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the highway from Quaker Oats.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the elevated highway from Quaker Oats.

I am a progressive voter, to the left of most Democrats but tending to vote for members of that party. But I also fall head over ballot for every candidate who claims to be the representative from the Land of New Ideas. Rarely do we hear what those New Ideas might be or how much he or she may think they will cost, but I love the idea of New Ideas. Selling New Ideas is an Old Idea, but it gets me every time. And so my life’s list of candidates I have rooted to run for the next office higher than the one they already possessed includes several people named Kennedy, Gary Hart, the late Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and, in 2003, a North Carolina senator named John Edwards. There are others, but I am blushing with embarrassment while typing this.

I should retire my political instincts. Then-Senator Edwards was one of the few politicians I have ever heard speak about rural as well as urban poverty as a blight, a blight because it is a problem that can be tackled if the country’s political will can be inspired. I was inspired. From 2004-’08, it could be said that he pushed the bigger-name candidates to the left (some might think that a good thing), but from 2004-’08 it could also be said that he was doing some other (scandalous) things.

And I met him! And my immediate in-person sense of the man was: “I do not like him.” In January 2004, days before us Democratic Iowans were to cast our first in the nation votes, our so very first votes that New Hampshire was going to be the second first, so stuff it, New England!, just days before that, I saw him speak. Great speech. People are poor. Terrific. Speech over. In the crowded room, we all discovered that that single door entrance over there was now the single door exit for everyone, including the candidate and his handlers, who must hate situations like this in Iowa and New Hampshire. I was next to him for the five minutes it took to leave. He shook my hand—he shook everyone’s hand within reach. I have met a few politicians and I have met quite a few people who ought to run for office, but I have never been rendered invisible quite as quickly as I was by that man. It may qualify as the single most bizarre social encounter I have ever had: I have been dismissed mid-conversation plenty of times, even made to feel that I offended someone, but never looked at like I did not exist.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming crowd and the fact that I did not immediately produce a way out of the room while he was looking for a way out of the room, or perhaps it was the woman behind me. Or perhaps it was because, a bright man, a good reader of juries in his lawyer life, he felt my instinct to not like him. Or perhaps it was the woman behind me who wanted and received his autograph. I have no idea.

What did I do with this instinct to not like John Edwards? I convinced myself to ignore it and campaigned for him at my caucus site on election night and swung our district over to him. My instinct to ignore my instincts can not be trusted.

I did not reach out to the former Vice Presidential nominee, former Senator, one of the more disliked men in America, for comment.

(This column originally ran on August 7, under the name “Vote for Not-Him.”)

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 6 asks, “When’s the last time you followed your instinct despite not being sure it was the right thing to do? Did it end up being the right call?”

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