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Here are some sample editorials and commentaries that I've written.


"Prison fence: A betrayal of trust"
July 25, 2003
This editorial won the Iowa APME editorial contest for 2004.

What state prison officials would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a security system they knew didn't work is bad enough. Worse is that they kept from the public documents providing a full explanation of the problems.

Following two inmates' escape from the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale this April, the Press-Citizen requested records related to a new high-tech security fence's operation. The $650,000 fence wasn't working when two inmates - one a convicted murderer - got away. Citing security concerns, the Iowa Department of Corrections denied the P-C's repeated requests. An appeal to the governor's office finally resulted in the turning over, since July 18, of 150-plus pages of documents that tell a Keystone Cops-style tale.

Simply put, the taut-wire fence erected by New Jersey-based Safeguards Technology Inc. rarely worked. Taking more than three years to install, the computer software used in the fence's monitoring system crashed in summer 2002. When the company received its final payment, the fence still didn't work. Eventually, corrections officials decided to disconnect the taut-wire system. In April, the in-mates escaped, stole two vehicles, and stuffed one owner in his trunk near North Liberty. Both inmates fled to Atlanta before officials caught up with them.

Though installation and testing of the taut-wire system took almost three years, though it required more maintenance than anticipated, and though it didn't work at the Oakdale center, the state continued to install the system at three other prisons. Corrections officials say the taut-wire fence currently works at those facilities - but it won't be fully operational at the Oakdale center, where every state prisoner passes for in- and out-processing, until 2006.

Indeed, such a facility in the state's fastest growing metro area needs to be utterly secure. This is as much a public safety issue as it is of tax dollars. Just ask the guy who got stuffed in his car trunk.

Gov. Tom Vilsack must launch a thorough and open investigation into this fiasco as well as release any other existing documents and reports. Among the questions that need to be answered:

  • Did the department refuse to release documents because it knew they'd be embarrassing?

  • Why didn't anyone fix the Oakdale center's taut-wire fence during the seven months before the escape?

  • Are the taut-wire fences installed at Iowa's other corrections facilities truly working?

    Accountability to the public is the paramount responsibility of all government officials. But the department has failed to prevent an escape, has failed to keep the public informed about corrections issues and activities, and has failed to make responsible decisions about the use of taxpayer dollars. Someone must be held accountable.

    Anything less is to continue a charade of public trust.


    "Mission: Inspire the faithful"
    Aug. 31, 2003
    This is the first in a set of three columns I wrote about the Iowa Caucus candidates. The series took second place in Gannett's quarterly Well Done contest for commentary (for July-Sept. 2003).

    Ask Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry which former commander in chief he most admires, and you'd expect "John F. Kennedy" for an answer. After all, both are from Massachusetts, both served as senators, both were raised as Roman Catholics, both come from privileged backgrounds. They even share the same initials: John Forbes Kerry and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

    Surprisingly, the president Kerry unabashedly looks up to was a Midwestern Republican: Abraham Lincoln.

    "Lincoln had the courage to make the toughest choices," Kerry said during a recent meeting with the Press-Citizen editorial board. "If not for him, there might not be an American today."

    There are some similarities between Kerry and Lincoln. Besides lankiness, an admittedly superficial trait at best, each did face great personal challenges and tragedies, dealing with political defeat in congressional campaigns and losing close loved ones, Lincoln his first two children and Kerry his father. It's not surprising that Kerry finds inspiration in Lincoln.

    Kerry's challenge during the days ahead, however, may be insurmountable: Garnering the Democrats' nomination, then pulling enough independent voters to his side for the nomination against an incumbent president.

    Lone vote an early liability

    According to the latest polls, Kerry holds third place in the Iowa caucuses, behind Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. Supporters say he'll surge in the months ahead and take the state.

    If any force propels Kerry to the national candidacy, it will be his ability to overcome. He's gone through divorce, defeat in 1972 for a U.S. House seat, the death of his father in 2000 from prostate cancer, and his own diagnosis of the disease, which caused him to have his prostate removed in February. Kerry has demonstrated "rare personal conviction and leadership," said Mark Barrett, an Iowa City Democrat who became one of the senator's supporters after hearing him speak in Coralville this summer.

    Perhaps Kerry's greatest challenge came during Vietnam. He served as a patrol boat commander in the Gulf of Tonkin and Mekong River delta, where he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Upon returning home, he organized the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and in 1971, and following a march on Washing-ton, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that our involvement in Southeast Asia was a mistake.

    "You're talking about a man in the 1960s who got a letter in the mail that said, 'We need you to go to war,'" Barrett said. "And he answered his country's call ... But when he got back from it, he said, 'This war was wrong.'"

    Still, Kerry's support of the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq has been a liability among Iowa Democrats. Several who opposed the war and continued operations there have signed on to Dean's or Dennis Kucinich's campaigns.

    "We're not single issue voters by any means," said Angela Parker-Simkin, a Lowden Democrat who backs Kucinich, "but Sen. Kerry's vote on the authorization and his enthusiastic support for it play a part in why we don't support him."

    But such criticism is looking at Kerry through a "cynical lens," Barrett said. There's nothing wrong with trusting the president - and now that apparently contrary evidence has arisen, holding the White House accountable for it.

    Kerry, who serves on the same Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he once testified before, remains unapologetic for his pro-resolution vote. Saddam's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs all advanced during the 1990s, he said, and "We were absolutely correct to hold Saddam accountable."

    Ironically, while some Iowa Democrats favor other candidates because of that vote, foreign policy is the one issue that he says most elevates him above his caucus opponents. Citing his Senate committee position and efforts with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over MIAs in Vietnam, Kerry believes he's the best experienced to deal with foreign policy.

    His first 100 days

    But ask Kerry why the White House needs new leadership or what he'd do in his first 100 days if elected president, and he'll talk about the economy. He believes George W. Bush is "disinvesting in the fundamentals of the economy."

    Rectifying this means creating jobs as well as consumer and investor confidence. Part of Kerry's solution is obtaining "energy independence" in a "race" for alternate and new, renewable fuels.

    "It's like President Kennedy calling the nation to go to the moon," he said.

    Health care also is among his key issues. He'd offer every American the option of buying into the same health plan that Congress receives.

    "If it's good enough for us, it's good enough for every American," Kerry said, adding that his administration also would ensure every citizen could afford it.

    Unlike many other Democratic candidates, Kerry wouldn't repeal all of Bush's tax cuts. He believes reinstating the marriage penalty and slicing the child tax credit would prove counterproductive. But he would take back the top end of the cut and restore the inheritance tax.

    Also during those first 100 days, he'd go to the United Nations and offer an address that "wins America friends" and focuses on ending nuclear weapon proliferation. Kerry wants to see occupation forces in Iraq internationalized as well.

    Reaching the White House

    But can "A Manhattan Project for energy independence," as Kerry describes it, excite the American mind as going to the moon did, especially when there's no threatening power such as the Soviet Union to race against?

    Most political strategists would say no. Couple that with strong opposition among core Democrats for almost anyone who didn't speak out against the Iraqi invasion, winning the Iowa caucus could prove difficult.

    But Kerry believes it can be done, saying Dean doesn't hold political office so had time to campaign into first place, and Gephardt "has been the front runner since 1988," when winning the state in a short-lived run for the nomination.

    There's no doubt, however, that Kerry has charisma, part of what raises comparisons to Kennedy. But will Generation Xers, who only know Camelot through black and white documentary reels, find Kerry appealing?

    If Kerry can at least leap to second place in Iowa and snare New Hampshire - where he's now fallen a distant second to Dean - he's the frontrunner. That'll first require overcoming Gephardt's capture of organized labor's support, which plays a greater role in the Iowa caucuses than on election day and hoping Dean has peaked early.

    To accomplish this, Kerry might look to his presidential idol for inspiration: In 1860, William Seward was the Republican frontrunner, but at the national convention Lincoln pulled ahead and won the nomination on the third ballot.

    Rob Bignell is the Press-Citizen's editorial page editor. He can be reached at rbignellic@ press-citizen.com.

    What Kerry must do
    To win the Democrats' nomination:

  • Overcome Howard Dean's and Dick Gephardt's leads or at least garner second place in the Jan. 19 caucuses
  • Win New Hampshire's primary to establish himself as frontrunner
  • Demonstrate he possesses the charisma and passion to lead Democrats back to the White House
    To win in November 2004:
  • Overcome image as another Massachusetts liberal
  • Capture Americans' imagination on economic recovery plan
  • Avoid appearing wishy-washy on foreign policy as a supporter-then-critic of Vietnam and Iraq wars.

     

    "Developing an identity"
    Oct. 12, 2003

    If Democrats ran a want ad for a presidential candidate, it probably would read something like this:

    "WANTED: Democratic presidential candidate. Must embody core party values, exhume charisma, appeal to Southern voters, pull undecideds from George W. Bush. Apply within."

    North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, one of the lesser known presidential candidates in the Iowa caucuses, certainly has answered the ad - but it appears that most Democrats in the state don't believe he meets the qualifications. Polls show former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean narrowly leading the pack at least here and in New Hampshire with an ex-general and three Northerners battling for the second spot.

    Indeed, despite early fund raising success and being the first candidate to air TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Edwards garners less than 6 percent of the Democratic vote wherever polls are taken. Rumors circulated last week that he may pull out of the race as did another Southerner, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, on Monday.

    Still, the man who says he wants to be "a champion for regular people" has surprised many with his rocket-like rise to national prominence. Four years ago, he defeated a man who'd held political office for 50 years to become a U.S. senator. Al Gore considered him for the vice presidency in 2000, and insiders say he was the second choice.

    "He's very personable," said Lindsay Keller, a University of Iowa freshman and Edwards supporter who met her candidate Tuesday at a house party for him in Tipton. "If you ask him a question, he focuses right on you. That line of trust is right there."

    But for those who've joined other candidates' campaigns, Edwards is a little too milk-and-cookies. A trial lawyer turned one-term senator just doesn't seem to be enough of a qualification for the presidency.

    "I don't think he's ready to be president yet, not with his experience," said Megan Scott, a Dean supporter from Iowa City. "Give him another 8 years."

    Regardless of those concerns, Edwards has announced he's not running for re-election to the Senate because he plans to be campaigning for president. And for the moment, he's having no trouble raising money in that effort; trial lawyer connections have loaded his campaign chest with $12 million, among the best of the 10 presidential candidates, if Graham were included.

    Millworker's son

    As for the Democrats' requirement that their candidate embody core party values, Edwards certainly qualifies. His life story matches the mythos of the underprivileged man who rises to great heights but never forgets his roots. A sharecropper's grandson and mill worker's son, he was the first in his family to attend college.

    "I can not forget the way he went to the mill every day, for years, for decades," Edwards said of his father during a telephone interview with the Press-Citizen editorial board, "all for the purpose of giving his kids and grandchildren a better life."

    These days, Edwards is financially far re-moved from his mill worker childhood. His net worth tops $13 million, according to congressional financial disclosure reports, and he owns a $3.8 million home in Washington as well as a North Carolina beach house.

    Though majoring in textile management in college, his success followed law school when he became one of the most important medical malpractice lawyers in the nation. Working up to a 100 hours a week, only taking a break in the evening to see his children, he alone garnered a quarter of the $448 million in North Carolina's medical malpractice awards during the 1990s. His biggest success was a $25 million verdict for a girl mutilated by a wading pool's faulty drain. Later, he played a key role defending President Clinton during impeachment hearings, which helped establish him as a political figure.

    But also during the 1990s, Edwards suffered a tragedy that he won't talk about with most: His 16-year-old son, Wade, died in a car accident. Those close to Edwards say the death propelled him into politics as a way to honor and fulfill his son's dreams.

    The story provides an interesting contrast to those examining George W. Bush's own psychology, saying his political ambitions are in part a way of honoring and fulfilling his father's dreams.

    First 100 days

    Edwards, however, emphasizes the dichotomy between himself and George W. Bush, billing his campaign as "the son of a millworker vs. the son of a president."

    "So many Americans don't have the opportunities once available to them," Edwards said during his interview from Washington. "The president is not addressing many of our serious problems."

    If elected president, Edwards would spend his first 100 days in office trying to heat up the economy, on health care legislation and on restoring civil liberties. Among his first actions would be bringing congressional leaders to the White House for serious talks about tax breaks for working families and companies that manufacture in America, about closing loopholes for companies moving their headquarters overseas and about fair trade deals.

    "We're going to have a laser-like focus on the economy and creating jobs in America," he said.

    He also would present his comprehensive health care proposal to Congress. Among his plans are requiring that every job offers health insurance coverage, family tax credits to help pay for premiums, ensuring children of the unemployed have coverage, and restraining healthcare's rising costs through various laws.

    Many of the powers granted to law enforcement by the Patriot Act, such as library records searches, would be repealed as well. "That's not the most effective way of fighting terrorism," he said.

    On Iraq, Edwards would seek United Nations and NATO help in the occupation. He wouldn't militarily leave the Mideast country until a democratic government is firmly established. But that will be "impossible without the cooperation and help of our friends," he said.

    What went wrong

    Some of Edwards' proposals have been announced amid great fanfare, primarily to gain the backing of key elements in the Democratic Party. On Labor Day, he unveiled in Iowa legislation that aims to improve workers' rights and make easier the establishment of an initial contract after organizing a union. On college campuses, he pledges free tuition for all first-year students.

    So far, however, Edwards has failed to garner an endorsement from major labor unions or to whip up a frenzy of support from college students.

    When one-on-one or in small groups, Edwards can exhume charisma. Perhaps it's a carryover from his days spent convincing 12-man juries. But in a large crowd, his matter of fact voice and lack of Dennis Kucinich zingers mutes his impact. And what stands out about him when grouped with the other Democratic candidates is his youthfulness -though 50, he appears to be 40 (or even younger, some say) - and that only reinforces the milk-and-cookies reaction that many have.

    Though most Democrats presume Edwards could appeal to Southern voters because he hails from Dixie, a close look would quickly bring that supposition into doubt. His trial lawyer background combined with legal support of Clinton during the impeachment make him as appealing to Southern swing voters as Al Gore, who didn't even carry his home state of Tennessee in 2000.

    In any case, the primary concern among Iowa and New Hampshire voters is if Edwards appeals to them. The polls say no, and Edwards only can blame his own campaign strategy for it. He by-and-large has bypassed Iowa and New Hamp-shire, believing big victory awaits in following superprimaries. It was a strategy Clinton used in 1991.

    But that year no Democrat in the polls was garnering the same level of interest as Dean, there weren't two strong rivals challenging to take Iowa (Gephardt) or New Hampshire (Sen. John Kerry) from the front runner, and there wasn't a wild card candidate such as Gen. Wesley Clark.

    Edwards' failure to campaign extensively here and in New Hampshire ultimately has led to a few connections and little identity. Unlike Graham, he has the money to stay in the campaign through February in spite of it. But if there soon isn't upward movement in the polls, don't be surprised if Edwards sends Democrats a letter saying he's no longer interested in the job.

    Rob Bignell is the Press-Citizen's editorial page editor. He can be reached at rbignellic@ press-citizen.com.

    What Edwards must do
    To win the Democrats' nomination:

  • Develop an identity among Democratic voters
  • Finish respectably in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries - at least in the top three or four
  • Win a couple of key states in the February superprimary to steal the momentum
    To win in November 2004:
  • Appeal to Southern swing voters as did Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton
  • Overcome the seedy reputation that surrounds the term "trial lawyer," his past occupation
  • Excite Americans about his economic recovery plans

    Vitals on John Edwards

  • Born: June 10, 1953, at Seneca, S.C.
  • Residence: Raleigh, N.C.
  • Family: Elizabeth (wife); four children
  • Religion: Methodist
  • Education: JD, University of North Carolina, 1977; BS, North Carolina State University, 1974
  • Professional experience: Partner, Edwards & Kirby, Raleigh, 1993-99; partner, Tharrington Smith & Hargrove, 1984 1992; associate, Tharrington Smith & Hargrove, 1981-1983; associate, Dearborn & Ewing, Nashville, 1978-81; law clerk, Office of Judge Franklin T. Dupree Jr., United States District Court for the Eastern District, 1977-78
  • Political experience: U.S. Senate, 1998 present.
  • Organizations: None
  • Official campaign Web site: www.JohnEdwards2004.com
  • Iowa campaign headquarters: 1109 Grand Ave., Des Moines (tel.: 515-243-6622)
  • Iowa Caucus Director: Rob Bernsten
  • Iowa campaign spokeswoman: Kim Rubey
    Source: Edwards for President, Inc.

     

    "Summer of momentum"
    July 20, 2003

    There's something strikingly similar between President Harry S. Truman and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean: A slender energetic frame, a high forehead with hair combed and thinning in the same direction and a bluntness when speaking.

    Should it be any surprise then that Dean's Iowa campaign staffers wear buttons saying, "Give 'em hell, Howard"? Or that Dean cites Truman, along with George Washington, as the two presidents he most emulates?

    If Dean wins the presidential election in November 2004, the similarities probably won't end there. As with Truman defeating Thomas Dewey in 1948, it's likely to be a close race that most said the Democrats couldn't win.

    Doubts about Dean aside, though, he has become the most interesting of the Democrat's candidates. Though a recent national CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll tied Dean in fourth place of who Democrats, if they voted that day, would support, in Iowa he's No. 2 and making inroads into state frontrunner Dick Gephardt's campaign. In New Hampshire, the primary's second election, he's jousting with Sen. John Kerry for first. Meanwhile, Dean is outpacing all other Democratic candidates in fund raising with close to $9 million in his coffers.

    If short, if Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he may be the leader lost Democrats suddenly rally around for the party's nomination.

    Dark horse candidate

    Dean began his campaign with a seemingly counterintuitive move: He loudly criticized the Iraq war. Most Democratic candidates remained silent on the issue at a time when at least two-thirds of the nation backed the White House's invasion. He might as well have been Truman criticizing popular war hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea.

    But as a dark horse candidate, Dean only needed to capture the attention of hardcore Democrats, who by and large opposed the war. The gambit appears to be paying off. Many Iowa Democrats say Dean is the only candidate who's saying what they want to hear on various issues.

    "I don't agree with him on all of the issues," said Peter Hansen, an Iowa City Dean supporter, "but I agree with him on most of the issues."

    As important is his persona. Other Democratic candidates seem "poll-driven," Hansen said.

    Republicans so far dismiss Dean as an ultra-liberal left of Hilary Clinton, and many in the center have bought into that view.

    But in all truth, Dean probably is right of Truman. His father was an active Nelson Rockefeller Republican.

    "Howard Dean is the kind of politician who illustrates why one-word labels are dangerous," said Candace Page, a Burlington (Vt.) Free Press reporter who covered the Vermont Statehouse when Dean was governor. "It's much more complex than that."

    Dean drove Vermont's social justice Democrats crazy while governor, Page said. His budget cuts included slicing welfare benefits, and he quickly garnered a reputation as a fiscal conservative.

    Nor is he a dove.

    "I told the peace people not to fall in love with me," Dean told Time magazine editor Joe Klein over breakfast in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month.

    His first 100 days

    If elected, Dean's first 100 days in the White House sounds ... well, conservative. During a meeting this month with the Press-Citizen's editorial board, Dean said he'd submit to Congress a balanced budget and a package ensuring all Americans could get health care via private companies. On foreign policy, Dean would reach out to foreign leaders he believes the Bush administration has alienated and would seek a multi-national force to occupy and rebuild Iraq.

    "You have to avoid getting bogged down on issues," he said.

    If the economy doesn't improve during the next several months, Dean's message could chime with more and more Americans' concerns. Among his fairly centrist stands are:

  • Economy. Jobs won't be created until budget deficits are eliminated. The two greatest contributors to the existing deficit are Bush's tax cuts and the Iraq war-occupation. "We need to restrain spending," he said.

  • Tax cuts. Dean would repeal the Bush tax cuts passed this spring to help balance the budget. From his view, the federal cuts only forced state, county and municipal governments to raise their taxes or to cut services. "This president's tax cuts are just spending programs for high income people," Dean said. "What's the difference with some Democrats wanting to spend money on a program for low income people?"

  • Foreign policy. Besides re-establishing what he believes is damaged American credibility in the world, Dean's exit strategy for Iraq will be internationalizing the occupation force. He'd also like stronger relations with Mexico, the opportunity for which he believes Bush squandered. Dean plans to preach "loss of focus" in Bush's foreign policy. "I don't think the president cares about facts anymore," said Dean, who supported the invasion of Afghanistan. "I think he cares about sticking to an ideology."

  • Health care. In addition to fixing the Medicare formula that shortchanges states such as Iowa and Vermont, Dean would create a private insurance consortium to ensure all people under 25 who live no more than 50 percent overthe poverty line (about $33,000 for a family of four) would qualify for insurance. The program wouldn't be mandatory for the 42 million Americans who qualify. "This gets everyone in the system who wants to but doesn't upset the special interests who'll stop any other health reform plan," he said.

  • Education. Dean opposes Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, saying modeling federal education policy and spending on a mediocre state's system (Texas) is bad for at least half of the nation.

    While admittedly socially progressive (such as women's rights and civil union marriages), some issues Dean would just as soon leave to the states. Gun control is among them. His stand may be the most palatable position the NRA has heard from a Democratic presidential candidate in decades.

    Reaching the White House

    If an American soldier continues dying every other day in Iraq through November 2004 and if the economy doesn't soon rebound - unemployment is at its highest rate in nine years - Dean's stands may not sound all that liberal to centrists. Toss in his old money background (Unlike Truman, he's not salt of the Earth), and he may even appeal to a few Republicans unconcerned about Bible Belt issues such as gay rights or abortion.

    But what about his personality? Republicans privately joke that they hope Dean gets the Democratic nomination because he's likely to lose his temper during a national debate with Bush. After all, just rolling one's eyes can trash a guy's reputation.

    Dean, however, is counting on his force of will to stand out.

    "I may be the only one who can beat Bush," Dean said of his fellow Democratic candidates. Quickly pointing out that as the only governor running, he's the lone candidate with a proven track record - and that's just what helped George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan reach the White House.

    What Dean really hopes is that Americans will respond to his meta-message: "Stand up and be proud of yourself." Citing liberal darling Paul Wellstone, a former Minnesota senator, Dean tells Democrats on campaign stops that he plans to stand up for what he believes in.

    "You're better off telling people what you think rather than appealing to a poll," Dean said. "It's the only way to garner they're respect."

    Rob Bignell is the Press-Citizen's editorial page editor. He can be reached at rbignellic@ press-citizen.com.

    What Dean must do
    To win Democrats' nomination:

  • Make deep inroads into Dick Gephardt's Iowa base and upset him in Jan. 19 caucuses
  • Win New Hampshire's primary to establish himself as frontrunner
  • Continue portraying himself as liberal who intends to make a difference
    To win in November 2004:
  • Overcome national perception as an ultra-liberal
  • Be right on view that Iraq is a quagmire
  • Be right that Bush's tax cuts won't improve economy

    Vitals on Howard Dean

  • Born: Nov. 17, 1948, in New York, N.Y.
  • Residence: Burlington, Vt.
  • Family: Judith Steinberg-Dean (wife); Anne, Paul (children)
  • Religion: Congregationalist
  • Education: MD, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, 1978; BA, Yale University, 1971
  • Professional experience: Practicing physician, 1981-1991
  • Political experience: Vermont governor, Aug. 14, 1991-2002; Vermont lieutenant governor, 1986 1991; Vermont House of Representatives, assistant minority leader, 1985-1986; Vermont House of Representatives, 1983-1986
  • Organizations: Democratic Governors' Association, executive committee, 1997-present; Democratic Governors' Association, chairman, 1997; National Governors' Association, chairman, 1994-1995; National Education Goals Panel, former member; National Governors' Association Task Force on Health Care, former co-chairman
  • Official campaign Web site: www.deanforamerica.com
  • Iowa campaign headquarters: 1408 Locust St., Des Moines (tel.: 515-243-5433, fax: 515-243-6021); in Iowa City, at Old Capitol Town Center
  • Iowa state director: Jeani Murray
  • Iowa campaign spokeswoman: Sarah Leonard
    Source: Dean for America Iowa campaign headquarters

    "Cornfield Soul: Baseball reached deeper than just ‘love of the game’"
    Oct. 19, 2004

    "Spring is the greatest season of all," a neighbor to the farm where I grew up often said. "It's the beginning of baseball season."

    Not until an orange leaf flutters in the crisp air each autumn do I usually think of Carl's words, though he said them every April when exhibition season started. Being a kid of the television era, football is my sport. Yet amid homecomings and Monday night games, most of America, myself included, always turn one last time to the golden hopes of spring and those hot, dusty days of summer, for the World Series.

    True baseball fans know game by game, sometimes inning by inning, how their team struggled for five months to reach the series. The rest of us just know we're watching the two best squads play, hoping for the excitement of a game that won't require us to sit through foul balls and long stretches of the pitcher getting around to deciding if he should throw the ball or not.

    • • •

    For Carl, something a little more than enjoyment of the game coursed threw him whenever he talked of baseball.

    And though often busy with cattle or crops, Carl still found time to play in an amateur softball league. Once my family would watch him at the diamond next to the Lutheran country church and its cemetery.

    While the teams wore matching thin-striped shirts and caps, there was nothing stuffy about the game. Some players donned tennis shoes, others boots. Being farmers, they all wore blue jeans. A cornfield served as the outfield wall. Score was kept on a large chalkboard rolled out of the church basement.

    Carl never said how he came to like baseball, but I remember a framed photograph on his desk of a young man decked in the game's garb and holding a bat over his shoulder. A little boy, whose chin and eyes looked awfully similar to Carl's, leaned against the man's leg clutching a huge mitt.

    • • •

    When only about 22 or so, Carl had inherited the farm from his father. Carl was disking in the field when his wife, Gwen, sped out in the pickup truck to get him.

    "'He was just heading out to the grain bins, he was just heading out to the grain bins,' that's all Carl's mother ever would say when anyone asked about what happened," my own mother once told me.

    Gwen, who'd been in the house at the time, also was brief. "He just stopped, then reached for the wall and fell," she told people. "There was nothing anyone could have done."

    A month after the heart attack, Carl's mother declared she no longer could stand living in the house that conjured so many memories of her dead husband. The following morning, as dew lay like arsenic sprinkled upon the lawn, they saw her off on a bus to live with her other son in Omaha.

    • • •

    As a kid at the church diamond, I watched the game with indifference, rooting for Carl to hit a homer only because I knew him.

    These days, though, I recall Carl's time at bat with much thought. Staring down the pitcher, did he ever find the array of cracked and worn tombstones in the distance distracting?

    Perhaps when that willowy voice of Gwen, her belly round with child, rose through all of the cheers, his eyes narrowed on the task at hand.

    Maybe the crack of stick against ball threw his spirit into an epiphany, for she'd allowed him to overcome the horror of loss, allowed him to laugh in the face of emptiness. I wonder.

    • • •

    After the game, Carl's teammates slapped him on the back for the homerun, and the families enjoyed chicken and hamburgers grilled in the open air. He refused to drink beer because Gwen didn't, because of the pregnancy. The guys cajoled him to lighten up, but every woman there swooned at his chivalry.

    Sometimes, though, as the sun shined like a glowing tangerine, I'd catch him gazing at the thin break in the grass marking the baseline heading into first. Perhaps he felt guilty about playing and laughing so near his father's grave.

    Then, as Gwen wrapped an arm about Carl's broad shoulders, his face broke into a smile. He must have known that was the way his father would have wanted it.