Some of my friends and colleagues in Iowa are chaffing over U of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom's essay that takes a critical -- and somewhat condescending -- look at the state of the State:
Considering the state's enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is.
Here's a sense of what follows:
Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn't at issue. It's been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it's going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state's about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shifting; any growth is negligible. Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure.
The ultimate point of Bloom's essay seems to be to question whether Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses every four years are desirable for the nation. He concludes that they are not, because Iowa is unrepresentative of the nation, it's insular, and so on.
In many ways, my path to Iowa bears similarity to Bloom's. Like him, I came to the Hawkeye State by way of California, and while I was most recently a lawyer by practice, I had in fact studied journalism and interned for some Bay Area newspapers. I had spent a year in the Midwest/South (in Oklahoma) for a clerkship a few years before, so perhaps I had been "exposed" enough to the Midwest before moving to Iowa.
Unlike Bloom, who has traveled to all 99 of Iowa's counties, during my 7 years, I more less stayed in Iowa City, with occasional visits to Cedar Rapids (mostly Sam's Club or the airport) or the Quad Cities (again, the airport). I certainly wouldn't claim to be any kind of expert about Iowa -- I do know enough to know that Iowa City is hardly representative of the state.
That said, since Bloom lives in Iowa City, it's striking to me that his day-to-day experiences seem to be so different from mine. As my good friend Nick Johnson points out, Iowa City is quite a little cultural wonder, in Iowa or anywhere else:
Walking along downtown Iowa City's Washington Street, following a reception at a restaurant that can match many of those on the coasts, we came upon an amazing piano player, 22-year-old Chase Garrett. He was sitting at a piano kindly placed on the sidewalk by those who thought it would be a nice addition to this community of literature (one of three so designated by the United Nations), theater, music, and creative arts generally.
Here is a direct link to the YouTube location of my video, and a link to Chase's Web site: http://chasegarrett.com//.
It turns out I'm far from the first person to discover this guy and upload his music to YouTube. Put "Chase Garrett" (in quotes) into YouTube search, and you'll see over 100 more.
From there we wandered down the hill to the Iowa Memorial Union (about three blocks). (Another nice thing about Iowa City is that an easy walk can get you to many of the places you want to go. If you're in a hurry you can bike. With time to spare, you can even drive.)
What we found in the main lounge of the IMU was a standing room only crowd, packed to the walls, waiting to hear a free lecture by Robert Reich, http://robertreich.org, once Secretary of Labor and now University of California, Berkeley, professor of public policy.
(Iowa City certainly had some very nice restaurants, including one with the best ribeye steak I've ever had. Seafood and Chinese food, though, were . . . um, as you would expect, not up to par with the West Coast.)
The main fact that seems to have escaped Bloom's article is that rural U.S. is quite different politically and culturally from large cities (especially those on the Coasts) and small college towns. Rural Iowa may be somewhat like Bloom's caricature, but I have a feeling that if Bloom had visited rural parts of California, or Oregon, or other "blue" states, he would have found them similar to rural Iowa. For example, check out Oregon's House District No. 2, which covers Oregon starting from about 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean all the way east to the Idaho border. It's solidly Republican, having sent Greg Walden back repeatedly since 1998, with routine vote percentages of 65+%. I'm guessing there are a lot of hunters there.
So, is "Iowa" (as depicted by Bloom) really that different?