John Edwards

The Iowa and National Farmers Union held a candidates’ forum Saturday in Des Moines. John Edwards mixed it up with the NFUers.
Photo: Richard Oswald

I just got back from another Presidential Summit in Iowa. I heard some new things, some old things, and I remembered a couple of lessons learned. I take my hat off to the people of Iowa. Your capacity for this stuff is remarkable.

Last year, for eight months, I was a politician. I saw myself as a populist: a man who lives and works among the people while seeking to better their lot in life. Too many times, though, I was more like a stranger in a strange land. I had trouble with that, but I learned something from my opposition.

Standing out in the crowd is one way to gain recognition and votes, and one way to identify a winner is by the number of followers that person has. Last year I called it the Republican Mafia.

The reason I named them that wasn’t so much because I thought of my opponents as crooks, but because whenever I went to a public gathering, there they stood, in their own little group. It was them against me and anyone else who opposed them. I could never figure out why they felt so threatened, afraid of the opposition. Now I realize that it was as much about appearance as fear, because standing in the middle of the pack makes a politician look like the Alpha Dog. A winner.

That’s how some candidates gain recognition. They get on a pedestal.

There were five presidential candidates at the 2007 Food and Family Farm Presidential Summit sponsored by both the Iowa and National Farmers Unions: Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. On Saturday, at the Marriott in downtown Des Moines, I saw populists — and I saw pedestals. (For more on the event, go to

It’s not that I don’t understand how the game is played, because I do. That’s the whole point. John Edwards said Saturday, “It does no good to replace corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats.” If we choose to select our leaders in the same way each time, we risk repeating past errors. And in the words of Barack Obama, “Rural values are American values.” But what values are reflected in the way we choose our president?

Hillary with NFU

Sen. Hillary Clinton speaking to the Iowa and National Farmers Union.
Photo: Richard Oswald

Security in the Des Moines Room at the Marriott was fairly loose. One or two men maintained watch over all the candidates. In addition to them, Obama had three Secret Service agents (that I could count), and Hillary appeared to have eight. Six of those stood at the front of the room with her. After counting them I wondered if there might not be more at the back of the room; I turned to look and sure enough, two tall, business-suited young men with close haircuts looked right back at me. I was pretty sure they weren’t farmers.

An entourage entered the room with Senator Clinton, while behind our table one of Hillary’s volunteers made fun of some Edwards’s supporters. I asked myself the same question I asked last year in my own election, “What are they so afraid of?”

Senator Clinton entered and exited in the same way, and several of us who wanted a chance to snap a picture or shake a hand were disappointed, because she and her group, her entourage, left the room obscured from view by a black curtain.

We’ve lost some great leaders to assassins, and accidents, people like Missourians Jerry Litton and Mel Carnahan; Minnesotan Paul Wellstone; the Kennedys; and there was a nearly successful attempt on Ronald Reagan. I’m fed up with seeing my nation’s destiny changed by happenstance”¦.or worse.

I want to see the candidates safely to the election, but I wonder how we are benefited by a system that closes us off from our national leaders even before they are elected. And I worry that in place of real people, some of our best candidates must surround themselves with a “˜Mafia’ to give the appearance of support.

On his way to a meeting with the press, Senator Edwards passed by us. He was accessible, surrounded by nothing but well wishers and reporters. “May I have a picture, Senator?” my wife asked. “Sure” he said. Then a friend asked me to take her picture with him as well. His aide pointed to his watch and said, “We really need to go.”

Edwards shook his head no, “We’ve got time for this.”

He let me take two.

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