By: Mike Murphy
I had breakfast in a bar this morning. Not because I passed out in one last night, mind you. At midnight I was pulling into a Holiday Inn in Mason City, Iowa while noting the gigantic Perry for President tour bus looming in the parking lot and hoping not to bump into the Perry entourage as I slunk into the lobby. It’s never much fun explaining one’s old “chimp playing with a locked suitcase” debate cracks to a weary candidate who knows he is going to lose an election in three days. Luckily for me, the Governor was nowhere to be seen in the quiet lobby.
Back to the bar. Mason City is tidy and proud, but in the older downtown area the small and occasionally wonderful brick buildings built in boom times eighty years ago, betray empty store windows and faded signs from businesses long gone. This is not millionaires row.
Nearby, LD’s Filling Station looks more like a small machine shop than a bar. Filling a squat, nearly unmarked brick building with no windows and a haphazard paint job. You find it in the morning by zeroing in on a clump of cars, mostly American, gathered in the back of a large empty concrete lot beside a few other industrial buildings. Three grimy semi trailers, left behind by their cabs, and a pair of rusted freeway style overhead lights guard the empty remainder of the lot.
It’s warm inside. About twenty laughing and smiling patrons fill the place. The floor is the best part, fifty plus years of machine oil, gasoline and now beer, soaked into the hard wood. The walls are full of chrome hub cabs and an old Cadillac grille, as well as a scared battlefield between the neon signs of the local beer reps. (At LD’s, the Bud guy has the Miller Lite and Coors guys on the run.) A sign advertising Taco Night on Thursday; two tacos for five bucks. A pair of dusty 90’s era video poker machines – my bet is the bartender might take a small, discrete bet on Saturday nights – sit in a lonely corner. The lighting comes from a few naked fluorescent tubes on the ceiling.
By the bar, a small sign proclaims, “Starting November 1, 2010, we will no longer accept personal checks.” Curiously, that sign was posted just before the out of state politicians started showing up after the last big elections.
LD’s breakfast clientele is a mix of old codgers and young families. Everybody, from the two young waitresses to the numerous grandmothers wear the same Saturday morning outfit, jeans and a sweatshirt. Several of the men wear worn caps with fold down earflaps; refreshingly, they do so without a single atom of hipster hat irony. The food, of course, is delicious.
I sit in the middle at a small table and just listen as snatches of friendly conversation float by. The big topic is the weather. Winter is no joke in northern Iowa. But with the caucuses looming, snatches of political talk darts in and out of various conversations: “Santorum”, “it’s your first caucus?”, “Where is it?” “Beat Obama”, “Bachmann, I think. Or the other guy. They’re church people.” But mostly, a variation of “politics” and “same old...”
Which I think makes the vital point about the Iowa caucus we have today. When it was first discovered back in the late 70’s, the Iowa caucus was indeed a small, folksy affair. The big candidates ignored it, so the dark horse hopefuls – with nothing but time on their hands – came here, spent a lot of that time, got noticed and broke through with media attention from a win in what was then a little known contest.
Today, the caucus is big time politics as normal. Tens of millions of dollars in TV ads, home telephones ringing off the hook with pollsters asking questions and politicos making pitches, mailboxes stuffed with attack fliers, highways clogged with huge, garish campaign buses, and even some TV pundit clown with a fancy laptop sitting at the corner table at LD’s staring at everybody when they’re trying to eat breakfast.
I got the feeling that the Iowans, these clever, practical people who can make a roadhouse bar lead a successful double life as a popular breakfast hangout, have the Iowa caucus of today pretty well figured out. It’s just another big time, big money campaign, with all the noise and baloney of politics as usual. Fine to have in the state, a good thing for Iowa, but really nothing that special or different. It’ll be gone in a few days. But the weather? Now, that’s the real deal.
Mike Murphy is a Republican strategist and frequent guest on our political roundtable.