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Political Tourism in Iowa – Hazy View in the Media Bubble

By Amy Munice

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More than 24 hours later and still counting, the national media is making hay about the trip by unannounced candidate Hillary Clinton to Iowa.



The occasion for her visit was to attend the 37th annual and last Steak Fry event held by soon-to-retire progressive Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. 



By some media accounts there were 5,000 in attendance on the muddy long grass lawn; by others it was 10,000. 



Some of the attendees were in fact there just to catch a gander and earful from the Clintons—Bill and Hillary both. 




Others were the Harkin faithful who have been coming to this event annually as far back as they can recall. 



If we are to take Hillary Clinton at her word, she just came for the steak—probably making her the only one. 



There have always been many reasons for political tourists to attend the Harkin Steak Fry events, but culinary adventure is not high on the list.



Republican or Democrat, Iowa has a lot of cachet for the would-be political tourist. 



Because Iowa is where the first presidential primaries are held—caucuses actually- it is oft visited by Presidential hopefuls. 



This year this purple state not only has active gubernatorial and congressional races, but also a nationally funded high profile race to replace Senator Harkin’s seat. 



It’s the impressive commitment by Iowans to do their civic duty that is usually most striking to a political tourist in Iowa.  Iowans tend to know that their votes really do count. 



They learn about the issues and the candidates in a way that most Americans do not. 



Talk to your average Iowan, and you meet someone with firsthand impressions of candidates at all levels who have likely knocked on their door or come to their church.



At the 2007 Harkin Steak Fry where would-be Presidents Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, Barak Obama, John Edwards and Joe Biden came to stump, the bigger star power to political tourists on the ground were the many Iowans with overflowing clipboards of notes on what each candidate had said.  Many Iowans had met the candidates many times up close and personally—in their town halls, libraries, school gymnasiums, etc.—and labored to keep track of all positions taken and even who was late and how late for campaign events.



On an off-year such as 2010 when the keynote speakers were David Axelrod and David Plouffe, a curious political tourist could chat up an Iowan and learn first-hand of the challenges of a Democratic die-hard woman about to tie the knot with a Republican pig farmer.  Chatter too was about how the uninsured could get help with the State’s healthcare provisions for the indigent and not-so-indigent.  Gay men were there to tell YOU why gay marriage was an important issue, long before the sea change to legalize gay marriage came to be.



How different then, to come to this Harkin Steak Fry as a credentialed media member, where a significant number of Iowans, usually expansive and eager to chat up political tourists from out of state in their midst, either outright refused a media interview or talked about politics simply as the horse race in keeping with the media event unfolding.



To be a media member means that you get choice sight lines and risers for cameras in front of the flag and haystack adorned stage.  What you don’t get as media—using past years’ political tourism as a marker-- is the frank and interesting conversation that a curious out-of-state visitor will get.



Being a media rep also gave one a pass to go to three consecutive holding pens—perhaps not unlike the many cows slaughtered to make the day’s fare—in order to get pictures of the Clintons flipping their steak in the private reception area set up for photo opps. 



As the “talent”, i.e. the faces you are familiar with on TV, jostled to the front of the fence lines to position for shout-out questions, men with cameras and sound booms juggled to capture the event.  The tall grass was clotted in clumps by mud below and if you weren’t sure-footed it was easy to imagine tripping into wetness.



At one point a woman’s sharp scream briefly interrupted the media throng.  This was Judy Woodruff of public television who had just endured a cameraman falling off a nearby stepladder nearly knocking her over and doing unknown damage to her strikingly small frame.


The point of this media dragnet was the all important photo opp.  The media “talent” up front in the holding pens apparently thought their catcalls would tease out a confession by Hillary Clinton that she is indeed running for President.  



In her speech on the stage Hillary was thoughtful to throw red meat teasers to the media and Ready-for-Hillary T-shirt wearers thick in the crowd of her presidential aspirations.   It was innuendo and not an announcement.  Not much there there, but by the reports you’d never know it.





Photos: Peter Kachergis

Published on Sep 16, 2014

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