Vote for Forbes and get a gold pin
And much more: a T shirt, music and a free ride to the poll.
Will Iowans buy the hucksterism?
By Hugh Sidey/Greenfield
August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)
Steven Grubbs, the earnest young Iowa coordinator for Steve
Forbes, was in a slight crouch, weaving back and forth before the
45 people in Bon's Bakehouse on the sweltering town square of
He was in his fevered pitch for them to leap at multimillionaire
Steve Forbes' offer to join his hired caravan to the city of Ames
next week. That's where diehard Republicans will gather on Aug.
14 for a day of speeches and tub-thumping and then cast a vote
for one of 11 candidates. The Iowa poll, when it was invented 20
years ago, was a fund-raising gimmick by the party to tap into
campaign war chests by making the front runners and the foolhardy
pay for the privilege of participating. But with a front-loaded
primary season and George W. Bush miles ahead of his heel
nippers, the Ames straw poll has taken on an unnatural
significance. Republican candidates want to trip up Bush, and
they're happy to spend lots of money to do so. And if they turn
up losers, the Ames contest, for all its illegitimacy, may force
So that's why Grubbs was pandering. "I know it's hot and it's a
long drive to Ames, so we will pick you up in an air-conditioned
bus and take you there and bring you back--if you promise to
vote for Steve Forbes in the poll," he exhorted, as his
listeners munched 148 cookies and downed eight gallons of tea
and lemonade, all on Forbes' bottomless tab. The candidate, who
had just given his nice speech about the evils of Washington,
the tax code and the Federal Reserve, sat close by with his
trademark political look, which is somewhere between
bewilderment and a grin.
"We will buy the $25 ticket and give you the $50 bus ride,"
Grubbs continued, voice rising as if he were in some kind of
auction. "We are going to have the biggest tent up there ... Four
national entertainers. We haven't picked them yet, but they will
be big-name entertainers ... The television networks are going to
be there... We are going to have a great barbecue to which you
are all invited free. We may have balloon rides. And bring your
families if you want to. There is going to be entertainment for
the kids, face painting and games."
This political Elmer Gantry has been loose in the Iowa cornfields
for weeks, making his speech after Forbes finishes his on flat
tax and fortitude. Grubbs, an Iowan, is an example of the modern
Iowa, which has become big-part yuppie, little-part farmers and
small towners. But for all its struggle to be like California and
Connecticut, most of Iowa's area remains farmland, and the crops
underlie the economy. The biggest political pretenders must at
some time or another take off their suit coats and go to the land
where strange things can happen.
The people in front of Steve Grubbs looked slightly embarrassed
and maybe a little put out as he preached. Here was another
chapter in the book about political peddlers come to slicker the
rubes. As I watched this scene in my hometown, I think I knew who
was being slickered. Next day a high school friend, Yvonne
Schildberg, a Republican activist, told me, "I went to be polite.
I'm for Elizabeth Dole." Another friend said, "This straw poll is
really an insult to anyone's intelligence."
Grubbs never faltered that day. His next offering was a Forbes T
shirt showing the Forbes campaign trail. Another Forbes aide
came skipping through the room holding the T shirt high, as if
he were in a television auction. "Greenfield is on the T shirt,"
roared Grubbs. Just then a man from Stuart, a town up the road,
whispered in my ear, "What are they thinking about? Forbes
doesn't have the chance of a snowball in hell down here. Doesn't
he have anything better to do with his money?"
Grubbs was not yet done. "And if all that I have mentioned for
you is not enough, we have something more for you. If you can
bring some of your friends and neighbors along with you to vote
for Steve Forbes, we will give you something really special: a
gold Forbes pin for your lapel." I looked at some of my friends,
and I'd swear they were close to laughing out loud. But that
resolute politeness prevailed. (A local reporter said later, "I
was waiting for the Forbes secret decoder pin.")
Sabina Forbes, the candidate's wife, sat off in a corner of Bon's
with a faraway look that suggested to one of my old pals that she
might be dreaming of spending overheated days like this not in
Ames but aboard the family's famous jet, Capitalist Tool, flying
off to soothing climes.
There were lingering laughs in the tiny sidewalk crowd as the
huge Forbes buses glided out of town. A couple of people who had
once played in the Greenfield marching band debated what music
the bus loudspeaker had been playing when the caravan arrived at
the town square. They voted for the Colonel Bogey March.
But for all the fun, there was an undercurrent of sadness. The
people in Greenfield and other rural towns are on the edge of
disaster. The prices of cattle, hogs, corn and soybeans--the
bedrock of Iowa's agriculture--are at levels of the Great
Depression. "There is no way right now that anyone can make money
here in agriculture, no matter how you figure it," said farmer
Joe Vandewater. He took note that the day before in the same
room, Forbes had not mentioned price, cost or any firm plan for
the future of agriculture. But there was the free barbecue--and
the little gold pin.
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Cover Date: August 9, 1999