Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Reflections on Former Iowa Cornfields

Dallas CountyDallas County just west of Des Moines, Iowa has a serious problem with school overcrowding. Three decades ago, it worried about President Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo.

Michael Barbaro’s piece in The New York Times today about Iowa’s shifting economy and political makeup brought back memories of my parachute trip into the state for the 1980 presidential caucuses.

In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter imposed a grain embargo, which was hugely unpopular in Iowa and other heartland states. The other states didn’t matter as much as Iowa because of its unique position as the first presidential “primary.”

Carter’s operatives in Iowa put out the call for help. Working for Congressman Les AuCoin at the time, I was loaned to the Carter campaign for a month.

I didn’t regard it as an awful assignment, despite cold temperatures and the absence of any place to eat after 8 p.m. After all, I lived as young boy in Council Bluffs and had relatives throughout Southwest Iowa. Never good with geography, the Carter people assigned me instead to Des Moines.

jimmycarter-webMy specific assignment was to call every Democrat in Dallas County – at least three times. That tells you how many Democrats lived in Dallas County. The county seat is Adel, a small town located on the North Raccoon River.

At the time, this was farm country. Pretty much everyone I talked to farmed, had farmed or made their living off people who farmed. Every conversation I had started – and often ended – with the grain embargo. My Dallas County Democrats said the grain embargo was foolish, wouldn’t faze the Russians and would send grain prices plummeted. (They were right.)

Personally, I agreed with them. So my job consisted mostly of trying to change the subject.

Ted Kennedy had entered the race late and was making a strong impression, even without a lot of boots on the ground in Iowa. Carter had made people scratch their heads over his commons about economic “malaise,”  shake their heads over his response to Iran seizing hostages in Tehran and shake their fists over long gas lines. So my job consisted of changing the subject a lot.

Somehow, Carter muddled through and won 59.1 percent of votes cast in the caucuses. My territory in Dallas County went for Carter, too. I left town with a smile on my face and never returned.

Based on Barbaro’s story, I wouldn’t recognize Dallas County if I did return. The farmland has been churned under for suburban development for subdivisions with names like Stone Prairie and room for corporate headquarters and retail outlets. They might still care about a grain embargo if anyone would be foolish enough to repeat Carter’s mistake (actually Vladimir Putin has), but today they care more about building schools fast enough to avoid overcrowding in their fast-growing area.

Killer rabbitPolitical operatives are already taking up residence in Des Moines and other pivotal Iowa cities and towns to do battle in the open presidential race in 2016. They will be following the old and new rules of meeting everyone, keeping them up to date by email or social media and making phone calls, lots and lots of phone calls.

I don’t anticipate any candidate calling me to reprise my role of 1980, even though I have some great pivot lines to steer a conversation away from a grain embargo, an Olympic boycott and “killer rabbits.” Just as well because I wouldn’t recognize the place.


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