Iowa, 2011: Here they come a-courting

RURAL JACKSON COUNTY, Iowa — In Iowan Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," Marian, the River City librarian, spends a lot of time looking for love, while pretending not to. In the end she does, in fact, find it, with a huckster — a man who may be slightly less than sincere. We naturally, and naively, assume it all works out for her, that her choice was sound, that her life will be perfect.

A variation on a similar theme plays out quadrennially here in Iowa, where we have the enviable task of being the first in the nation to express our preferences for presidential candidates. And, with apologies to Iowa native Michele Bachmann, Wilson's Marian the librarian may be the personification of an entire state when she sings, "All I want is a plain man/All I want is a modest man/A quiet man, a gentle man/A straightforward and honest man." Seems simple enough.


Despite how others might describe Iowa, it is, for the most part, a state full of earnest people looking in every dark corner for straightforward and honest candidates for president. When making choices about the future of a great, sometimes schizophrenic, often messy country, one could do worse than rely on Iowans.

It hasn't always been easy, or friendly, but it sure has been fun — and I, for one, will be sad to see the caucuses fade into the convoluted, semi-factual morass we call history. The constant crisscrossing of my state by seemingly sincere politicians is a huge, satisfying grin, one I've learned to relish.


The political season here began last spring in a half-hearted sort of way; however, by summer, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ms. Bachmann, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty (remember him?) and Herman Cain (and him?) had all spent a considerable amount of time here, even willing to show a bit of sweat in the miserable August heat of a straw poll and state fair.

Mitt Romney chose to ignore us, something he is now trying to correct. He spent an inordinate amount of time and money here four years ago, and he lost to Mike Huckabee. John McCain spent virtually no time and money in Iowa but prevailed nationally. There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

This year, Rick Perry joined the throng rather belatedly and was a no-show for quite some time; however, he too is making a last-ditch effort to meet us, spending most of the rest of the year here with more than 40 stops planned prior to the Jan. 3 caucus.

Some guy named Jon Huntsman has also shown up here to debate the others, but he'd likely go unrecognized in the cafes.

The Iowa caucuses began in 1972 and are commonly referred to as "retail" politics, a fancy term meaning that we expect politicians to personally show up in our backyards during our Fourth of July picnics to ask for our support. That didn't happen much this year.

The days of Jesse Jackson, Pierre du Pont or John Glenn suddenly appearing on our front porches seem to be over. The Jimmy Carters and George McGoverns of the world no longer stand in our living rooms, acting like it all means something. (And, for the record, Mr. McGovern in 1972 and Mr. Carter in 1976 were each handily whipped in Iowa by the same foe, a confounding nemesis known as "uncommitted.")

Pervasive modern media have caused the eschewing of kitchens in favor of public halls, where politicians hold what they euphemistically call "town hall" meetings. A few have simply shown up at noon Rotary luncheons, made short speeches and headed to the next town. Every four years, some dash off unmemorable autobiographies and appear in bookstores for signing purposes, all the while claiming the publication has nothing to do with running for president.

In other words, if you're combing the hillsides of Iowa in search of art and truth, you may want to look elsewhere.


Which is not to say that it hasn't been great fun, because it has. But, for us, on Jan. 3 it's all over. Finito. Done. In our movie, Marian the librarian lives happily ever after — at least until 2016, when a handful of modest, honest men begin a-courting, and she once again goes out to the footbridge on the edge of town and makes her choice.

Kurt Ullrich is a writer in Maquoketa, Iowa. His e-mail is