By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, Aug. 13, 2023 – On Saturday, I got both the 2023 Iowa State Fair and the 2024 U.S. presidential election started up – or at least my own participation in both.
And as I did so, it occurred to me this is my 50th state fair, or close to that, and my 15th presidential election.
(These “Fair-Side Chats”? I probably should explain that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous for his “Fireside Chats” with the public on radio 80 and 90 years ago. So it’s an old idea, but still a good idea.)
A big crowd as Gov. Kim Reynolds begins her interview Saturday with Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley outside JR’s Southpork Ranch restaurant at the Iowa State Fair.
Another look at Reynolds and Haley at the fair.
I saw that the governor had a couple prominent candidates – Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis – scheduled for chats at hours Saturday morning before the big heat was going to descend upon us, and I wanted to 1) hear what they had to say, and 2) see how the governor does as an interviewer.
Let me address the second point first: She’s pretty darned good. She could host a TV talk show, and there are a lot of people in this state wishing she would – full-time.
Saturday morning, there were probably 1,000 people, maybe more, nearly all of them happy Republicans, packed around Reynolds and her interview subjects. It was clearly her kind of crowd.
Two other things occurred to me as I watched.
The 64-year-old Reynolds, now in her seventh year as governor, is much more comfortable in public than earlier in her tenure. She seems more real. She laughs easily and naturally. She carries on a chat very well. She dances when the “walk-up music” plays. She jokes with her husband Kevin Reynolds, sitting a few rows back in the audience, introducing him and telling the crowd, “Give it up for the First Dude!”
The other thing I see: She has indeed become a very powerful political force in this state. And I think that’s surprised almost all of us.
I saw and listened to three presidential candidates Saturday – the Republicans Haley and DeSantis that the governor interviewed, and then Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who spent 90 minutes Saturday night talking to 300 or more people who packed Smokey Row Coffee just northwest of downtown Des Moines. (I skipped former President Donald Trump, who was meandering the fairgrounds Saturday afternoon; I’ve heard enough from him.)
My quickest impressions:
–Nikki Haley, 51, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, impressed me most. The daughter of immigrants from India is the personification of the American dream. And she had me leaning her way after, early in her chat with Reynolds, said, “We need to have a new generational leader.” Period.
Nikki Haley as she leaves the interview with Gov. Reynolds.
–Ron DeSantis, 44, the current governor of Florida. He seems to me to be a lower-voltage Donald Trump.
–Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 69, who is challenging incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden. RFK Jr. is a brilliant lawyer, writer and environmentalist with a checkered personal history of addictions, tragedy in his marriages, his nutty campaigns against COVID vaccinations, and his allegations about conspiracies in healthcare. Saturday night, columnist Doug Burns, of Carroll in western Iowa, and I were pondering whether RFK Jr. is more like former marginal presidential candidates Ron Paul or Ross Perot. I was frankly shocked at the big crowd Kennedy drew at Smokey Row, and that I recognized only a couple of people there. There seemed to be a lot of political newcomers from across the ideological spectrum.
Of course, the political heritage that RFK Jr. has is huge, and surely heavy at times.
His father was a legendary American who was a U.S. Senator, U.S. Attorney General and candidate for the presidency who was assassinated during his 1968 campaign. His mother Ethel Kennedy, now 95, is still one of the country’s greatest advocates for human rights and justice. He is the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., campaigning Saturday night at a packed Smokey Row Coffee.
Being able to see, hear and meet RFK Jr. on Saturday, when I had decided to start paying more attention to the 2024 presidential race, was in a weird way like completing a political circle for me.
“Your dad was one of my first political heroes,” I told RFK Jr. in a brief meeting Saturday night. “I hung out with his campaign a couple days in the spring of ’68. So how are you like him, and how are you different?”
He stepped back, ran his hand through his hair and said, “Interesting question.” He paused, then added, “Well, I hope there are similarities. There are probably some differences. And I hope I am living up to his ideals.”
I had hoped RFK Sr. would win that ’68 election, the first one in which I was eligible to vote. I helped the student newspaper team cover his speech at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where I was a junior. Then a week or so later, during my spring break vacation, I drove to hear him speak at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and wrote a column about that. It was a heady start for me in that political year.
So, I was crushed by his assassination in June, 1968, just as I’d been two months earlier when another of my heroes, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
It was a rough time for all of us in America – and beyond.
A surprise to me Saturday night is that former Congressman Dennis Kucinich, 76, of Ohio, is now the campaign manager for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Here he is shown speaking for Kennedy. Kucinich ran unsuccessfully for president himself in 2004 and 2008, and campaigned in Iowa then.
When I realized on Saturday that my 15th presidential election is now coming up, I took time to do my own voting scoreboard.
While I was raised a Democrat and have registered as one for most of my adult life, I did have 13 years as a registered Republican (1999-2012), and one recent election as a registered Libertarian (to support my county attorney, who is a Libertarian).
In presidential general elections since 1968, I’ve voted 10 times for the Democratic candidate, four times for the Republican candidate. Six times my candidate won, eight times my candidate lost.
What’s your own presidential election record?
I do love Iowa having such a special place in the U.S. electoral process.
I love our Iowa Caucuses.
I love the great thrills politics can give us.
And I accept that they can break our hearts, too.
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