Losing Ground and The Iowa Caucuses

— Wednesday, January 20, 1988

James Rutenbeck asked if I could shoot for him in Iowa tomorrow. He has been filming a farmer-family in distress and close to losing their farm. The Ferraris are loosely related to the family in Maranello. Richard Gephardt’s campaign people chose their farm for a photo opportunity.

I taxied to Logan airport with the camera cases; James brought the Nagra and film stock. The flights were delayed; we pulled up to the Ferrari farm in Boone County at 2:30AM. The family woke up to greet us. John Sr. has been an active Democrat for many years and participated in many farm organizations. The Boone County organizer for Dick Gephardt, a man called L.A., chatted him up. As they talked, L.A. put forward the idea of the Gephardt visit, and it was arranged.

The rest of the family went back to sleep and John Jr. stayed up with us. He is 23, and an avid coon hunter (he showed us the stack of hides he was thawing out to sell and the many trophies his dogs won). He was psyched and rhapsodized about how network TV would be there and “You know the New York Times. ” He told us what had been happening.

Janice arrived last week, a pretty woman barely out of college, and one of Gephardt’s thirty advance people. “Only two of whom were over 30, none over 35,” she said with pride. After working on the short-lived Biden campaign, she hitched her star to Gephardt and spends lots of time on the phone planning event details, notifying people, arranging PA systems, getting security clearances, and calling people on voter lists.

I first glimpsed her in pajamas as she walked through my room on her way to and from the shower. She shared a bed with Baine, a young advance person from Texas, who arrived at the farm the day before to set up the physical side of the event. They sparkled with the breathlessness of working hard, coping with crisis, being where the action is, even being the action. In the heat of the political activity, they fell into each other’s arms. The rooms are small and the walls thin. I overheard her saying to Baine, “This morning will be a special memory.” The Ferraris were slightly scandalized; they found fault with Janice, not Baine. John Jr. allowed as how she’d been around the block a few times.

The volunteers are all young; it is an exciting thing to do; they are the front line. They don’t get paid; they sleep on floor of a big house in Des Moines when not out in the field. And they have tremendous resources at their disposal. They can phone up anything, including a helicopter if they get behind schedule. The candidate is just a machine by a week into this shuffle, it must be numbing. The energy is in the volunteers.

Way too early, had breakfast with John, Jane and son John Ferrari and Baine and Janice. Everyone was stoked on the day. Over bacon, eggs and weak coffee, they went over the plan. Gephardt’s motorcade would come around the machine shed, he’d get out, Congressman Bosco from California would introduce him, he’d speak, take so many questions, shake so many hands, and be off. Jane Ferrari was asked to make him something for lunch that he could eat from a plastic cup in the car on the way out. She made apple pie from her own apples, and farm chicken and homemade noodles. Gephardt was booked for five events this day. A poll had just put him at the top, and so more media than unusual was expected. Janice and Baine left at 8:00 to get the public address system and pick up the gallons of chili and coffee for the 200 farmers expected to attend. We loaded film mags and ventured into the bitter cold to film preparations in the machine barn.

This was the first day that all potential presidential candidates were getting Secret Service protection. Four agents arrived in a van—well groomed, sharply dressed, and each had a hearing aid in one ear attached to a coiled cord that went under their collar. Every so often, one would speak into their cuff link. They were presumably armed with equal discretion and efficiency. We walked out with them to the machine-shed/hay-barn. The big tractors and equipment had been driven out of the center. Three antique tractors of varying vintages were artfully arranged at the far end. The harvester combine was nearby on the side. The other side had all the clutter pushed up against it and separated from the event area by a row of hay bales. The hay rack from which the bales had been taken was placed near the combine to serve as a media platform for the network cameras. Five concentric semi circles of bales were arranged as seats. A platform of bales topped with a sheet of plywood served as a speaker’s platform. Very rustic, sweet smelling, efficient, and media friendly. A table was set up for serving coffee and chili. The lead agent described the event to the other three and designated posts, one at each door, and various other spots. He noted that the crowd would be interested farmers and no demonstrators were expected. They agreed among themselves to 15-minute rotations, so no one needed to stand out in the cold too long.

Meanwhile, the Ferrari’s friends and relatives were arriving and hanging out in the kitchen. John Sr. held forth about the farmers’ needs—the financial cards are arrayed against them, nobody cares, they are being run out of a business that they have been in for generations and to which they have no alternative. John Jr. talked about the incoming media and how his cousin was driving the press and would give them an ear full about how Reagan ruined the country these eight years. Jane Ferrari was offering chicken and noodles to all comers. Everyone was intent on what they wanted to say to Gephardt, and generally favored this candidate (in part because he was visiting them).

The phone rang with conflicting messages. Low cloud cover made it impossible to fly from Des Moines to Ames, so the entourage drove. As a result, they would arrive 15 minutes early and rescheduled a sit-down lunch in the house instead of a plastic cup on the way out.

Janice and Baine arrived back at 11:15 and put up flags and bunting, installed the public address system, and set out the chili and coffee. She was kidding around with Baine and said with mock firmness, “Get your finger out of my ass.” It was a comment overheard at the campaign house that became a riff. They were working fast and having a good time. Janice was struggling in the wind to get posters out of the car trunk and an old guy helped her. She grabbed the posters and was gone in a flash, leaving him calling after her– “You want me to close the trunk?”

Lisa, the Ferraris daughter, was a great ally. She made sure the Secret Service let us into the house for lunch when they were excluding the reporters and two video crews that showed up. We were the family’s film crew.

About two dozen relatives and friends showed up. The women gathered in the kitchen, cooking and keeping the weak coffee coming. The men clustered around the door with two secret service agents. It was a lively discussion—low key, somewhat jocular, but earnest discussion of local and national politics and the impact on the farm community. We should have recorded it. At one point a man close to me said—I favor Jesse Jackson, don’t see any reason we can’t have a nigger president. I was much taken back but realized he was just poking this Boston boy. A Secret Service man said, “Copy that.” and announced, “They’ll be here in five minutes.”

The motorcade, two police cars and four or five campaign cars, crunched to a halt in the drive. Gephardt entered the house with eight more Secret Service agents. We filmed his entry as fresh excitement rippled through the house. His speech writer was there, a calm older man. His campaign manager, a striking black woman named Donna Brazile immediately got on her phone. A well-dressed boyish staffer attended to his personal details. The kitchen was crowded. The Congressman ate heartily, especially the home canned green beans from the farm. He listened politely to everyone’s story; Lisa’s $4/hour job, John going to lose the farm and nobody in the city knows what the farmer goes through to make a crop, how John and Jane married at 35 and how the inheritance tax on his father’s farm was more than his father paid for it; Gephardt was sympathetic, agreeing and compassionate and quietly suggesting that he would do something. He was a good talker, fluid and measured; he sparkled. His feet, however, didn’t touch the ground; he wasn’t really there, he was reeling from too many intense personal meetings with too many people, and had gone on auto pilot. He went on about the food and had three helpings of beans, and two slices of pie. His handler came up and said, “Congressman, the people are waiting in the barn.” He rose, wishing for a few more minutes to relax over pie and coffee, and was helped into a red padded jacket, and checked his hair. With perfect hair, confident demeanor, and brand-new red farmer jacket, he looked costumed but appropriately so.

The motorcade advanced the 200 feet from the house to the machine shed; the TV cameras rolled (so did we). He entered the side door as planned, stood on the side, posing for pictures while Bosco of California introduced him, then he strode onto the straw bale platform and delivered a concise and beautifully delivered speech (memorized, but sounded fresh). His easy manner and 47-year-old good looks caused those present to compare him to JFK. He answered a few questions, shook a few hands, and moved to the door where his handler asked him to “Please put on this blue jacket, Congressman.” Dressed in a fresh look, he answered a few questions outside for the TV cameras, slipped into the car and the motorcade moved slowly off to the next stop, and the temper of the farm shifted down to a lower key. The journalists followed and one ran off the icy road and John’s brother fired up the tractor to pull him out.

Baine, Janice, and L.A. put the bales back on the hay rack and returned the barn to normal. Down came the flags and the PA system, the chili cups were collected. Janice asked for a boost getting up on the hay rack and held out her foot; Dave (the staunch anti-Reagan man) grabbed her by the butt and lifted her up that way—a moment that will be long remembered in legend and song. They were gone in an hour. We tried to get an interview, but they were under strict orders to be low profile; they were not supposed to exist because the public is supposed to perceive these events as purely spontaneous.

The Ferraris spent many hours rehashing the day’s events. They recalled each remark, articulating and solidifying their impressions. After much discussion of Gephardt’s character, humanity, and understanding the farmers’ needs, the conversation got around to Janice who had scandalized them with her cussing, vegetarianism, general ignorance and naiveté about their way of life, and morals. They were already missing her.

When the local news started, we were all watching two or three small TVs. There was no mention of the days’ event, local or national. A single generic shot, lasting less than six seconds on the ABC News, made no reference to where the shot was taken. The Ferraris felt gypped; they were just part of the daily fodder that fed the media machine which can only use a fraction of what is produced. The day was exhausting. It was a weird day. Nobody wanted it to end, but it had ended hours ago, and we all went to bed.

The cost is enormous. The campaign spends on travel, phones, meals, laundry for the entourage. The eight Secret Service were paid by taxed. Television and news outlets fielded video crews, photographers, and reporters. And exciting as it was, the Ferrari’s hospitality also has a cash and psychological cost. If all that money went directly to the Ferrari family, it might turn around their bankruptcy position. If Gephardt is elected, it will probably be too late for them or make no difference anyway. (Spoiler alert; He wasn’t.)

We visited with the Ferraris in the morning; they are such warm generous people. We filmed a few scenes of the farm in snow, packed up and headed back to Des Moines. Stopped near the airport at a roadside display of paintings on velvet; I asked the woman selling them if she or other local artists painted them and she said, “No, it’s a group of artists in Mexico.” Life is endlessly fascinating.

    —JMB

 

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