AMES, IOWA -- Anyone remember Iowa? Think hard. Here are some hints about why America shouldn't let it slip from mind.
We need the memory of Herbert Hoover, a local boy who made good, except some Iowans feel slighted that his birthplace -- restored and lacquered as a shrine -- does not attract more tourists.
We need its example of highway calm. The new speed limit here is 65 mph but electronic monitors on selected interstates are showing that the average motorist travels at 62.8 mph. Give Iowans the fast lane and they still won't use it.
We need Sen. Charles Grassley, the conservative who raises Yorkshires in the sties of New Hartford and hell with military waste and fraud in the sties of the Pentagon.
I was in Iowa about a week after the caucuses. Some kindly local folk, speculating on the presence of about 3,000 journalists five days before, guessed that I must have had my dates mixed up, which could happen, after all, since the caucuses are an 18-month spectacle. One codger, letting me know that no media madness would shock him, suspected aloud that I was really in Iowa to get a feel for the 1992 caucuses.
As the only outside journalist in the state -- I would have heard if another were here -- I explained that I enjoy visiting Iowa for its natural state of sleepiness.
Iowans I met the other day, here and in Waverly, were nodding off in post-caucus drowse. Well-deserved, for sure. They had had a year and a half of staying up late with candidates in their living rooms. Losing so much sleep induces forgetfulness, at least for remembering exactly what the caucuses were all about. Much of the media, and all of the politics industry, took the caucusing here seriously, but the talk I was hearing says that these quadrennial Monday nights out were like wintertime state fairs.
Instead of recalling who were the blue ribbon vote-getters, the banter was on the leading laugh-getter, Alexander Haig. One joke going around is that his 364-vote total was the same number of pigs he picked up on barnyard tours for camera crews. The other Haig laugher was his being a city bumpkin who didn't know that Iowans call their pigs hogs. If only Iowa had some nuke bases -- it's one of the few states with no military bases of any kind -- General I'm-in-Charge could have posed in front of silos for missiles, not sorghum.
Some Iowans had their sport with the media, not the candidates. At a caucus in Ames, one citizen spotted a network pollster at the front door passing out voter-preference cards. The citizen filled it in, then went out the back door and came around front for another card. The thrill of exercising heartland democracy was such that he went out the back door and around to the front for his third vote.
Like eroded soil on Iowa farmlands, memories of the caucuses are thin and getting thinner. A few more Haig-and-hog stories remain on the landscape but time's passing will blow them away, too. The sure benefit to Iowa is the $20 million that the state's development commission said was earned by the caucuses. High revenues for car-rental companies, hotels, button manufacturers and secretarial temp agencies were part of the haul.
The image of caucuses as light comedy is bolstered by the low regard for the two candidates -- Bruce Babbitt and Pete du Pont -- who took Iowans seriously by talking to them in specifics. Babbitt dared to go after entitlement programs, and du Pont, yanking the tail of Iowa's sacred cow, said it was time to cut subsidies to farmers. For such subversions, Iowa's Republicans told du Pont that even Pat Robertson, the Reverend Hurricane, was preferable. Babbitt's party told him it liked Richard Gephardt, the Democrat who supported Reagan economic programs but who has "matured" and is now voting another way.
In Iowa, that was the Iowa way. Then to New Hampshire for the New Hampshire way and, when the primaries and caucuses are finished in June, and the conventions conclude in July and August and the votes are counted in November, this will be politics the American way.
What has this chaotic system achieved? Here's one measure: In federal budgets from 1980 to the one proposed through 1992, outlays for military programs increased 54 percent per person, while those for programs for low-income families and children decreased 16 percent per person.
Caucusing Iowans slept through all this. Instead of giving the rest of the country a wake-up call, the voters here invited America to the national slumber party known as politics as usual.