DES MOINES -- Sen. Albert Gore, who would be president, says that Iowa is no place to begin the process of choosing a candidate.
I beg to differ.
Sure, I know that Iowa is Glocca Morra: no minorities, hardly any crime, the third-oldest state population, the leader in church-attendance.
But I say that Iowa deserves the first cut if only because we all benefit from this quadrennial exposure to a state where kindness is rampant, where there are documented cases of high-mindedness. Nowhere else do candidates get more thoughtful consideration. The benefit of the doubt is a way of life here.
Every four years, the national press corps rediscovers Iowa, and in the late-night sessions in the bars, interspersed amid talk of an inch or two gained here and there by one of the tightly bunched front-runners, someone wonderingly describes an encounter with the unprovoked, ungluing Iowa niceness which is impossible to avoid.
I guess you could meet a churl in Iowa, but you would have to go out of your way. It's like getting a badmeal in Italy. The odds are against it.
The voters seem to regard it as a duty, indeed a privilege, to answer questions put to them by total strangers. They don't just give you the name of their favorite, they give the reason. At a reception following the Des Moines Register's Democratic debate, I put the question to a young waitress. She responded, "Dukakis -- he puts government above politics."
If you think I exaggerate the friendliness of the natives, permit me to introduce a Des Moines taxi-driver named William Bates. He was in his Yellow Cab outside the Hotel Savery when I came out looking for transport to the First Federated Church, in search of Pat Robertson's "invisible army."
When he learned I was from out of town, he turned around, brown eyes brimming with cordiality, and said "Welcome to Des Moines." He told me without the slighest hesitation about his politics. A Democrat, a Gary Hart man. "I've hauled him in this cab," he said proudly. "I think he's a leader. Donna Rice don't bother me. I think he was set up."
He asked if I would mind if we stopped on the way to pick up another passenger headed for First Federated -- his handicapped friend Jan. When we got to Jan's apartment, Bates hopped out and went to her patio door and did a little rhythmic drumming on the glass. It seemed to me much pleasanter than blowing the horn. Jan had difficulty walking and difficulty talking -- she had to get everything out in one expelled breath. All the same, they had a jolly conversation. He helped her out of the cab, put her in the hands of an usher.
I asked the fare. Bates bowed and said grandly, "This ride is on me. It was an honor to have you in my cab -- you were so nice about letting me pick up Jan."
I am unaccustomed to princeliness of this order, especially when I have done nothing to deserve it. But he would have it no other way. I guess that noblesse oblige is a fairly common thing among Des Moines cabbies. I was told later the city sets aside a day to honor them.
Ipegged Bates for the ultimate Iowan, but Tom Oliphant of The Boston Globe told me on hearing my story that he wished to compete. One snowy day, he was the only reporter traveling in the Gephardt van through the middle of nowhere. His deadline came upon him. At the nearest farmhouse, he was told that the phone was out. Whereupon the woman of the house volunteered to drive him to Council Bluffs 30 miles away.
"A 60-mile trip," he said, still marveling. "And she wasn't even for Gephardt."
A local lawyer named Douglas Smalley, on the basis of a telephone call from Washington, offered to give me a guided tour of Des Moines' many evangelical and pentecostal churches. I mentioned that Iowans are extraordinarily civil. As a sincere Christian, he turned aside from this praise. He told me that some are oafs, too. His theory is that Iowa has an inferiority complex, being a small, flat state stuck in the middle of the country and with no scenic wonders. It tries to compensate with civility (something, I reminded him, that Indiana never thought of). I learned from Smalley that the one thing Iowans condemn is a want of cheerfulness. "Sometimes I get down in the mouth," he said ruefully.
My most unnerving encounter occurred at a senior-citizens center in Ames. Pat Robertson had just spoken, and as I was walking out I stopped beside a woman with a merry face and silver curls. She told me she was waiting for the governor of New York, but she didn't want to talk about that. She said, fixing her open gaze on me, that she thought seniors may be getting too much, requiring sacrifices from the young and the handicapped. "We have those lobbyists in Washington who go in there and ask for anything, and sometimes I don't think we need it all."
I stared at her. A member of a special-interest group, being disinterested?
Only in Iowa, I thought.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.