Plain folks get sick of the circus

With Forbes ads trashing Dole on TV, the Republican race is turning off the conservative Mid-West
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CONSERVATIVE, traditional, mindful of history, the good people of Spirit Lake like to tell strangers how their town obtained its name.

Three centuries ago, so the story goes, Paleface Dove, the daughter of a Sioux chief, and White Star, a handsome Indian youth, fell in love. The chief disapproved of the match, so one summer's night the two young lovers eloped in a canoe. A storm arose, the canoe tipped over and they drowned. The next morning the tribe gathered on the shore and witnessed the spirits of the ill-fated couple ascending from the lake. The contrite chief christened the lake Minni-Wakan, which means spirit water.

Today the area's population is not much greater than it would have been in the time of Sioux. Barely 5,000 people live here all year round. But in summer, on a busy day, the number certainly rises - twentyfold. For, while the sea is more than 1,000 miles away in any direction, this is the beach resort of choice for the citizens of America's Mid-Western heartland.

In winter, however, the landscape undergoes a metamorphosis. Summer heat of 40C and above gives way to temperatures of 32 below. The jet- skis are gone and so is the water. Solitary men fish for perch through holes in the ice, pondering perhaps that had Paleface Dove and White Star made their escape in winter, they could have walked across the lake.

Pondering is something the people of Spirit Lake do a great deal of. Indeed, it is striking that in the face of seasonal invaders so crass, of temperature variations so violent and of the blandishments so crude they are being obliged to endure - right now - from the nation's presidential candidates, they should remain so resolutely reflective and mild.

For the cruellest season of all, the general election season, is under way. And every election year the race for the White House begins in earnest with the Iowa Caucus, a statewide straw poll among the faithful of each party to choose the candidate who will represent them in the November polls. The winner does not necessarily go on to clinch the nomination but victory does provide him with the kick-start, the buzz and the momentum to which all election candidates aspire.

It is for these reasons that the contenders for American politics' big prize have spent the last 12 months tramping around Iowa, shaking hands, kissing babies and, as the magic date, 12 February, draws nearer, crucifying their party rivals on the local airwaves with ever more desperate vigour. No challengers having emerged this time around to Bill Clinton, the Republicans have been conducting this public, uniquely American, civil war alone.

The spectacle has provided the inhabitants of Spirit Lake and nearby Okoboji with little cheer and much food for anxious thought. Solid Republicans, almost to a man, and woman, they suspect that Bill Clinton already has the 1996 election stitched up. Blessed with even tempers, uncluttered minds, material comforts and a quality of life which for most Americans exists only as a nostalgic dream, they are prey to deeper, non-partisan concerns. They sense that their political system, which they have been taught to believe is the best the world has ever known, is sliding into decay.

TAKE Dean Hummel, as solid and down to earth a conservative as you could hope to meet. A businessman-farmer aged 61, he runs 900 acres of prime land - complete with 2,400 hogs, cattle, crops of corn and beans, plus a profitable little enterprise on the side selling seed - with his two sturdy sons, Todd and Dan. The vast, flat plains on which his farm rests are icy as the Arctic tundra these days so Mr Hummel - bespectacled, silver-haired, sporting the regulation checked shirt - sits in his office monitoring on a computer screen the price of pork belly futures on the Chicago exchange. He is an affable individual, for that is the Iowan way, but mention politics and he despairs.

"Humungous corporations are taking over the farm business," he says. "We can't possibly compete when they own both the packaging and retail sides of the business, and when they manipulate the prices because they control the commodity markets too.

"We don't have a voice any more, and the political candidates are no help because our competitors are the same people who finance their campaigns."

Mr Hummel might be bitter about the political process, but he still retains a sentimental attachment to the Republican Party, on whose local central committee branch he served for many years. He would like to see Bob Dole, the senator for Kansas, become president. But he does not believe that he will.

"I'm from the old school. I believe you ought to earn your way to a higher position. And only Dole's done that. He's 73, and maybe too old, but the guy almost died fighting for his country; he's suffered all his life; he's been a senator for 30 years. He's the exact opposite of Clinton, who's a draft dodger and a womaniser.

But I don't think Dole or any of the other Republicans can beat him. I hear people talking - coffee shop talk - and they're saying the same thing, that Dole can't give a speech, that he can't beat Clinton, who knows how to say things. People look at the delivery and not at the substance and it's a hell of a pity, but that's the way it is."

Dean Hummel speaks for worried Republicans, and disenchanted voters from both parties, everywhere. Mr Dole, who is making his third attempt at the White House, looked the sure presidential nominee a matter of weeks ago. Now the polls show jittery Republican voters shifting their hopes, in what appears to be a flirtation born of anxiety, to Steve Forbes, a millionaire publisher of no charm whose chief attraction, in the absence of any political experience, resides in the fact that he brings novelty, and with it a straw of conservative hope, to the presidential race.

Lonnie Saunders, a lawyer who chairs the Dole for President campaign in Dickinson County, strove without too much conviction to argue his man's corner. "I can't agree with those who say Mr Dole's a no-hoper. He can beat Clinton: look at Whitewater, I'm convinced lots and lost more questions will emerge from there," he says, referring to the complex land investment deal that continues to dog the President. Yet, he concedes, "when you put Dole side by side with Clinton he has a difficult time measuring up: he's older; the campaign is taking its toll; Clinton is a better communicator."

Mr Saunders sat in an office of wood-panelled walls, the mountainous prototype of a corn-fed Great Plainsman. Perched at his side was a small, thin man more than twice his age dressed in a brown cardigan and a clubby green and blue tie. His name was Pete Narey, he was 75, the founder of the law firm, a US army veteran seconded to serve with British intelligence during the Second World War, and, by every account, the pillar, father- figure, benefactor and sage of the Spirit Lake community.

He is a Dole man, a moderate Republican who dislikes the Christian radical element in the party and goes by the Eisenhower dictum that a man must be liberal when it comes to human needs, and conservative in fiscal affairs.

"He is a not a good speaker and it will probably hurt him on election day but I think Mr Dole is a very solid person," says Mr Narey. "He's been under fire, and he has courage, and good sense, and I'm for him. I also know that a lot can happen between now and the election - a lot."

He knows too that a great deal has already happened in American politics worthy of graver concern than the sporting debate over who ends up winning the election.

"The worst thing is the growth of the money factor in our politics. Much more is being spent on media ads than in 1992 even, and maybe still more will be spent next time around. To run for office, unless you're a millionaire like Forbes, it is necessary to spend a great deal of time raising money. And you use that money to buy radio, television and newspaper space. And the point is then that you have certain special interests you are beholden to.

"It is not that the politicians themselves are more cynical, or corrupt," continues Pete Narey. "I think the people who run for office are basically decent. But they are swept along by the system. They want to do well for the constituents; to do well they must be elected, to be elected they must get the money! It doesn't mean they're bad people, but it does take the politicians further and further away from the people."

The same theme comes up again and again in exchanges with half a dozen other Republican supporters in Spirit Lake and Okoboji. When they talked about Clinton, Dole and Forbes the tone was lacklustre, the hopes thin. Educated observers of the national scene, they warmed to their subjects most when it came to discussing the way in which money and the simplistic TV advertising had corrupted a system that they once cherished.

Mike Stineman, a property developer and a supporter of the conservative Texas senator, Phil Gramm, has phoned up more than 120 locals in the last two weeks seeking to muster support for his man. He has found most people not merely undecided as to which candidate to pick, but uninterested, disappointed with the political game. Why?

"There's been a growing dissatisfaction since the advent of TV and all the negative advertising. It's money that's made politics the way it is. You would hope the politician would listen more to the 240 million people who don't contribute to their campaign... But they don't.

"It's ugly but no one's come up with a better system and what it means is that an awful lot of good people don't want to run because they have to spend most of their time raising money. And there can't be 10 per cent of that money that doesn't come with strings attached ... So, yes, the dollars: that is the issue."

It is not an issue which the politicians have shown much interest in addressing. Perhaps because they have failed to pick up the signals. Rick Ayers, the county chairman of the Republican Party, said that head office had warned him to prepare for a turn-out of 600 to 800 for the caucus polls in eight days' time. But he says he'll be amazed if more than 80 turn up.

The same pattern of uninterest and disdain may extend to the November election itself. Some Dickinson County residents said that, having considered it a duty all their lives to vote, they were considering abstaining this time around. If people such as these - blessed with even tempers, uncluttered minds and high quality of life - are thinking this way, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the American political system as a whole is experiencing a creeping crisis of confidence.

Especially when a man like Dean Hummel, a die-hard conservative partisan all his life, ventures a thought like this one: "There was an 11th commandment: 'Thou shalt not say bad things about other Republicans.' Well, that's changed. People don't care much about the politicians any more. They don't care. And I'll say this: it doesn't make a whole lot of difference whether they're Republicans or Democrats. It really doesn't. People just don't believe them, any of them."