Imperial Iowa

Do you care about Iowa? You better. The media demand nothing less than total engagement.

The big Iowa vote is almost here, and everybody has to care about it.

Do you care about Iowa? You'd better, friend. The media demand nothing less than total engagement on a campaign event that "could prove pivotal," according to a report on the front page of The New York Times.

Speaking of pivotal, I went into the kitchen Sunday to do some "puttering around." When I was a kid, my family used to talk a lot about puttering around because of a man I'll call Mr. Reuben, our next-door neighbor. Mr. Reuben appeared to spend every waking moment puttering around, mainly in the garage/driveway zone. We marveled at this, filled with admiration. Mr. Reuben raised puttering to an art form.

Nobody in America putters around any more. My mother reports that even Mr. Reuben isn't puttering much these days, and there are various theories as to why. I think he's inside, tracking the Iowa story. How can you putter around when something this pivotal is happening right in your own country?

But as of last Sunday, the gravity of the situation hadn't hit me yet. So I'm in the kitchen with the radio tuned to my favorite music station, and they're playing a fantastic Sammy Davis Jr. song. For puttering purposes, it doesn't get any better than Sammy Davis Jr. After a while, I'm moving into the really good space, the puttering nirvana that I imagine Mr. Reuben used to achieve every day, before Iowa came to town.

Then, bam, it's the top of the hour and the music cuts off so the station can switch over to news. You know what that means: The very latest on the situation in ... Iowa! It turns out that CBS Radio has interviewed all the candidates, and over the next few days America would have a chance to hear their actual words and thoughts just in case we missed them when they were published and broadcast pretty much around the clock for the past several months. I forget who came on first—Gephardt, maybe, and I think he was touting his union endorsements. It was brutal, trying suddenly to care, but I did my best.

So long, puttering. Hello, Iowa. They say Iowa's a nice, unassuming place, but I don't buy it. I've come to suspect that Iowa is a power-mad empire with ambitions to dominate every facet of life in America and maybe the world. There's mounting evidence that Iowa has entered into a secret nonaggression pact with the media. You Iowans smile sweetly for the cameras and give us a daily feed of homespun quotes, and we'll make you stars. If you're really good, we'll make you pivotal.

Why are the media desperate for us to care about Iowa? Because the media themselves care about Iowa, deeply. Journalists are members of a class of people who can't think about anything right now except Iowa. President Bush is also a member of this class: The New York Times reported last weekend that Bush is "wholly absorbed" by the presidential race. But there are average citizens in this class, too. Some Americans are so avid about presidential politics, they've made their own anti-Bush commercials and entered them in a contest, which naturally has gotten wide media coverage.

Still, the class of true political obsessives is tiny, and the media feel a little guilty about belonging to it, about behaving less and less like everyday people and more and more like the political operatives they cover. Any journalist with a brain knows that covering the Iowa vote is one thing, but covering it this much and this breathlessly, suggesting that the future of the Republic hinges on this one story, is really kind of dumb and pointless. Iowa doesn't decide anything—candidates have won Iowa and lost the nomination—and the media know this.

So they seek popular validation. That's why the message keeps coming at us, day after day, from every possible kind of news outlet: Care, care, care! Iowa, Iowa, Iowa! If enough people start caring, the coverage will have justified itself.

But there are signs the public is falling down on the job. This week, a Washington think tank, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released a study showing that the public is not following the campaign as closely as it could. "In general, Americans show little awareness of campaign events and key aspects of the candidates' backgrounds," the study said. Only 26 percent of the public knew that Dick Gephardt is a former House majority leader. "Most Americans are not familiar with the ins and outs of the campaign. Just a third say they have heard a lot about Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean."

The ignoramuses! The study did find one exception: "While the majority of Americans are at most marginally engaged in the Democratic primary process, a small number keep close tabs on campaign news and events. These people have been following the campaign closely, enjoy keeping up with election politics, and are familiar with all of the election events and facts asked about on the survey. Overall, they represent roughly 7 percent of the population."

Does this crowd sound familiar? Pew gives them a nice label: "Campaign News Enthusiasts." I scrawled in the margin, "Crazies." But then, from a journalistic point of view, this 7 percent, these campaigns-are-my-life junkies, are a mirror, and also a hope for the future—a brave new future in which everyone lives and thinks like a pol.

Be a pivotal American. Support the media. And by all means, care about Iowa.