David Frum: The shame and disgrace will linger
At the fair this weekend, the 20 candidates took turns speaking on the Des Moines Register soapbox. On Friday night, they all hauled 100 miles up the highway to Clear Lake for an event called the Wing Ding. The dinner, which featured five-minute presidential speeches, took place inside the Surf Ballroom, the last venue that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens played in 1959 before their plane crashed in a field a few miles away. On Friday, a couple of hundred Democratic activists picked through sloppy joes and baked beans, waiting to be wowed. (The candidates did come together to hold hands in a brief moment of silence for the latest shooting victims, and performed for the cameras in the plaza next to the large record-themed memorial to the dead musicians.)
“It’s harder to smile these days,” former Housing Secretary Julián Castro told me. “It’s harder to smile because of everything that has happened. There’s a darkness that this president has created for a lot of people, and what happened the other day in El Paso was just one more example of the times that we’re living in and the lack of leadership that we have that’s supposed to try to make it better.” Castro was headed to meet his family at the cow-milking barn ($3 a pull, though he didn’t go for it himself).
Gillibrand also came to the fair with her family, and preempted her stump speech on the soapbox by introducing her son, Henry, who in turn introduced the giant blue stuffed sloth, Blueberry, he’d won at a Frisbee game. A little later, Henry, who had a special Director of Fun T-shirt printed for him by the campaign, made another cameo during an appearance she recorded for CBS. Gillibrand’s husband, Jonathan, drove the family around the state in an RV. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is using one too. Harris pulled into Iowa on a bus wrapped in a three-color logo of her last name. It basically functioned as a rolling interview studio, shuttling her over four days from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, mostly for the sake of claiming the gimmick.
Gillibrand handed her dripping ice-cream cone to an aide as she and I spoke. “There’s an ever-present anxiety, because [Trump has] put us at such risk in so many ways that people really do fear the future,” she told me. It can be hard to focus on fair games a few hours after speaking at a quickly organized presidential forum on gun violence. “You do have to separate it,” she said.
Then she was off to see the butter cow, which was accompanied this year by a butter Big Bird, a butter Oscar the Grouch, and a butter Cookie Monster, watching a butter TV.
The only major candidate who didn’t come to Iowa this weekend was former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, who scrapped his trip to continue visiting the families of shooting victims in the El Paso area, where he lives. A piece of black tape covered his name on the official posted schedule for the speeches at the fair. He sent a video message that played on-screen at the Wing Ding dinner: “I’m sad that I can’t be with you in person,” but “I hope to see you in the very near future.” Meanwhile, O’Rourke shaped the weekend from a distance: After he cursed and called Trump a white supremacist earlier in the week, many reporters spent their time at the fair asking other candidates whether they agreed with his use of the term, the latest instance of the yes-or-no question that has become a Twitter-friendly staple of the campaign trail.