They want to know Iowa



Begging your indulgence for my apparent obsession with the Pulitzer Prize. It is hard not to be. It is all I can think about. One day it’s The Washington Post calling. The next day it’s Japanese public television, Al Jazeera English or Bob Garfield from National Public Radio. As you read this, I am a panelist in Washington, DC, for the National Press Club’s World Press Freedom Day.

Three weeks ago I was an obscure country editor. A nobody except in my mind.

Two weeks ago we started getting calls from big book publishers and Hollywood producers. And agents.

So, yes, we’re trying to calm down and get back to country newspapering.

But it is hard to be a nobody right now, and I hope to use it for Iowa.

It doesn’t seem that the other Pulitzer winners were getting the attention that we were.

Of course it’s because we’re from nowhere.

One thing I learned from all this is a yearning among people in New York and Los Angeles to know more about the heartland.

They want to know about farmers. They want to know about small towns and immigrants. They want to know that things are okay in the bucolic place they might imagine.

They want to understand why Iowa and Ohio went for Trump, though they may confuse the two.

They want to know about their food and how it is produced. They want to know about the tradeoffs with the environment. They are pushing food companies to become more humane and sustainable, and they are pointing their attention at row-crop production agriculture and corn-based ethanol. Farm interest groups are well aware.

But it goes way beyond the political.

People who have lost a sense of place, of the ideal, want to draw it from Iowa or southern Minnesota. They know this is not the rural South or West but it is the Great Midwest about which so many know so little. But many of their myths are wrapped up here, like the family farm and the butcher on the corner.

JD Vance caught that wave with his best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy, in which he chronicles the white voter of Appalachia and his frustration, his religion, his culture and his distrust for institutions.

He has been called a false prophet and a soothsayer from left to right. Vance is all over the TV screen on the cable news talk shows. He has all his teeth and a Yale Law degree after a childhood in Kentucky and rust belt Ohio.

He works in investments now in San Francisco but tells the stories of the boys back home.

People eat it up with a spoon.

Iowa is different. That’s another thing I observed.

It was a state of independent landholders who fought like no other state in the Civil War, defending their land.

It was a state dominated by small, prosperous towns and a few big “cities” where the sidewalks rolled up at 10 p.m.

It was the land of River City and the Music Man.

It’s sort of close to Oz, but with less dust and a better coat of paint on the barnyard fence.

Certainly not Appalachia. We build John Deeres here.

It has been known as a tolerant and friendly place where civil liberties reign supreme. “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.” Beat that for patriotism.

They remember the Farm Crisis and they have an inkling that things have changed dramatically in rural Iowa over the past 40 years. They have heard about large numbers of immigrants moving into the Midwest to work in agriculture and food processing, and they wonder how all that works out.

They are learning about the linkages between corn and the river, ethanol and the Gulf of Mexico, and declining fortunes in rural communities.

And they are learning that Storm Lake is growing, that we are optimistic about the future, and that Iowa will swing back as it always has from its lurches toward the radical right or left. We will learn more sustainable approaches to the landscape and implement them. We will make immigrants our friends, as we do in The City Beautiful. Lots of good people want to hear that.

They want to understand why Iowa voted for so vulgar a man. They could understand Kentucky, but Iowa?

That’s a compliment to a state with the highest literacy rate and the lowest abortion rate in America.

While the interest is there, let’s show them what Iowa is actually about. That’s what I hope to do during my moment of fame.