The Good Old Days of Caucus Press and Politics in 1976
By Herb Strentz
Retired Dean, Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Caucus-wise, our arrival in Iowa was well timed—the summer of 1975. That, of course, was the lead-up to the pivotal 1976 Democratic caucus and the victory of “Jimmy Who”—the fellow from Georgia who with 10,764 votes would finish second to Uncommitted at 14,508.
People-wise, I fared even better. As the new dean of the Drake University School of Journalism, I soon became acquainted with two of Iowa’s finest journalists—then and forever—John McCormally, then editor of the Burlington Hawk Eye, and Gil Cranberg, of the opinion pages of the Des Moines Register and Tribune.
The caucus and the people meshed nicely. Mac was among the first editors in the nation to endorse the candidacy of Gov. Jimmy Carter. Gil was already well recognized and respected for commentary that would bless readers for 60 or more years—busy still in retirement at age 90 in Sarasota, FL, he recently alerted voters to the dangers of “Electile Dysfunction” in his blog “The Truth Is.” More about that later.
John McCormally died of cancer at age 71 in 1993. He had come to the Hawk Eye in 1968 from Hutchinson, Kansas, where his paper, the News, had won a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service in 1965 for news articles and editorials on the apportionment of the state legislature. In Iowa, he soon became a leader of the then Iowa Daily Press Association and was among the founders of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. And that was around the time when he was the first editor in Iowa, and perhaps in the nation, to endorse Carter. In his column of Dec. 20,1974, McCormally began: “I reserve the right to change my mind several times between now and November 1976, but as of now, I’m for Jimmy Carter for president. And if I had to decide today, I’d round out the ticket by teaming the outgoing governor of Georgia up with the in-coming governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso, for vice president.
“That gives you a ticket nicely balanced, north and south, male and female, with executive experience, the right touches of liberalism without being suicidally radical. Best of all, neither of them has ever given the impression they thought they were God Almighty. “That’s why neither of them has impressed you much. They haven’t yet been remanufactured by the media and put on sale as the saviors of mankind and leaders of the free world. How faithful I remain to them will depend a lot of how successfully they resist the determination of the icon makers to turn them into plastic persons.”
The full column (see below) is refreshing to read more than 40 years later because it speaks to all our hopes regarding who sits in the Oval Office, a position that Harry Truman called “the most important office of government in the history of the world.” That daunting characterization is perhaps why Gil took the caucuses far more seriously than most journalists, who often bemoaned the fact that candidates like Al Gore, Ed Muskie, Bill Bradley, George W.H. Bush weren’t as entertaining as some of today’s presidential aspirants are.
A few days after Carter was crowned the winner in the 1976 Democratic caucus, in a Register editorial of Jan 21, 1976, Some Voters Spoke, Gil wrote: “The earliness of the Iowa caucuses and the relatively few who participate flaw them as devices for expressing opinions about presidential candidates. Iowa got a lot of attention out of its early caucuses, but the presidential nominating process would be better served by improving the method of selecting Iowa’s national convention delegates and staging it later in the year.” A follow-up on Jan 25 said that 1972 caucus results cautioned against reading too much into this year’s results. Four years before, Sen. Edmund Muskie had won the Democratic caucuses, only to lose the party nomination to Sen. George McGovern. “So voters and analysts shouldn’t read too much into last week’s caucuses…(A)llegiances can shift between now and late spring when the (convention) delegates will be chosen… “It’s going to be a long season for politicians and the smart people are the ones who aren’t rushing in to interpret Iowa’s game opener…”
But, of course, dozens of pundits—smart and otherwise—did rush in and continue to do so in crediting 1976 as a pivotal year for the caucuses and Iowa’s status as a winnower of presidential wannabes.
Over the decades, Gil’s criticism of the caucuses was mostly that the Iowa caucus did not have the attributes of a primary or general election—ease of access to all voters in the course of a day, availability of absentee ballots etc. But, of course, such add-ons would blur the distinction between Iowa being first in the nation (as a caucus) and New Hampshire being first in the nation (as a primary).
Gil wanted too much rationality—a far cry from the Democratic caucus and its math of which candidates are viable to earn tentative support from possible delegates to the party’s state convention.
But Gil’s dismay almost always is offset by his whimsy. Which brings us back to Electile Dysfunction and Gil’s opening line in that blog: “If you have suffered an election for more than four years, cease all electoral activity and seek help immediately…Electile Dysfunction is exacerbated by election analysts in urgent need of treatment for overactive blather.” (The blog is at http://www.thetruthis2.blogspot.com/
A final note: Thanks to McCormally’s grandson, Iowa Assistant Attorney General John McCormally, for providing the text of his grandfather’s endorsement column and correspondence from President Carter that spoke to his affection for the first editor to endorse him.
McCormally endorsement of Jimmy Carter:
The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Jimmy Carter For President …
December 20, 1974
I reserve the right to change my mind several times between now and November 1976, but as of now, I’m for Jimmy Carter for president. And if I had to decide today, I’d round out the ticket by teaming the outgoing governor of Georgia up with the in-coming governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso, for vice president.
That gives you a ticket nicely balanced, north and south, male and female, with executive experience, the right touches of liberalism without being suicidally radical. Best of all, neither of them has ever given the impression they thought they were God Almighty.
That’s why neither of them has impressed you much. They haven’t yet been remanufactured by the media and put on sale as the saviors of mankind and leaders of the free world. How faithful I remain to them will depend a lot of how successfully they resist the determination of the icon makers to turn them into plastic persons.
Liberals will consider Carter’s first liability his southern address. I shared that bigotry once myself, distrusting anyone from he South. But if recent events have taught us anything, it is that, block for block, there are more rednecks in Boston than there are in Atlanta.
The other thing that disenchants the kingmakers is that Carter just doesn’t look like king making material; it is safe to say that most people still have never heard of him. He doesn’t give any assurance of “generations of peace” or that his administration will pro-duce the greatest events since creation.
Which is all in his favor. If there’s anything we don’t need, it’s another superman. We need to start out with the premise—which we abandoned with Coolidge that all we need for president is someone capable of managing one of the three branches of government for four years, with the generally accepted minimum of honestly and ability that is expected of all of us on our jobs. If we luck out and do better than that, it’s a welcome bonus. In fact, the less we expect of the president, the more attention we will pay to the performance of the congress and judiciary and the state governments and the business conglomerates that own the country, all of which affect our daily lives far more than any president.
Still, we want a president who sets an acceptable tone. If he is too obviously a charlatan, like Johnson, too obviously a crook, like Nixon, or too obviously a dodo, like Ford, he detracts from the overall performance, the way an ugly drum majorette would spoil the music of the best band.
Carter’s an appealing fellow. There’s an air of decency, a disarming simplicity, about him that’s long been lacking in Washington. He has a varied background: Annapolis graduate, practicing scientist, peanut farmer, and politician.
He still needs to be measured against whoever else, in either party, comes on, but for now, I think he’s the man to beat.
And for the benefit of the female chauvinist piglets, I wouldn’t care if the ticket were reversed.