Sunday, August 30, 2009

Edward Kennedy's Iowa Connection

I met Senator Edward Kennedy only once—at a farm in eastern Iowa during the summer of 1972. I was working for Dick Clark, who had been administrative assistant to U.S. Representative John C. Culver, and was running against Senator Jack Miller. Clark would win the seat in November, due in part to support from the Kennedy family.

Culver had been Ted Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard, and their friendship survived over the decades. When Culver entered politics, he did so with the wholehearted support of the Kennedys. In 1966 I rode with a group of Iowa City Democrats to see Robert F. Kennedy in Marion, Iowa, where he appeared with Culver. (I and most of the other Iowa Citians were disappointed with RFK because he had not yet broken with Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam.) Many of the Iowa Democratic congressmen who had been swept in with the 1964 Johnson landslide were swept out in 1966. But not Culver, who was able to fight off a Republican challenge in his northeast Iowa Second District. He stayed in Congress until 1975, when he won the seat vacated by Senator Harold Hughes.

“Iowa will go Democratic,” went the saying, “when Hell goes Methodist.” In 1975 Iowa had two Democratic senators with Kennedy connections. The moderate Republican governor, Robert Ray, got most of his ideas from the state Democratic platform. Both houses of the legislature had Democratic majorities. Apparently there were a lot of benighted souls in Bible study and prayer groups.

That progressive era in Iowa (and national) politics was short-lived. By 1978 Clark lost to Roger Jepsen, a conservative Davenport lawyer, whose victory foreshadowed the disaster of 1980. John Culver was challenged by Representative Charles Grassley of New Hartford. It was the year Culver’s Kennedy connection hurt him. Grassley’s campaign ran ads saying that when Edward Kennedy returned from Chappaquiddick, the first person he called was his old Harvard roommate.

For liberal Democrats like me, 1980 was Alaric’s sack of Rome. But the barbarians called themselves Christians,* and they swept into office with a passion born of religious fervor. Grassley became Iowa’s junior senator. In Indiana, where I now live, Senator Birch Bayh, the man who had pulled Edward Kennedy from the 1964 plane crash that nearly killed both of them, lost to a conservative congressman from Huntington, J. Danforth Quayle. Even New York, that hotbed of liberalism, elected conservative Republican Alfonse D’Amato to the Senate. And of course, the nation sent Ronald Reagan to the White House--a man who called the Vietnam War a “noble cause” and proclaimed that [our democratic] government was “the problem.”

Today, John Culver’s son Chet is governor of Iowa and Birch Bayh’s son Evan is junior senator from Indiana. Both men are up for re-election in 2010, as is Charles Grassley. We Midwesterners should honor Edward Kennedy’s memory by re-electing Culver and Bayh while sending Grassley back to New Hartford.

*Actually, Alaric's Visigoths called themselves Christians, too--they were Arian Christians who saw Jesus as divine, but lesser than the Father.


Elizabeth said...

Wow. What an important bit of history you were literally in the midst of. Thanks for the "lesson." I always love to read your posts, feeling edified in a perfectly personal way...

Charles Gramlich said...

When Hell goes Methodist. I never heard that but it's hilariouis.