ELECTION 2020

Journeys to the White House began with steps taken years ago in Iowa

In 1987, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden holds the then-1-year-old son of reporter James Q. Lynch after the senator insisted. (P
In 1987, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden holds the then-1-year-old son of reporter James Q. Lynch after the senator insisted. (Photo courtesy of James Q. Lynch)

Twenty-nine days of voting in Iowa come to an end Tuesday. But like the Chinese proverb that tells us a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden didn’t start on the path to the White House a month ago but with steps taken years, even decades, earlier.

Like many Iowa reporters, I’ve been along for many of the steps with both of these contestants. Although their destinations may have been clear in their minds, I didn’t always see their paths leading to those same terminuses.

My introduction to the “Malarkey Express” was back in 1987 at a pancake breakfast at the Elks Club in Iowa Falls. Some senator from Delaware was the guest of the local Democratic Party chairwoman. As a dutiful reporter, I was on hand. Because it was Sunday and involved breakfast, my wife and then-1-year-old son and I made it a family outing.

Biden dropped out of that race after he was accused of plagiarism, which at the time seemed to be a fatal injury to presidential aspirations.

Little did we know it would seem mild compared with the allegations — proven and unproven — that would dog future presidential hopefuls and presidents.

Biden’s personality, charm and gift of gab were on full display as he worked the room, moving from table to table to introduce himself in hopes of winning support in the 1988 caucuses.

He even provided babysitting for my wife and me. His daughter, Ashley, 6, who was traveling with him, stayed occupied while Dad worked by playing with our son. In a box of keepsakes, we have a Biden campaign card with her childish scrawl and signed by “Ashley’s Dad.”

We also have a picture of Biden holding my son. He insisted. The senator, not my son.

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In 2007, when Biden made another run at the Democratic presidential nomination, I brought that picture to a Cedar Rapids house party where he was speaking to ask for an autograph. He looked at the picture. Then at me. Back at the picture. At me. It took a minute before I realized he was trying to reconcile the picture of his 40-something self holding a toddler who now looked like a 50-something reporter. This business sure can age you, but not that fast.

I realized what he was thinking and explained that it wasn’t me in that picture. We had a good laugh and he autographed the picture.

Since then, I’ve covered Biden in Iowa a number of times when he was either participating in Democratic Party events or representing the Obama White House.

Where and when Trump’s journey to the White House began is open to debate, but it’s fair to say it wasn’t on the pancake breakfast circuit. My first encounter was back in 2015 when Trump, then much better known for his “you’re fired” line from his “Apprentice” television shows than his politics, flew his personal $100 million Boeing 757 into Des Moines and invited the media aboard for a news conference.

We were impressed with the high-grade white leather seats and the gold — enough to plate the outside of a Greyhound bus. It was all fun until some photographer’s tripod scratched one of the mahogany tables.

Trump was impressive in his own way. Among other things, he showed that he was as good at responding to questions with non-answers and hyperbole as more experienced politicians.

He was asked several “what if” questions about running and winning the caucuses. The only “if” in his mind was if he would run. After that, there was no more ifs as far as Trump was concerned. I had heard enough to know that — like most politicians Trump had an ego. So I tried a different tack.

I asked him who he would choose as a running mate not if, but when he secured the nomination. He liked that. For a brief moment, I was the teacher’s pet.

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In the spring of 2015, I interviewed Trump on his jet when he flew into Cedar Rapids and covered his remarks at a GOP fundraiser. It was, perhaps, a tamer version of what we’ve later come to expect of President Donald Trump.

“We’re being led by stupid people,” he said. “They didn’t read ‘The Art of the Deal.’ It was written by some guy named Trump.”

China, he said, is “sucking our blood” and he promised it would “pay a tremendous tax” for its currency manipulation.

Step by step, from pancake breakfasts and virtual meetups, from private jets and mega-MAGA rallies, Trump and Biden are nearing the end of their thousand-mile journeys.

Perhaps the only question is whether the last step will be Tuesday.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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