DUBUQUE — A few blocks to the east the Mississippi River is running high and hard toward the Gulf of Mexico. In an old building downtown the early afternoon sun is streaming through ceiling-high windows, moving slowly across the narrow-planked hardwood floor. The place has the feel of one of those buildings from more than a century ago where men in funny hats met in their private clubs, Freemasons maybe.
It was a time before women were allowed to vote. It was a time when the poet and essayist Walt Whitman wrote in his “Democratic Vistas” that “We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men.” I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of the ghost of Whitman in the audience in recent Senate hearings. You know the ones, the two that gave us Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Oh my. Now, where was I?
Oh yeah, more than 300 people filled the hall, waiting for a candidate for the U.S. presidency to arrive, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of nearby Minnesota. Klobuchar entered from behind but the crowd sensed it immediately, offering a standing ovation to someone who hadn’t yet spoken a word. It’s a good omen for women, no matter your party.
After shaking a few hands and posing for the ubiquitous selfies, Klobuchar made her way to the front of the hall. What in the world do people do with their selfies? As an old man not on social media with only a handful of friends I can only imagine. Hey friends, here’s me with Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Look, we’re both smiling because she’s so happy to be in a photo with me!
Most politicians speak at a level a notch or two above one’s normal voice. Drives me crazy. I have covered many politicians in my years and the only politician who totally drew me in by his speechifying was Bill Clinton, many years ago. If Shakespeare had grown up in Arkansas his muse would have been Clinton, a man who, on his good days, would set aside his notes and fall in to a southern preacher cadence. I wasn’t a huge fan, but the man could flat out do it.
So can Klobuchar. She spoke in a voice one might use across the dinner table, intimate, funny, sincere. She spoke of big pharma, of our crumbling infrastructure, of our lack of digital privacy, and of immigration. In Midwestern cities west of Chicago immigration is something different, it’s folks fleeing the violence of big cities to find a better life in small-town America.
Dubuque is a city where cross burnings have occurred as recently as 2016, emblematic of racial tensions that harken back many years. Many have worked very hard to ease or erase these tensions but they continue. The only person of color in Klobuchar’s gathering was a young woman filming the event for CNN.
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Anyway, Klobuchar was impressive. Her speaking is flawless, no um’s, uh’s, well’s, so’s, none of the usual place-markers to which most of us fall prey. In addition she told a couple of humorous stories and, like a good teacher, informed her audience about a monopoly-busting group of farmers in Minnesota and Iowa in the 1870s. It was called the Granger Movement, a movement begun when farmers realized the railroads and grain elevators in the Midwest were screwing them. Some things never change.
So that’s it, my short report on one of many who are showing up out here, folks with high-powered academic degrees, well-meaning people who want our votes, our support, our cash. Near the end of her talk Klobuchar said, “This is about renewing the heart of our democracy.” It’s not Whitman, but not bad, not bad at all.
• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.