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Iowa's Butter Cow Lady and her Butter Jesus. Lipitor not included.

Channel Surfing
The Other Iowa Caucus

I have very good memories of Iowa, and not just because, as Kerouac said, “the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.” I’ve never been to Des Moines, but I have been to the Iowa State Fair, where all of Iowa—as opposed to a measly 6 percent of it—caucuses for ten days every August, including all the girls in Des Moines and the mother of all girls: the Butter Cow Lady. That’s Norma Duffy Lyon, who built massive, 600-pound cows out of butter, along with Last Suppers and other mammary snapshots of Christian sex symbolism and drew more people to her artery lapping displays at the fair than Thursday’s political caucuses will statewide, for good reason: she was more interesting. (Sarah Pratt replaced Lyon, who’s approaching 80, in 2006. And for you guys worried about wasting 600 pounds of butter, or enough, the state fair tells us, to butter 19,200 slices of toast, we’re also told that the butter is recycled for “up to ten years.”) So sometime Thursday night I’ll tune in for a minute or two to see which of the Republicans—the two brutes, the two mullahs and the two bores—and which of the Democrats—the hawk, the harpy and the hair guy—will have won the other caucus, but I’m more curious to see how Leno and Stewart will manage without writers. We can only dream of ever seeing our political candidates go unscripted for 48 minutes.

On December 28 the Times ran one of the more telling graphics of the electoral campaign so far, as close to a deconstruction of the candidates’ inner demons as we’ll get despite the strait-jacket scripts. The graphic scaled four or five words each candidate used in TV ads through December 23. Clinton for example, used “change” 10,448 times, “health” 10,255 times, “Iraq” 2,294 times and “middle class” 3,508 times, so “change” looked fattest. Not too surprising: Clinton wants health to be her driving issue and would rather not be reminded of her Iraq votes too often. But “middle class”? Ah: she’s trying to sound the John Edwards theme of a two America without seeming as divisive.

I’m not suggesting that Edwards is being divisive. The divisiveness is created by the problem he’s pointing out. But we live in a culture that likes its myths untampered with, so Edwards is perceived as divisive for talking of two Americas. Clinton is merely protective, mother-hen like, of the middle class, without projecting the Edwards aura of a class war.

Obama’s fattest word? “People.” Fitting enough for the least substantial candidate of the bunch, as in “I’m a people person.” (Get this man a pageant.) His other words: “believe,” “change,” “education,” “united” (not clear if he means the airline or Manchester’s football club) and “war.” My wife Cheryl tells me that she's beginning to lean toward Obama because of his love of Nutella on toast, a fair enough reason to distinguish riff from raff. Then there’s John Edwards with “worked” in leading position, appropriately in the past tense, “health” in second, then “mills,” which is to Edwards what 9/11 is to Giuliani, and in fourth position, spoken 3,040 times, “Elizabeth,” because nothing says President like a good daily dose of profiteering therapy at his wife’s expense.

Onto the felons. Giuliani’s four words, in order of gregariousness: Taxes, New York (to remind us that he once tried to run something other than plungers up suspects’ asses), English (English?) and dictators, with whom he’s naturally and more than intimately acquainted. There’s one of the two mullahs, Mitt Romney, who gives us more “change” (spoken 16,568 times) but coming in second with this election season’s biggest bigotry-baiting non-issue, “immigration” (11,871 times), then business (don’t expect Romney to catch the irony of baiting you with “immigration” then turning around and cozying up to your erogenous zones with “business”) and finally, “economy.” Mike Huckabee, the other mullah, gives us the predictable reel of creed-molesting with, in that order, “believe,” “family,” “faith,” “border” and “christ.” God forbid Christ were to cross that Mexican border (as he very might if Dostoevsky was around and rewriting his Grand Inquisitor chapter). Huckabee would be first among Minutemen to shoot Christ in the balls then preach the American dream at his next campaign stop.

Finally, the fading demon himself, John McCain. His biggest word? And no, this is not a joke: “angry.” The others—conservative, wasteful, Iraq and Rumsfeld—are almost last-century).

Compared to that, who’ll still claim that the Butter Cow Lady, who managed to land herself on Letterman back in the 80s, isn’t more interesting, or at least more durable in the American imagination than, say, a Mondale or a Mike Huckabee?

Then again, it was also at the Iowa State Fair on an August afternoon five years ago that George Bush said, close enough to her I’m sure that the Butter Cow Lady smelled the manure, “I believe, as sure as I’m standing here, that if we remain tough and strong in the war against terror, that we’ll bring peace to the world. And that by being steadfast in our love, we can achieve a peace that’s important for future generations of Americans, but equally as important for future generations of children growing up all around the world.” He was that very month finalizing plans for the invasion of Iraq and the many gifts to Iraq’s children, and others, that steadfast love resulted in. “And I know, here at home,” he continued, “I know, here at home, that we have a chance to change America for the better. There are pockets of despair and hopelessness in this land of plenty. There are people who really wonder whether or not the American experience is meant for them.”

Five and a half years later, he’s made sure that it won’t be.

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