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June 23rd, 2010

Iowa’s Quiet Statesman Grows Louder

By James Johnson

States have different personalities. And voters often elect politicians who exemplify their state’s collective traits and characteristics.

New Yorkers, for example, consistently elect candidates with big egos, sharp elbows, and thick skin. The electorate from Manhattan to Albany to Buffalo seem to prefer the rock-em, sock-em, no-nonsense types who do not mind swimming with sharks and taking a roll in the mud-filled gutter to play in the arena where big-business clashes with big-labor, and where big-media plays a central role in the career of every politician.

Iowa politicians are usually different. At least the successful ones are. With its history of quiet, diligent, plain-spoken people, and its century and a half-long contribution to the overall American Experience, Iowa continues to send public servants to Washington with a quiet, humble, serious-minded work ethic.

New York has provided the nation with a long lineup of Yankee-esque politicians. A veritable Murderer’s Row of presidents, governors, senators, and even mayors, who seem larger than life.

Chester A. Arthur was one. His corrupt practices as New York City port authority boss got him fired by Democratic president Grover Cleveland his during civil service reform initiatives. But Arthur cunningly resurrected his career by finagling his way onto a national Republican presidential ticket and, with the assassination of James A. Garfield, became America’s 21st president.

Theodore Roosevelt was another. He never met a man whom he thought was his equal. And he left his post as assistant secretary of the Navy to lead an armed cavalry unit of Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War. Then, as president, he led another charge — a Progressive one against free enterprise. Ouch!

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another. He never considered polio to be a political impediment, just an unsightly handicap. So he disguised it. And after winning the governorship of New York and later the White House, he thought it nothing to break George Washington’s unwritten rule of presidents not running for a third term. Or, in his case, a fourth.

The final one I will mention is Ed Koch. This loud, brash, self-promoting megalomaniac, whose quirky smile and colorful comments as New York City’s Democratic mayor earned him the begrudging admiration of Republicans from across the country. And after his third term was finished, he retired to do a two-year stint on The People’s Court, and then become a perennial favorite among the talking heads on cable news programs. Who doesn’t love Ed Koch?

Other names — Nelson Rockefeller, Mario Cuomo, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg — all seem to indicate that New Yorkers generally like the bold, the loud, the impatient, the impulsive. Like taxi drivers in yellow cabs on 52nd Street.

But what about Iowa? What character traits personify her elected officials?

Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule. Just as all New York politicians are not like Theodore Roosevelt or Ed Koch, not all of Iowa’s elected officials reflect the notable mannerisms of her residents. No state is monochromatic.

But generally speaking, the characteristics that define Iowans are those that define the American Heartland — hard work, common sense, humble service, quiet sacrifice, dignity, and consistency.

Next month, United States Representative Tom Latham will turn 61. And as he looks to win re-election to a ninth congressional term this November, he still personifies these values just as much as he did when he was first elected in 1994.

In fact, he is turning heads in Washington for something rarely done by political veterans on Capitol Hill. He is moving more rightward all the time.

Longtime political observers in Congress attest that Latham is growing more conservative with each term. Rather than moving leftward, toward the political center, as most Republicans do, Latham is tacking to the starboard side of the political sea. And distinctively so.

This has many politicos scratching their heads, wondering why a representative that faces no real threat to re-election — and who is piling up victories with wider margins each time — does not position himself closer to the political middle, where he could gain the praise of the Washington press corps?

But they do not see what we see here in Iowa. They do not see what I saw last Saturday night, and have continued to see for the last several years. Namely, a growing concern about the future of the United States under a federal government that is sliding into a soft socialism that will eventually lead to a statist tyranny.

The answer to the question of why Tom Latham is growing increasingly conservative is… his grandchildren. Before he is anything else, Latham is a family man — a man who loves his wife Kathy, their four grown children, and his ever-growing group of grandkids, who are his biggest fans. And his most vulnerable.

At his annual summer picnic in Ames last Saturday evening, Congressman Latham got a little emotional during his remarks. It did not used to happen. But it is happening more and more lately.

Whether he discusses the economy, out-of-control spending policies, an ever-encroaching bureaucracy, or the emerging terrorist threat, Latham is speaking with a growing sense of “grandchild-consciousness.”

A man does not think about it very much when he is 44, which was his age when he entered Congress. But 16 years have passed. And the sound of little ones who want a hug and a cuddle from Grandpa get to him now. And he cannot shake the feeling that he is partially responsible for the kind of country that they will inherit as adults.

Tom Latham is not given to theatrics. But his voice and his face and his eyes say more than his carefully chosen (and usually few) words would express. Those who listen to him hear the words behind the voice. And it is growing louder with each speech.

Iowa’s senior congressman sees liberty and opportunity and prosperity and security slipping away from his grandchildren, and he is saying, “Not on my watch!”

Iowans may not be as boisterous as New Yorkers. But we love our children — and our grandchildren — just as much. And that means when it comes to securing their future happiness and security, even a quiet statesman can grow loud.

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About the Author

James M. Johnson
James M. Johnson is the president of the Iowa Republican Assembly, which works to get constitutionally minded conservatives elected to leadership positions in the Republican Party, and to elective office on the local, state, and federal level. He has worked on over 50 political campaigns and holds an M.A. in public policy with a concentration in political communication.

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