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April 27th, 2010

Movie Review: First Stop, Iowa

Obama IowaAustralian broadcaster, author and film producer John Barron was at the Varsity Theater in Des Moines Friday night for the American premier of his documentary, First Stop, Iowa: How One Small State Came to Have a Very Big Say in Who Becomes President of the United States.

Barron and co-producer Rebecca Glenn followed the campaign and caucus process in Iowa during 2007 and 2008 focusing on the Democrat candidates who ran for the nomination. They tell the story against the backdrop of events 40 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, followed by the assignation of Sen. Robert Kennedy two months later on the night he won the California Democratic primary, and then the Democratic National Convention which took place during August in Chicago.

Film clips from King’s funeral, of Kennedy bleeding to death on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and of anti-war protesters clashing with Chicago Police on Michigan Avenue outside the 1968 Democrat Convention along with interviews with Sen. George McGovern and others who were present in Chicago are used to explain how the Iowa Caucuses rose to national prominence.

Beleaguered by the Viet Nam War, President Johnson had decided to not seek the nomination. After Kennedy’s death in June of 1968, the Democrat convention came down to a choice between McGovern, Senator Eugene McCarthy, and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. The process of selecting Humphrey over McGovern or McCarthy was contentious and decided in classic Chicago political style with backroom negotiations by party elites. The decision was then ratified by conventioneers who were primarily white, middle-aged and middle-class men. The process was highly charged, not very democratic and needed to be changed.

The documentary, however, doesn’t venture into that part of the story, about the reforms made by the National Democratic Party in their rules concerning caucuses, primaries and conventions. The film fails to explain why Iowa Democrats moved the date for their caucus to January 24 in front of the New Hampshire primary, and glosses over how Iowa’s caucus process gained national prominence in 1972 when Eugene McCarthy came in a strong second to Ed Muskie and went on to capture the party nomination. Since 1976, because the Iowa Democrat and Republican Caucuses are held before any state primaries, Iowa has gained recognition for its “first in the nation” status as a bellwether. But so?

First Stop, Iowa doesn’t really cover the history and development of the Iowa Caucuses over the past forty years, or the differences between the Democrat and Republican Caucuses. In fact the film virtually ignores anything that deals with the two-party system, focusing instead on all things Democrat. First Stop has a brief clip of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter talking about how he won Iowa and how that is important because Iowa is the “first” in the nation, but then fast-forwards from 1976 to 2007 to focus on the run-up to the 2008 Democrat National Convention and the myriad of Democrat candidates who came to the Hawkeye State to compete – Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson Tom Vilsack.

From this point on the film is not about the Iowa Caucuses process but rather the importance of grassroots mobilization and retail politics in advancing a candidate, focusing specifically on the election of Barack Obama, on his campaign, his organization and his volunteer base. Winning the White House becomes a high stakes winner-takes-all game where “money, mobility and motivation” become more than a process of neighbors meeting with neighbors to talk politics in January.

Viewers will see images of Iowa corn fields in late summer and corn-fed Iowans eating food on sticks while strolling the promenade at the Iowa State Fair. There is a clip of two Iowa farmers both attired, stereotypically, in bib overalls admiring a new tractor, and one of Iowans “voting” with corn kernels dropped into Mason jars for their favorite Democrat and Republican candidates. There are snippets of candidates giving their stump speeches on the Grand Concourse during the fair, and some footage of the Democrat debate held at Drake University.

But the film is not so much about the unique democratic process of the Iowa Caucuses or their real influence on the national political scene. The film is really about Barack Obama and how he won the 2008 Iowa Caucuses and then went on to win the nomination of the Democrat Party and become president. Even the film’s logo, curiously, is a knock off of the iconic Obama “O” rather than an original emblem that graphically conveys the essence of the caucuses.

There is one brief visual reference of the winner of the Iowa Republican Caucus, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, shown on the front page of the Des Moines Register next to the photograph of then Illinois State Sen. Obama the morning after both men won their parties caucuses. Other than that, the film has a blind eye for all things Republican.

The film draws on interviews with former University of Iowa political science professor and director of the Hawkeye Poll, David Redlawsk, now with Rutgers University, Nancy Bobo, one of Obama’s key Iowa organizers, veteran political journalists David Yepsen and Mike Glover, and pollster John Zogby. There are many familiar scenes for anyone from Central Iowa, but the film fails to capture the real story of the Iowa Caucuses.

The film makers created First Stop, Iowa to explain to an Australian audience how one very small state with only 3 million people situated in the heartland of America —which lacks a diverse racial, ethnic and urban population, and where only 10 percent of voters participate— came to have a very big say in who becomes president of the United States.

First Stop, Iowa touches on how far the nation has come since the assignation of Dr. King and the tumult of 1968 to the election of the first African-American president. It does an interesting job of weaving together many historic video clips and of documenting Barack Obama’s rise from the Illinois state house to the White House, but looking from the inside of the caucus process, as an Iowan, First Stop falls short of its goal.

First Stop, Iowa will be at the Varsity Theater, 1207 25th St., Des Moines, through Thursday. Show times are 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. with matinees at 1:30 on Saturday and Sunday.

Photo by Dave Davidson

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About the Author

Polly Twocents
Polly Twocents is the pseudonym for the political commentary of Patti Brown, a partner in the Iowa Policy Institute, a research and analysis firm specializing in public policy issues. Patti is an Iowa mother of five who has a masters degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Iowa State University and an masters in social work from the University of Iowa. Patti worked for many years as a social worker in hospital, hospice and mental health settings. In addition she has also been a staff writer and columnist for The Catholic Mirror and a writer for The Des Moines Register. She is unabashedly and consistently pro-life and pro-family. As a bleeding heart conservative, Patti believes in a limited, representative government, personal responsibility, individual opportunity, and free enterprise.

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