Eat, Speak And Stumble: Candidates Visit The Iowa State Fair | KERA News

Eat, Speak And Stumble: Candidates Visit The Iowa State Fair

Aug 13, 2015
Originally published on August 13, 2015 4:05 pm

You might have heard of the famous butter cow — a life-sized cow made of butter that headlines every Iowa State Fair. But perhaps you didn't know that in 1952, the fair also featured butter sculptures of that year's presidential candidates Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

It's just another example of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the fair — and it's only gotten deeper over the decades.

More than a million people are expected to attend. In addition to corn dogs, fried Oreos, fried butter and rides on the Tilt-A-Whirl (we're not sure those exactly go together), many of the presidential candidates are expected to be on hand.

There are big bales of hay for audiences to sit on, and a small outdoor stage known as the Soapbox, sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Every candidate hoping to do well in the Iowa caucuses comes through.

There are the big names, like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who have attended in recent years.

"People kept saying you've got to come to the very best fair — and that's the Iowa State Fair," Clinton said to cheers in 2007.

And there are those you've either forgotten or never even heard of — like Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter from 2011.

"After I'm done I'll have the opportunity to see the 100th butter cow. ... Coming from Detroit, that's not an opportunity we get every day," McCotter said.

Thursday alone the Soapbox will host Mike Huckabee, Martin O'Malley and Jim Webb. Friday it's Jeb Bush, and on Saturday, Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton is expected to attend the fair Saturday as well, but the Register reports she hasn't accepted the Soapbox invitation, and it appears increasingly unlikely. But more candidates will speak as this year's fair continues.

The first test for candidates comes right at the main entrance, said O. Kay Henderson, an Iowa native who has covered candidates at the fair for Radio Iowa for more than 25 years.

Her advice: "Try to have money in your pocket, because they will not let a candidate in the fair for free."

And, she said, don't forget the three Fs that every candidate must observe: "You have to pay attention to the food, you have to pay attention to the fashion ... and you have to avoid the faux pas."

On the surface, a campaign stop at the state fair seems simple enough. But it doesn't always work out that way. There's the now legendary story of GOP hopeful Fred Thompson wearing expensive Gucci loafers to the fair eight years ago. For the record, Thompson denies they were Gucci.

And then there's Mitt Romney's experience that same year. He was at the Iowa Pork Producers booth, cooking over a giant pit, flipping pork chops.

But he flipped one too high, and it landed on the ground. "Whoa, there goes one!" he remarked to groans from the audience.

But the bigger reaction from the crowd came when he picked it up and put it back on the grill.

Four years later Romney was running again — and again, another awkward moment at the fair. He encountered vocal hecklers during a speech at the Soapbox, one of whom yelled, "You came here to listen to the people."

Romney responded: "No, no, no, I came here to speak, and you'll get to ask your question. Hold on a second, hold on a second, I'll let you speak. Hold on a second."

It went back and forth like that for some minutes, until Romney uttered this line on the need to cut corporate taxes: "Corporations are people, my friend. Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So, where do you think it goes?"

Romney backers cheered, the hecklers jeered — and that was the line Romney's opponents would use against him all year.

So it's State Fair time in Iowa, and that means Blue Ribbon steers, the giant Ferris wheel, hog-calling contests. And candidates on the stump, touring the grounds, meeting voters from every corner of the state — and trying not to step in it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Deep-fried butter, deep-fried Oreos plunked on a stick, dipped in hot oil and turned into a calorie-exploding, hard-to-resist treat at summer state fairs. Iowa's state fair opens today. More than a million people are expected to attend. And as NPR's Don Gonyea reports, it's also a campaign stop for politicians.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There's a good chance you're aware of the Iowa State Fair's famous butter cow - a life-size cow sculpted out of butter. But in 1952, the fair featured a couple of other butter sculptures of that year's presidential candidates - Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. It's just another example of the sometimes unusual but very close relationship between politicians and the fair. And it's only gotten deeper over the decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, it's good to be here. Thank you all. Isn't it great to be at the Iowa State Fair?

GONYEA: That was candidate Newt Gingrich four years ago, speaking from the small outdoor stage known as the Soapbox, which is sponsored each year at the fair by the Des Moines Register newspaper. Bales of straw decorate the stage. Candidate after candidate passes through here - big names like Hillary Clinton back in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: People kept saying, well, you know, you got to come to the very best fair, and that's the Iowa State Fair. Is that right?

(APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: And there are some you've either forgotten or never even heard of. Remember the presidential campaign of Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter in 2011?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THADDEUS MCCOTTER: I'm very excited today because after I'm done, I'll have the opportunity to see the 100th butter cow. Coming from Detroit, that's not an opportunity we get every day.

GONYEA: O. Kay Henderson has covered candidates at the fair for Radio Iowa for more than 25 years. She says the first test comes at the main gate.

O. KAY HENDERSON: Try to have money in your pocket because they will not let a candidate in the fair for free.

GONYEA: And she says candidates shouldn't forget the three Fs.

HENDERSON: You have to pay attention to the food. You have to pay attention to the fashion. And you have to avoid a faux pas.

GONYEA: On the surface, a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fair seems simple enough, but it doesn't always work out that way. There's the now legendary story of GOP hopeful Fred Thompson wearing expensive Gucci loafers to the fair eight years ago. For the record, Thompson denies they were Gucci. And then there's Mitt Romney's experience that same year. He was at a booth, flipping pork chops, cooking over a giant pit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, there goes one.

GONYEA: But he flipped one too high and it landed on the ground. But the big groan from the ground came when he picked it up and put it back on the grill. Four years later, Romney was running again - and again, another awkward moment. He encountered vocal hecklers at the Soapbox.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You came here to listen to the people.

ROMNEY: No, no, no, no, I came here to speak, and you'll get to ask your question. Hold on a second. Hold on a second. I'll let you speak.

GONYEA: It went back and forth like that for some minutes until Romney uttered this line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend. Of course they are. So...

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Romney-backers cheered. The hecklers jeered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMNEY: Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People's pockets.

GONYEA: But it was a line Romney's opponents would use against him all year. So it's state fair time in Iowa again, and all that means Blue Ribbon livestock...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, give 10, 15. All right, 10 (unintelligible) - 15, now 20.

GONYEA: ...The giant Ferris wheel, hog calling contests.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Here, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig. Here...

GONYEA: ...And candidates on the stump and touring the grounds, meeting voters from every corner of the state and trying not to step in it. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.

MONTAGNE: And we should say Don has spent a lot of time at Iowa State Fairs.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the last election, he even showed up in our colleague Debbie Elliott's piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: I didn't see Mitt Romney in the line, but I did recognize someone.

GONYEA: Wow, there is a stick of butter in that. You see that?

ELLIOTT: Yep, NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea, a veteran of Iowa politics and concoctions at the state fair.

GONYEA: It's not bad, very cinnamony, tastes like a cinnamon pastry. Oh, now the butter is - the butter is cold. And I just ate...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's the whole experience.

GONYEA: ...Like a teaspoon full of it - of raw, cold butter.

ELLIOTT: So there must be a political lesson.

GONYEA: You can go too far with an idea.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, raw, cold butter. Our colleagues covering the Iowa State Fair then and now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.