A Roll in the Hay | Travel | Chicago Reader

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A Roll in the Hay

Presidential hopefuls pitch forkfuls of woo at the Iowa straw poll.



By Dan Savage

It's the blow jobs, stupid.

If there was a unifying theme at the Iowa Straw Poll last Saturday--besides vote buying, of course--it was restoring dignity to the Oval Office. All nine Republican presidential candidates pledged to stuff the Oval Office with dignity, and the 25,000 people packed into the Hilton Coliseum, Iowa State University's basketball arena in Ames, never tired of hearing just how dignified things were gonna get once Republicans took back the White House.

George W. Bush: "I will swear to uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which you elect me, so help me God!" Elizabeth Dole: "I will restore a sense of public pride in the White House, and restore dignity to the Oval Office."

Lamar Alexander: "We need to restore dignity to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so our schoolkids can tour the Oval Office without snickering."

"Restore dignity," of course, is Republican code, just like "law and order" (dirty hippies) was in '72, "welfare queens" (lazy niggers) was in '80, and "family values" (scary faggots) was in '92. When Republican presidential candidates promise to "restore dignity" to the Oval Office, what they're really saying is, "I will not accept blow jobs from interns in or around the Oval Office." A noble goal.

Considering the importance of dignity to Republican candidates and voters, one would expect the Iowa Straw Poll to begin on a dignified note. Yet, immediately after the national anthem was sung (all 68 verses) and a Christian prayer intoned, the official program began with a dozen over-made-up women in low-cut black halter tops and stretch pants running up onto the stage shaking lime green pom-poms. Boom, boom, boom, "Are you ready for this?" Boom, boom, boom, "Are you ready for this?" went the music, as, with cameras and the crowd's attention trained on them, the Iowa Straw Poll Dancers shook their tits and hair and pom-poms.

All in all, it was about as dignified as a wet T-shirt contest.


While my brother and I attended the Straw Poll in order to cast votes for Republican candidates, I should point out that neither of us is a Republican. I went to Iowa to mess things up for George W. Bush, voting for people who could do the front-runner some damage, and my brother came along for the ride. In early contests like the Iowa Straw Poll, single votes carry much more weight than single votes do in primaries or general elections--you're one of thousands voting, not millions.

With tens of thousands of Republicans descending on Ames, getting into town was the hard part. We narrowly avoided getting trapped on backed-up Highway 30 by throwing our rental car in reverse, driving backward to an exit, and taking side streets. Once in Ames, however, the living was easy. Every candidate was serving up free food, handing out T-shirts (I came away with a Gary Bauer, a Dole, and a Forbes), and passing out $25 tickets to anyone who pledged a vote in the poll. Politicians are prostitutes, as everyone likes to point out, selling themselves and their souls to raise the buckets of money it takes to run for office. But for one day every four years in Iowa, the roles are reversed and it's the voters who are whores.

We parked illegally on the side of a road leading to the Coliseum, figuring there were so many cars no tow truck could get to ours, and headed for the free food in the candidates' tents in the parking lot. We began at Gary Bauer's tent, Bauer being the religious conservative who stepped down as head of the antigay Family Research Council to run for president. While we ate Gary's barbecued pork sandwiches and beans, we listened to a speaker praise his commitment to children, born and unborn. Bauer supporters are big breeders: There were more infants per square foot in the Bauer tent than in any other we visited that day.

Provided these yowling infants don't rebel against their parents' values when they reach voting age, Bauer should have a pretty good shot at the White House in 2020.

We made the rounds, visiting all the tents, enjoying the food, and tolerating the entertainment. A contradictory desire on the part of most candidates to be both cutting edge and inoffensive led to some distressing displays of pop-culture illiteracy: swing dancing at the Dole tent, Christian rock at the Bauer tent, contemporary country at the Bush tent, Crystal Gayle at the Alexander tent (truly the saddest place on earth), and Debbie Boone at the Forbes tent. Worst of all, over at the Quayle tent a quartet of little JonBenets in slinky outfits and too much makeup sang like angels ("Sweet Gypsy Rose" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now") and looked like child prostitutes.

After roasting in the sun for a few hours, we strolled back to Dole's tent for dessert--cookies and root beer floats!--and it was there we decided to break another law. Sandy, a perky young woman in a Dole T-shirt, asked if we were Iowa residents. With the keys to our Cedar Rapids hotel room in my pocket, I said yes. She offered us voting tickets, provided we would promise to vote for Dole. I asked Sandy what would stop us from taking a ticket from Dole but voting for, say, Bauer or Forbes. Sandy gave me the fish eye: "You can vote for anyone you want, but we hope you'll be honest. People here are honest generally--this is Iowa, you know."

We already had a pair of bright orange nonvoting tickets for out-of-state guests, but I wanted to get my hands on a pair of white voting tickets so I promised Sandy we would vote for Dole. She handed us a form to fill out, and we invented addresses and phone numbers. So far so good. We were chatting away about how neat Elizabeth Dole is and Sandy was pulling out a couple of tickets when she asked to see our driver's licenses. I told her we were grad students, that we'd just moved to Ames. Sandy yanked back the tickets.

"You don't have any ID?" No, we told her. "How about an envelope addressed to you in Iowa from the phone company or the university?" Sorry, we told her, and strolled away.

If all we needed was an envelope addressed to an Iowan to scam some voting tickets, well, that would be easy enough. It was Saturday, and there was all sorts of student housing near the Coliseum. Stealing mail is a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison, so we weren't going to risk stealing anyone's mail. We borrowed some. Using one phone bill, I was able to get a ticket at the Buchanan tent and my brother got one at the Quayle tent. After we slipped into the Coliseum and voted (my brother voted for Dole; I voted for Forbes), we returned the phone bill to its mailbox.


The speeches, which didn't begin until after most of us Iowans had voted, were something of an anticlimax. Everyone promised to restore dignity to the Oval Office, get tough with China, cut taxes, and increase defense spending. Steve Forbes was wooden, George W. Bush was strangely uninvolving (he is the Republican Al Gore), Alan Keyes was his usual psycho self, and Dan Quayle looked like he was going to burst into tears.

Gary Bauer's speech was the hit of the Straw Poll. He not only promised to "return honor to Washington" but promised that his administration would never "sacrifice a single child, born or unborn," putting an end to the horrifying satanic practices that have been going on in the Oval Office since Clinton was elected. Elizabeth Dole came out against Internet porn and disorderly classrooms, and warned that "drugs are not cool, they kill." All around us, the Republican Party faithful threw down their crack pipes.

As usual, Pat Buchanan provided the xenophobic fireworks. "We march to Armageddon to do battle for the Lord," said Buchanan, who promised to "restore, rebuild, and rearm our military forces" and then "bring them home." He would be tough with the Chinese on trade, promising to sit down with that nation's trade minister and warn him that if he didn't stop picking on "our friends in Taiwan" and on Christians, then "you and your friends have sold your last pair of chopsticks at any mall in the United States!" Lamar Alexander spoke last, to a rapidly thinning crowd, his voice rising as he said, "Our nomination can't be bought and it can't be inherited. It has to be earned." Ha ha, what a joker that Lamar is.

After the results of the poll were announced and we were walking out of the Coliseum, I spotted Bob Barr, one of the House prosecutors in Clinton's impeachment trial, talking to a couple of women in Bauer T-shirts. The place was deserted, so I walked up and joined the conversation. He was explaining to the Bauer supporters that had prosecutors been allowed to call all the witnesses they wanted Clinton would surely have been removed from office. "Had we been allowed to conduct the trial properly," Barr said, "he wouldn't have gotten away with disgracing the Oval Office."

For Republicans, it's clear that the election in 2000 isn't about taxes, defense spending, drugs, China, or anything else. It's the blow jobs, stupid. Still.

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