Like good theater, Iowa’s big show ends with a twist

Shira Toeplitz column

DES MOINES, Iowa — The new musical “Caucus!” opened at the local theatre here this weekend. It is arguably the second most important event in Iowa for the next four years — second only to Monday night’s caucus process.

Perhaps “Caucus!” author and composer Robert J. Ford was not far off when he dramatized his home state’s standout political performance. Just like in the theater, when it comes to elections, the show must go on — at least until a candidate drops out.

The candidates contending for the Democratic presidential nomination — and hoping that a win would eventually propel them into the Oval Office — have been rehearsing monologues, building sets, choosing theme music and crafting their target audience for months in Iowa’s 99 counties. Special-guest appearances this weekend included Scott Wolf of “Party of Five,” rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, pierced punkers blink-182 and a few aging ghosts of former electoral productions.

Iowa residents know their state is only important for six months once every four years. During these hectic months volunteers for political candidates — and about twice as many journalists — travel to the Hawkeye State for rallies at colleges, in diners and at other locales where captive audiences await to hear solutions to the nation’s problems. There hasn’t been this much buzz about a political performance since “1776” opened.

Overflowing audiences of supporters come in patriotic costumes — adorned with buttons, hats and T-shirts from their favorite actors, or rather candidates — and stand agape at the stage, at times moved to tears as they listen to the performances.

I can see the press junket now: immense media hype, competition for interviews and huge public-relations staffs juggling all the three-lettered networks for each candidate. Like any good show, the country’s first caucus does not go unnoticed.

Although the press is important beforehand, the audience is key once the curtain rises. And the caucus is a highly interactive production. Ultimately it is the audience who decides whether the performance is a true success.

Last night the fans danced into their candidates’ corners in churches, high school gymnasiums and local libraries for up to three hours, singing the praises of democracy, town hall meetings and grassroots campaigns.

This might not seem like such a sacrifice when you’re playing a lead role in deciding the political future of your party and country. When fewer than half of eligible voters will stop by their local polls to vote on the way to the grocery store during other states’ primaries, this caucus remains Iowa’s main event, a show that plays for just one night on election years.

We must remember the best part of the show is not how the candidates perform, but rather how it affects the audience. Iowa democrats have intellectually confronted and discussed issues with their neighbors over the past months. Receiving a nomination from Iowa means something because the residents are so politically astute. They were moved by politics as if it were music.

But this show had a twist at the end.

For the past few months, it was Howard Dean who was getting most of the attention. Last night’s breakthrough performance, however, ended up going to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

And although the show now moves onto a nationwide tour this weekend, no one here will forget last night’s star. Kerry might not continue to get standing ovations — and certainly not in the same manner he did Monday. But because of his opening-night performance, people will be watching him until the show closes in November.

Assistant Forum Editor Shira Toeplitz is a Weinberg junior. She can be reached at [email protected]