Editor's View

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

He's better off in Iowa

I wonder what Tom Vilsack is really feeling. No, not the party line stuff he's saying, but what he's really feeling.

Is it disappointment, or is it relief? Perhaps some of both.

Not many in this world can aspire to make the short list of potential presidential running-mates, and for a politician from a lightly-populated, middle-west state to get a glimpse at the vice-presidential brass ring must be so honoring it makes one's head spin. To have it pulled away then, may leave one wondering, "What now?"

I think the governor is better off here in Iowa. A vice-presidential candidate should be basically a supportive smile. Someone who says or does very little other than echo their presidential candidate and take great care never to overshadow them with ideas, at least never in public.

Aside from the grooming for a potential candidacy of his own, being a vice-presidential candidate can't be a great life.

Vilsack will miss out on throwing his family into turmoil, leaving the state he unquestionably loves for the rat race of Washington, where some pretty dismal and dangerous streets surround those pretty monument buildings.

He will miss out on spending nearly every day of the next four months on the road at a backbreaking pace, kissing babies and smiling that smile and saying nothing much but what is programmed for him.

He will miss out on making John Kerry's politics his own. Remember, Vilsack did not endorse Kerry or any of the candidates before the Iowa Caucus (although his wife did), and he does differ somewhat from Kerry's demonstrated opinions, notably on abortion.

The vice presidential candidate that loses the race stands to be branded as an also-ran. The winner faces potentially worse, in the dog-eat-dog world of Washington character assassination.

There is clearly a price to pay for the fame and power. We have seen high office age people overnight.

Vilsack deserves a little calm.

We are all familiar with his story - dumped as an infant at an orphanage, adopted by a drunken mother and a father who struggled to support the family.

"When my mom went on one of her drinking sprees, she would go up to the attic of our house and I wouldn't see her for weeks," Vilsack said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"Some parents, they would use the strap part of the belt," said Vilsack. "My mother, when she got very drunk, would use this one belt that had a huge buckle on it. She would only do it on my legs so it wouldn't show."

The liveliness of wife Christie, who he met in college, must have been world-changing for the man. And when he accompanied her back to Iowa, he found the home he had been looking for, the first time he had felt such a "sense of community."

Perhaps, to him, deep down, even the White House is not so important as what he has discovered.

He first found politics as more of a sense of duty than an ambition. He was a young lawyer in his father-in-law's office who coached Little League on the side, when a gunman burst into the Mount Pleasant City Council chambers and killed the town's mayor, wounding two others.

At the urging of the late mayor's father, Vilsack ran for mayor to help the community recover. He did just that, then won a term in the Iowa Senate as a Democrat in a heavily-GOP district, and later upset Jim Ross Lightfoot to become governor.

He was narrowly re-elected, and pledged not to run for a third term.

At 53, he plans to finish up his office in Iowa, and will still be a relatively young man, his two sons raised to adulthood, free to seek new directions.

Vilsack is a quiet man, not easily known as was Terry Branstad, and there is a sense of much below the surface that Iowans may have only yet glimpsed.

He's a pretty regular guy - a baseball fan who follows the Pirates (he was born in Pittsburgh). He relaxes by reading historical biography books, jogging up to four days a week, and listening to ZZ Top.

So Tom Vilsack won't be the second man on the totem pole of power in the free world, and the heady days of Iowans thinking that possible are over, at least for this go-round.

And Kerry misses out on an able leader and quality man, as well as a potential step up in the all-important first test in Iowa if there should be a re-election campaign in four years.

It isn't the end of the world for Tom Vilsack. The orphan boy has his home now, for as long as he should want it.

If he feels relief tonight, he can't say - that would be politically incorrect politics. But it wouldn't be a wrong thing to feel, all things considered.

Tom Vilsack is one of us, not one of them.