Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture?

Okay, he's not exactly Joe Farmer, but he is Iowegian.

When talk first started of naming Tom Vilsack as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, I must admit that my first blush reaction was that it would be easier to imagine Paris Hilton in coveralls than to picture T-Vil next to a John Deere with a DeKalb cap and topsoil under his fingernails.

Vilsack is a lot of things, but farmer has never been one of them. Is having lived in Iowa enough to qualify a person to be the nation's foremost authority on all things agricultural?

Well, maybe it is.

Vilsack, of course, is no native Iowan (or Iowegian, if you prefer.) His background isn't the back 40, but suburban Pittsburg. He's a former frat boy and law schooler who came to Iowa only to join his father in law practice. The closest he has come to field time is jogging past them in designer shorts during the Marathon to Marathon.

(As opposed to say Terry Branstad or Chuck Grassley, who are able to pull off a seed corn cap look.)

It seems like an odd choice, potentially tapping an ag secretary who has had nothing to do personally with farming.

It's not so odd at all, of course.

A cabinet member needs to foremost be adept at plowing the political furrows. He would be lacing up Florshiems, not Timberlands.

Vilsack may not be able to grow a lick of corn, but one thing no one has questioned is the man's intelligence. He is always informed. He would be able to harvest the issues and learn what he needs to learn.

And I must assume that you don't successfully run for governor of Iowa twice without being able to network with people in the agribusiness fields and to pick up the realities and opportunities of ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy.

Vilsack has set himself up well for a move to Washington. It's hardly a Beverly Hillbillies-style relocation.

He build alliances like a madman, chairing the Democratic Governors Association and picking up politico street cred in a dozen other national politicians' groups.

It looked for a time as if he might snag the nod as Veep candidate to John Kerry. When prettier Edwards got the '04 invite instead, Vilsack slickly sidestepped to form Heartland PAC, a political action committee for Democrats. Raised over a half-million bucks almost overnight in '05. A year later he was running for President and getting his face on air hobnobbing with Jay Leno and Jon Stewart. He was also smart enough to realize he was out-monied, and bailed out before too much damage was done.

He's shown Teflon survivability, sliding seamlessly from Kerry to Hillary Clinton as her national campaign co-chair, and then when she stumbled, on to campaigning for the Barackstar. You get the feeling that whatever Democrat emerged, Vilsack was going to have himself on their speed-dial.

He's somehow kept spotless in terms of the kind of controversial political stands that have hurt other Demos, since leaving office. Vilsack has penned some op-eds that make it pretty clear that he is still shopping for opportunities in politics.

Just last month, in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Vilsack wrote a piece called "Rescue begins with American agriculture and energy" - hint, hint, hint.

"Congress scrambles to supply Band-Aids when we need bold new leadership. Our greatest potential lies not in our nation's capital but in America's heartland and the fields of our great plains and foothills of our Western states," he writes, artfully suggesting that the next president will inherit a boatload of challenges including how to offset oil dependency and carbon emissions with alternative energy.

The kind they, um, make in Iowa.

He shotgunned commentary on struggling families and "sustainable management" into the same piece. Son of a gun, the AgSec seat includes programs like food stamps and the Forestry Service as well as food and farming. What a coincidence.

He lays it out pretty sharp, too. "This spring saw Americans' grocery bills skyrocket. Milk and egg prices rose 25 percent and 40 percent respectively." Darn skippy, bro.

"We must work to protect our family farms and encourage the American tradition of local farming and food production." Well, he might be a tad late on that realization.

TV even trotted out a Thomas Jefferson quote in there - "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens..."

Sure sounds like a lawyer running for something, doesn't it.

I interviewed Vilsack for eight years without ever really getting much of a sense of who he is, really. As a politician he was effective, never inspiring. He spoke rather mechanically and perhaps guardedly, the antithesis of his wife Christie - the bubbly and irresistable literacy champion - who I felt that I came to know much better just sitting next to her in the audience at a few events. Oh, I'm aware of his political leanings, and I've read about his favorite TV shows on that campaign-era MySpace page page he never ever took down. ("Family Guy" - no kidding.) I've admired his courage in speaking out as a once-orphaned child who also went through childhood with an addicted mother.

Tom Vilsack is no more a farm guy than I am a Martian ballerina. But as politicians go, he may be as good a choice as any to join the cabinet and advise the president.

The future is alternative energies, and Vilsack has seen it coming.

"This is my view of America. Faith in the American people and our community will be essential as we turn our nation around in the next four years...The obstacles we face also are opportunities to harness the resources and ingenuity of the Midwest that have been the backbone of our nation for generations," he writes.

Sounds about right - sounds Iowans. And we could use a little Iowa sense in D.C.