April 1, 2014



The West Tennessean walked tall. And he spoke in a manner one would expect from the curator of so many things associated with the famous 1973 movie based on tall-walking Sheriff Buford Pusser.

The question from my quick acquaintance came as easy as his syrupy drawl on this spring afternoon in Savannah, Ga., outside the Mansion Hotel, on the patio overlooking moss-treed Forsyth Park where we had ice cold Yuengeling beers and fresh American Spirit cigarettes to wind down from a day of Southern travels.

"So ya'll from Iowa," said Steve Sweat, a body shop owner from Selmer, Tenn., who is something of a Pusser historian. "What do you do there besides farm?"

My late grandmother Constance Wilson, a lovely and extraordinarily well-read woman, grew up on a southern Iowa farm, west of Bloomfield. That was our family business long before the presses started to roll in what is now a fourth-generation newspaper operation.

So this just a farmer business from Congressman Bruce Braley hit close to home. I've sort of felt a little bad for Braley. He's from Brooklyn, Iowa, and it must be frustrating explaining to people, that, no, he's not from the other Brooklyn, the one in New York, land of Mr. Kotter and Grimaldis Pizza and the Big Bridge. As it turns out, other people aren't confused about this. It's Braley who forgot where he's from.

In rural Iowa, we are all, as Steve Sweat observed, connected to the farm, whether we're turning over the soil ourselves or flipping the pages of family photo albums to earlier times.

In a revealing moment, Braley showed us what he thinks of rural Iowans. He told some Texas trial lawyers that Sen. Charles Grassley - a farmer who has served in government since the Eisenhower administration - could chair the Judiciary Committee if the GOP snares control of the Senate in November.

"If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice - someone who's been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way on the Senate Judiciary (Committee)", said Braley. "Or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary. Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary."

Two things here.

Often, we think people speak the most openly around friends and family. Fair enough. But what I've learned is that if you really want to know what's rolling around in someone's mind, listen to what he says in the company of colleagues. Journalists talk to each other with frankness exclusive to the club. I would suppose dentists unload about bratty, biting kids with great candor when they're all flossed up at whiter-teeth conventions.

So now we know how Braley talks around fellow members of the bar.

Yes, yes, Braley has apologized for the insult to Grassley - and more to the point, Iowa itself. But his statement reads more as regret for the spill of the mind. The real problem here isn't that Braley blasted Grassley with a dismissive wave off as just a farmer. That fact that Braley thought it in the first place at all is distressing.

Grassley is one of the more dignified Iowans I've covered. Nearly 30 years ago, while interning in Washington, D.C., I sat next to the senator in the subway that runs from the offices of members of Congress to the Capitol.

We talked of many things Carroll in that five minutes. He asked about the Wunschel famly - good supporters of his, and even better friends of mine. He rolled off the names of several Carroll businesses, seeking updates from me. I've had dozens of interactions with Mr. Grassley since then, both as a journalist and economic-development advocate for the Carroll area.

You can agree or disagree with Grassley on the issues, but there's no doubting he's one of us. He's an extraordinary legislator. And he's a farmer. I'm not inclined to chalk that up to coincidence.

Where would the Iowa economy be today without the powerful triumvirate of Grassley and Sen. Tom Harkin and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack? Their collective fierceness for rural Iowa has helped lift our economy to bold heights.

And in the span of just a few years, we'll lose two of these consequential voices in Washington. Harkin is retiring, and Vilsack is Obama's ag secretary.

We can't fool around with this November decision. It's a time for candidates of weight, measured thinking in the electorate.

Braley, who should be embarrassed of what he said about Grassley, is, at the end of the day, well-positioned and quite qualified to carry on the Grassley-Harkin-Vilsack legacy. Iowa needs someone who knows where the levers and buttons of power are to preserve renewable-energy standards, to make the Department of Agriculture work for us. Iowa agriculture loves the federal government so what sense does it make to send government haters to Washington to do its bidding?

Sure, Braley insulted farmers. But he can deliver for them. So think of it this way: Would you rather have a supremely charming brain surgeon with clumsy hands or a jackass of a physician who moves his scalpel as if angels were guiding his fingers?

Iowa needs Washington to work, really work. Anyone who doesn't understand this, who thinks we can send a recently retired Texas energy man or a Red Oak state senator with Sarah Palin's stamp of approval to Washington to fight for Iowa, is insulting Sen. Charles Grassley, too. For they know not what Grassley does.

Like me, Braley has grandparents who farmed. Let's hope he thinks long and hard about his Brooklyn before chumming up with lawyers from that other Brooklyn.

To most of the world, "Iowan" and "farmer" are synonymous.

Constance Wilson's grandson is more than a little proud of that.

We'll see over the next seven months whether the same is true for former Poweshiek County Republican Supervisor Cliff Braley's grandson.

"My parents grew up on Iowa farms during the Depression with very little. My grandfather was a sharecropper," Bruce Braley said in a recent interview with this newspaper. "I worked on the farm with both of my grandfathers when they were in their 80s. I've had a job since I was in second grade. I never had an allowance growing up. I've always paid my own way through college and law school and as an adult. I am not in Congress to promote a dependency agenda. I am in Congress to lift people up and give them the same type of opportunities to live the American dream that I've had living here in Iowa my entire life."