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Chapter Eight: An Event in Des Moines

 

I had been a presidential candidate for less than a day and already I had a promise that my campaign would be covered by HBO. This was like money in the bank. As the days went by, however, I realized that Alexandra Pelosi had not made a specific suggestion about which events she might cover. It was up to me to propose something. Exercising my powers of creative imagination, I sent an email to the “journeyswithgeorge” address. I offered her a selection of three concepts: (1) “debate Al Sharpton”, (2) “hunt for skeletons in Bill McGaughey’s past”, and (3) “recreate the 1945 meeting at the Elbe River between American and Russian soldiers.” In her response, Pelosi picked the last theme. In retrospect, it seems the least contentious.

Since I had told Pelosi that I planned to campaign in Iowa, the event had to take place there, of course. Race relations would be its thematic focus. What does “a meeting at the Elbe River” have to do with race? Well, it’s about soldiers representing two politically hostile systems putting their animosities aside to embrace as human beings engaged in a common purpose, the defeat of Nazi Germany. My staged “meeting” would symbolize two previously hostile races approaching each other in a spirit of reconciliation. Besides appealing to World War II veterans and Russian immigrants, the “meeting at the Elbe” would be physically appropriate because a river runs through Des Moines, Iowa’s capitol and largest city. The fact that a “Cold War” followed the original event was of little concern to me. We’re amateurs at staging political theater.

If the theme was racial reconciliation, however, I needed to enlist African American participation. My idea was that the black participants might approach the Elbe-like meeting point from one direction and whites approach it from the other. How to find black participants? The NAACP was a logical place for recruiting them. Because Des Moines has no local chapter, I wrote a letter of invitation to the national organization. What other organizations might be contacted to supply interested persons? I had no idea. I had never been to Des Moines before. I therefore ordered a copy of the Des Moines telephone directory from Qwest Dex and wrote down the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of organizations such as churches, labor unions, and fraternal organizations which might have a possible interest in the event. I mailed out a number of letters enclosing fliers. None panned out.

Pelosi suggested in an email that my event be held during the Iowa State Fair. She expected to be in Des Moines for the eleven-day period, August 7th through 17th, when the fair took place. Several of the other presidential candidates would be attending. I picked Saturday, August 16th, which gave me more time to prepare. Thinking that I might need to scout the territory, I drove down to Des Moines from Minneapolis to look things over. I parked in the lot near the Civil War monument to the south of the Capitol. Walking down Walnut Street toward the river, I spotted what seemed to be an ideal location. This was a small park on the east bank of the Des Moines River called the Simon Estes Amphitheater. A steel-tubed arch stood in front of a small concrete plaza surrounded on three sides by a grass lawn sloping down to the river. How could I reserve this spot, I wondered? It was best to have a backup location. Across the river, in downtown Des Moines, was another small park next to the civic center with modernistic sculpture and a fountain.

The only other logical place for my event was on the grounds of the Iowa State Capitol. I was directed to Judy Lowe of the Administrative Services department in the (Herbert) Hoover Building who handled reservations for events on the Capitol grounds. She was a helpful person who gave me a reservation form and laid down the ground rules: Stay on the sidewalks and obey traffic lights during the march. Do not have any stick-based signs at the rally. During the 1950s a little old lady with such a sign had poked someone at a rally so the state had adopted this regulation. However, pole-based signs were OK.

The Simon Estes Amphitheater was my first choice for a location because it best fit the theme of “meeting at the Elbe”. Back in Minneapolis, I learned that events at this park were scheduled by the Des Moines Parks & Recreation department. I needed to speak with a woman named Robin. I left telephone messages for Robin each day throughout the week. When she finally returned my call, she said that space would be available in the early afternoon of August 16th. I could reserve a four-hour time slot at the park ending at 4 p.m. when a wedding would take place. The charge was $500. What!?!

I quickly thanked her and then called Judy Lowe who had previously told me there was no charge for holding rallies on the State Capitol grounds. She asked me to fax her my completed application promptly because she was going on vacation next week. In time, I received from Lowe a letter of approval to hold a “Bill McGaughey for President” rally near the Civil War monument from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It was copied to several state officials including the Governor’s office.

Since this event would no longer be held on a river bank, its theme needed to change. There would be no “meeting at the Elbe”. The element of marching to a central point became less important than the rally itself. The event was becoming primarily a free-speech forum on race. It was still important, though, to have a racially diverse group of participants. In my estimation, most officially sponsored discussions of race are phony and contrived. I wanted an event which, like the landlord meetings, would allow each participant to speak freely. If racial radicals showed up, we would seek a Jerry Springer-like synthesis of divergent views where, hopefully, no punches would be thrown. The site of the rally, near the Civil War monument, reinforced the idea of fighting to achieve a resolution of racial conflict.

Word got out to some of my friends and relatives in Minneapolis, who are black, that I was running for President and would be stressing racial themes. My ex-brother-in-law, Alan Morrison, who was working with me to renovate a duplex down the street, offered to convert his pickup truck temporarily into a campaign vehicle. At Menard’s, a Midwestern home-improvement store, we spotted a canopy tent with stars and stripes, intended for 4th-of-July celebrations. We could attach this canopy to back of the truck to create a roofed stage for political rallies. Alan called this roving campaign platform my “White-Male-Mobile”. It was, however, too much work for a single event. At another home-improvement store, Home Depot, I bought an eight-foot step ladder whose sides were decorated with stars and stripes. Adorned with flags, this became a make-shift podium for the rally.

The biggest challenge was to find persons to participate. I wrote letters to all the other Democratic presidential candidates inviting them to discuss racial issues in Des Moines. I assembled lists of Iowa newspapers, and television and radio stations and mailed or faxed them announcements of the August 16th event. Hopefully, this would stimulate media interest in covering the event or would create advance publicity to bring out people. I belonged to a men’s rights organization in Minneapolis. Citing the promised HBO coverage, I proposed that some of its members accompany me to Des Moines to take advantage of the free-speech forum. This might be an opportunity to be heard nationally. However, there was resistance to that idea. A group member, who was white, emailed me: “I suggest you drop the word ‘white’ from your signs and literature. It puts you in the same category as Nazis and white power groups.”

A week before the event, Alexandra Pelosi sent a bomb shell by email. “Dear Bill,” she wrote. “I am so sorry to tell you this but it turns out that I am not going to be in Des Moines next Saturday. I hope that doesn't screw everything up for you. Good luck with your event. Alexandra.”

For me, plans were too far advanced to cancel the event. Since Iowans were not responding to my appeals for participation, I focused on finding people to ride with me from Minneapolis. Ed Eubanks was the first. He was a friend and a tenant in my apartment building with whom I shared a lively interest in politics. An African American man, he had first suggested that he might play the part of an angry black man in this forum on race to get the discussion going. His presence at the event would provide assurance that whatever controversy we might arouse would have at least two sides.

An even less likely participant was a former tenant named Randy, a white man, whom I had evicted four months earlier because of his association with drug dealers. One of them had torched the apartment after he moved out. We remained on speaking terms, though, and he agreed to come. Seeking racial and gender diversity, I also leaned on my wife. I thought I had an agreement from her to come until I made the mistake of also inviting my former wife’s daughter. Then my wife, who dislikes politics almost as much as she does my former wife, put her foot down. No, she was staying home that weekend. Several others first accepted my invitation and then canceled plans to participate. In the end, we were down to three people: Ed, Randy, and me.

Ed and I got together after 7 a.m. on the big day and drove to Randy’s new apartment to pick him up. I had a digital video camera. Randy had a still camera. The car was packed with event paraphernalia such as the red-white-and-blue ladder, tripod, signs, and flags. The 240-mile trip down Interstate Highway 35 took about five hours, not counting the time we spent in stopping at Subway Sandwich in Story Book, Iowa. I had no idea what to expect in Des Moines. We knew that the Iowa State Fair was winding down that weekend and that the parking facilities near the State Capitol would be used for people to commute to the fair grounds. There was one parking spot left near the Civil War monument. We grabbed it as we pulled into the lot around 1:15 p.m.

I felt obliged to go to the park near the Des Moines Civic Center because our literature had mentioned this as a staging area for a march. It would have been convenient to drive, but I was unwilling to risk giving up our parking spot near the Civil War monument. So, by myself, I walked with my sign and video camera down the hill along Walnut, past the Simon Estes Amphitheater and across the river, and then to the park. It was hot - well in excess of 90 degrees, I thought. No one was waiting there for a march. (Unbeknownst to me, a friend from the men’s group, Nels Otto, did drive to Des Moines by himself expecting to meet us at this park. But he arrived at 2 p.m. and we failed to make connections.) I waited for ten minutes for latecomers to arrive. Then, holding the sign high, I walked up Locust Street, back across the river, and up to the State Capitol where I turned right and walked toward the Civil War monument. Ed and Randy were waiting for me in the shade. Although it was a few minutes after our starting time, I needed to sit down for a few minutes under a tree to rest and drink water.

Ed and Randy had set up the ladder near the monument and attached two of the flags to it. Another flag and a sign were stuck in the ground. The Civil War monument and Capitol building served as a back drop. Parodying racial stereotypes, Ed clowned a bit as he shuffled his feet and carried the “dignity for white males” sign. I recorded this scene with the video camera. We then attached the camera to the tripod and were ready to begin the festivities.

As a presidential candidate, I was the kickoff speaker. I mounted the steps on the ladder and, from an elevated position, gave an impassioned speech stressing economic injustice. Race was mentioned almost as an afterthought. It was not a bad performance considering that I was on the verge of passing out from heat stroke. Ed was next. Mounting the flag-draped ladder, he said that, while he did not agree with everything I had said, he did appreciate the ideas about job creation. Black people would get some of those jobs. Next, Randy abandoned his post as video camera man to give a short speech from the ladder. That was it. No one else showed up to participate. There were no more speeches and no follow-up discussions. We packed up our gear, stashed it in the car, and walked across Walnut Street to the State Capitol, seeking relief from the heat.

The Iowa State Capitol building, always beautiful, was especially beautiful and comforting to us on that day. Its golden dome glistened brightly in the sun. The air-conditioning system worked. Inside, once we were past Security, we were able to purchase cold drinks from a vending machine beneath the Rotunda. Like Alexandra Pelosi, Ed Eubanks took it upon himself to introduce me as a presidential candidate to prospective voters. A young Asian man visiting the Capitol asked my position on several issues as Ed videotaped the conversation. He gave me a real workout. On my way to the men’s room, I passed the “Ronald Reagan conference room”, reminding me that President Reagan had begun his career in Des Moines as a sports announcer with WHO radio. After we had cooled down sufficiently, we left the building. Ed, Randy, and I examined the Civil War cannon trained on downtown Des Moines as we walked back to the car.

The trip back to Minneapolis was relaxing for us all. Although (to my knowledge) no one else had shown up to participate and no journalists had covered the event, I was relieved. The important thing was that we had followed through with our plans. Admittedly a farce, this was my first campaign event as a presidential candidate. Ed and Randy seemed caught up in the pretentiousness of it all. I appreciated their support. We had done our thing and captured some of it on videotape for possible future use. Preparations for the Des Moines “race forum” had claimed almost the first two months of my campaign. Now it was time to move on to other activities.

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