Living in Society

Hillary and the Narrative

Hillary Clinton Walking to the Stage at S.T. Morrison Park, Coralville, Iowa
Hillary Clinton Walking to the Stage at S.T. Morrison Park, Coralville, Iowa, Nov. 3, 2015

CORALVILLE — Hillary Clinton held a town hall meeting in S.T. Morrison Park on Tuesday with more than 500 people in attendance, according to event organizers.

After a brief speech, she called on audience members, taking 13 questions covering a wide range of international and domestic issues.

Her command of the current political scene and experience with politics at the highest level was on display. For the wonkier among us the exchange was welcome.

If voters could set aside preconceptions formed since Clinton was first lady of Arkansas, she would be the clear choice to lead our country for four or eight years. Whether caucus goers will give her that chance remains uncertain despite her continuous lead in the polls since she declared her candidacy April 12. Supporters I spoke with in queue to enter the seating area seemed likely to turn out for her despite minor grievances with Clinton and her campaign.

Johnson County is the strongest liberal center in Iowa, and according to New York Times correspondent Amy Chozik, “Sanders Country.” Her narrative is as follows:

On Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton plans to answer Iowans’ questions at two town-hall-style events in Coralville, near Iowa City, and Grinnell, another university town. Both are known as Bernie Sanders country because of the devoted liberal college students who have been intrigued by his candidacy, but Mrs. Clinton, feeling emboldened, will seek to make inroads in the areas to talk about her plans to lift middle-class incomes.

The trouble is the narrative doesn’t reflect the complexity of the community. As John Deeth pointed out, Johnson County is different from the rest of Iowa. That difference is not only in its presidential politics, and the role of the student vote, but in Iowa City ballot initiatives like the 21 Bar Referendum; thrice failed county-wide efforts to gain approval of expanded jail capacity and a more secure courthouse facility; and the board of supervisors decision to raise the minimum wage coupled with the prompt rejection of the ordinance by some cities. I get that Ms. Chozik works on a deadline and has to keep it simple for her readers, but narratives that ignore the complexity of society in favor of pabulum-style writing should be an affront to people who know better.

Another problem with the narrative is depiction of Clinton as a poll-watcher feeling emboldened by the surge since mid October. This is ridiculous in light of the fact that one of Hillary’s key Iowa supporters is former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky who lives in Coralville. Why wouldn’t one of Clinton’s biggest fans invite the candidate to the park where her husband, state senator Bob Dvorsky, has held his annual birthday party fund raiser?

While I appreciate that Chozik spends time in Iowa reporting on the run up to the caucus, and her stories do add value, corporate media narratives shaped the opinions of people with whom I queued before the event. They give people something to talk about, and there is already enough gossip in our community without the media adding more.

Not everyone likes the policy wonk Clinton was on Tuesday. People who live on the surface of what is happening in society, who don’t have the advantage of being physically close to a candidate like we can be in Iowa, get their information largely from mass media. On the playing field that is cable news, print or social media, and network news, one brief story is juxtaposed with another at a continuing and mind-numbing pace. It makes for a bitter soup of life. That Hillary Clinton knows policy inside out from personal experience makes her unique in the race. The media format and content as presented by many serves to distract viewers from that.

The Iowa caucuses are a blessing and a curse. Our first in the nation status enables almost anyone who wants to get up close and personal with a candidate who campaigns here. On the other hand, organizing people to caucus for a candidate can be an exercise in frustration, beginning with the fact that people don’t want to hang out for more than a couple of hours taking care of what most believe is irrelevant “party business.” The Democratic Party process excludes people as much as it welcomes.

Hillery Clinton in Coralville, Iowa, Nov. 3
Hillary Clinton in Coralville, Iowa, Nov. 3, 2015

My main challenge in attending the town hall was light. I wanted a few decent photos on my inexpensive Kodak camera as the sun would be setting when Clinton spoke. Sunset is still magical to me. I chose a seat west of the stage so the setting sun would be at my back. Of 200 shots, about six were keepers, including this one of Clinton with the sun illuminating her.

As writers, what we see and hear is influenced by who we are as much as by what is said and done by our subjects. Input is filtered and shaped by our biases, learning, and method of information collection, the way an anthropologist influences ethnographic interviews with questions asked. Hearing the entirety of what a candidate has to say at an event like Tuesday is pure Iowa. Or, as Sue Dvorsky posted on Facebook about the town hall, “The breadth of topics were a credit to our community, and answer the question ‘Why Iowa?’ And the depth of her responses answer the question ‘Why Hillary?'”