Sh*t Richard Says
Regular readers of this column have come to clamor for posts submitted by my husband, Richard W. Gilbert. The title of his submission - Sh*t Richard Says - was borrowed from the book by Justin Halpern, Sh*t My Dad Says, which is hilarious. Since we moved back to Iowa, Richard is often reminded of the past -because he was a young press secretary to Governor Robert D. Ray, a moderate Republican. The contrast between today’s Iowa Republican party and that of those decades long gone is the cause of his consternation and much profanity.
By: Richard Gilbert
A couple of excellent columns this past week by Iowa Writers’ Collaborative scribes triggered a trip down memory lane for me.
The first was Dave Busiek’s piece about the Florida governor’s television commercial airing in Iowa touting that he’s a guy who “never back downs” as if that’s something admirable in a leader.
Here’s a link to Dave’s take on that claim by Ron DeSantis.
It caused Dave, former news director of KCCI-TV, to recall a life lesson he got from an influential CEO when Dave was in the unhappy position of apologizing to him after a screwup on air which angered the businessman, causing him to pull all his advertising from the station.
In short, the CEO, who was clearly right in a dispute with the station, told Dave:
“My predecessor in this office taught me a valuable lesson. The big dog in a fight always has to back down first. Because the little dog gets cornered and will keep yipping, nipping, and fighting. So unless the big dog wants to fight for the rest of the time, it’s up to the big dog to back down first. And that’s what I’m going to do. Our relationship is too valuable. We’ll resume advertising and move on.”
Dave’s story reminded me of a wonderful unguarded moment I had with my boss at the time, Governor Bob Ray. I didn’t know then, but it became a life lesson that stayed with me after over 50 years. And it is a way I can explain to people who sometimes ask why, to this day, the memory of Ray’s five terms over 14 years as Iowa’s Governor is favorably recalled.
This anecdote was transcribed in a book by Jon Bowermaster, “Governor, An Oral Biography of Robert D. Ray,” which Jon authored in 1987.
In it, I recalled:
“One night, we were walking across the lawn at 2900 Grand* (then the Governor’s Mansion), and I said, ‘Governor, how in the heck do you stand up to all this criticism? He said, ‘When I get criticized, I bristle.’ He often talked about himself using euphemisms. ‘I guess that’s the human reaction, but,’ he said, ‘after I get beyond that, I recognize there’s been a failure on my part, and I have to do something about it.’
He said, ‘Failure can come in one of two ways. One, and it’s possible, is that the critic is right and that I should do something differently. Or, two, it tells me that there has been a failure to communicate adequately with a critic about why I’m doing what I’m doing. If a critic only had more information and a better understanding of all that’s gone into this decision, perhaps he wouldn’t be critical. In which case, I have to double my efforts to communicate with people.’ That explained why he would spend hours at night calling people who had written a critical letter, explaining in great detail to individual citizens why he was doing what he was doing. It also tended to sharpen his thinking.”
Sometimes we don’t know until later when you are part of a “teachable moment,” but I can attest that conversation with Bob Ray has been a range light (direction) for me often throughout my own life.
The other memory jogger last week was from Bleeding Heartland’s Laura Belin, who, without question is an excellent Iowa state government reporter. She posted her take on the story about Governor Kim Reynold’s order to send about 100 Iowa National Guard troops and a few Iowa State Troopers to the Texas-Mexico border in response to a request from the Texas governor. They are there officially to help with the immigration crisis. Link to Laura Belin’s story.
The thrust of Laura’s reporting was that money to finance this response would come from money the state got from the feds to help deal with the pandemic. Laura points out that the rationale for funding the mission to Texas is a stretch. Laura makes a lot of sense.
But the natural stretch is that it just doesn’t set right. This scheme is right up there with flying hapless migrants to Martha’s Vineyard (Florida governor DeSantis) or busing migrants to a lovely neighborhood in California (Texas governor Abbott). The idea is to criticize the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis.
What bugs me is using people as pawns in a political game. The Texas governor’s appeal for other Republican governors to ante up Guardsman is the height of cynicism.
In the announcement by Governor Reynolds, she justifies the use of Iowa Guardsmen because there is a dramatic increase in illegal drugs entering Iowa. Instead of sending Iowans to the Texas border to frisk immigrants, how about taking the same money, or even more, from what looks like it’s become a gubernatorial piggy bank and beef up our narcotics division of the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation? Bad guys aren’t shipping drugs into Iowa for the fun of it. There’s a market of users closer to the intersection of I-80 and I-35 than to El Paso.
The giveaway that there’s a lot of political theatre in dispatching guardsmen is that Iowa’s Governor couldn’t resist calling out the President for “dereliction of duty.”
It’s one of the great temptations an Iowa governor has—being commander in chief of their small army, complete with trucks and planes and even helicopters. Calling out the Guard can be a gubernatorial rush, but just like the drugs she says threaten Iowans, using the Guard to get good press or ingratiate oneself with Republican governor colleagues can also be addictive.
In my time long ago as a witness to what goes on inside an Iowa governor’s office, there were times to play the commander-in-chief card and times to not.
My old boss Bob Ray once played the National Guard card (say that three times fast) when the federal government, after years of Iowa asking nicely, still wouldn’t settle the damages suffered by Iowans who lost their homes when military jets on federal training missions crashed into their homes forcing them to find shelter elsewhere. One woman had to live in a chicken coop which even back then was deemed sub-standard housing. Ray, fed up with the bureaucracy in the Pentagon, ordered the entire Iowa National Guard to stand down until our Iowans got paid. Grounding the Guard worked. It took about three or four days for the feds to come around. But nobody had to go to Texas.
Another was during the campus unrest in the early 1970s. Despite all kinds of urging from many in his party to send the Guard to quell the demonstrations at Ames and Iowa City and “crack some heads,” Ray resisted the temptation to look tough. Instead, he dispatched Iowa state troopers (without sidearms) to Iowa U and Iowa State. The state troopers showing up almost instantly quelled the demonstrations. Why? Because most of the young people involved were just a year or two beyond the magic age of 16, the age when they finally had gotten that treasured document, the Iowa Drivers License. An Iowa state trooper, who could, if crossed, make that the license go away, was the ultimate authority figure.
Sometimes, in the executive branch, what counts is not how you use the power Iowans have bestowed upon you; it’s how you don’t.
Save the date - December 7, 2023
*2900 Grand Avenue is where the former Governor’s mansion is located. It is currently privately owned and called The Witmer House. There will be a private party for paid subscribers of Julie Gammack’s Potluck and the Iowa Writers Collaborative.
Richard might even show you where a few State of the Union addresses were written.
Paid subscribers support the scholarship fund for the annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat.
More Sh*t Richaard Says:
There’s a lot of buzz about the new movie Barbie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I feel I should. My feminist daughter told me today: “You should see it, Dad.”
After I screen it, I’ll report back on how much work I need to do.
Speaking of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative…
Each Sunday, I compile those columns posted by some of our 35 writers from that week. We have terrific commentary for this current week, which I’ll post this Sunday morning. In addition to our strong Iowa audience, these writers are earning national attention for their lyrical essays and political commentary. Don’t miss out. Subscribe so you’re in the know. It’s free!
Last week’s Sunday roundup column: