I went to Iowa.
I made the 1500-mile drive from Virginia to Iowa to be in the middle of the first serious moments of the 2020 election season. I already tolerated seven Democratic Party debates. Each more disappointing and useless than the one before. But now the field would finally begin to winnow. At least that’s what I thought then. We all thought Iowa would matter.
Des Moines was crawling with candidates and media. With film loaded, batteries charged, and a bag of camera gear, I made photographs.
“Just pay attention, Philip,” I reminded myself.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t pay attention to the news that a man in Washington was diagnosed with coronavirus on January 21. I missed that the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global emergency on January 30. I didn’t know that 259 people were dead in China by January 31. Or that Italy was a simmering pot soon to boil over in a rage.
By the time I stepped through my front door back home another 1,000 were dead in China.
I’m paying attention now.
So what about those photographs from Iowa? And the political commentary I intended to piece together? They’re in quarantine.
My mind’s on other things. I’ve been thinking about the folks I met in cities and towns across those 1,500 miles.
- That fellow in Indianapolis who made the best falafel I’ve had since Tel Aviv 32 years ago.
- The silent cowboy who sat in a coffee shop looking at his phone for hours without ever looking up or taking a sip of coffee. What did he see that I didn’t?
- A guy at Scenic Route Bakery who sat with a newspaper on his lap, intermittently reading and napping. I believe that sofa was a refuge for him.
- The man I shared a table with at Java Joe’s who told me to buy Good Economics for Hard Times. (I did. I need to read it.)
- The gentleman in the apron and yarmulke who talked to anyone that would listen. He was always smiling. Expect when he turned toward a private moment. Then the smile faded.
- Folks sitting in booths beneath a panoply of signs that look back on an America when people were social without the help of Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.
- A barkeep barista in Oskaloosa who drew a beer for a lady and made an espresso for me.
- A classically trained violinist gigging to earn a living at the Raucous before the Caucus. The violinist was fantastic. The raucous wasn’t.
- A woman running a pizza out to a guy sitting in a truck on snow covered 4th St in Des Moines. I blinked and there she was with that pizza.
- All-around good folks hanging out together sitting and standing close, rubbing shoulders and elbows. Having fun.
I wonder how those folks are faring? Did any of them lose their job? Are their businesses making it? Are falafels still selling? The coffeeshops? The restaurants? The people enjoying good times?
I wonder how - or if - life has changed for the 900,000 people living in Indianapolis and the 16,000 in Indianola? For the 3 million in Iowa and the 12 million in Ohio? I wonder.
So, no political photographs for this commentary. No Trump. No Biden.
And, Bernie? No. No Bernie.
Just a few photographs of really fine folks that you can see here.
So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity
(Dignity, lyrics by Bob Dylan)
On February 4, 2020, Americans were cheated.
Either as a Trump supporter or a Never Trump’er, we were entitled to a bit of dignity during the State of the Union address (SOTU). Instead Democrats and Republicans came together in a bipartisan moment of disrespect.
We’ve been here before under similar circumstances. We did measurably better then.
Impeachment loomed over the country in 1974 and 1999. Still, two different presidents and an opposing Congress managed to give dignity a front-row seat in the People’s House. I was in my early 20s when I watched Richard Nixon’s January 30, 1974 SOTU, and in my late 40s twenty-five years later when Bill Clinton delivered his on January 19, 1999.
Both speeches were judged as either brilliant or bunk, depending on where people placed their loyalties. Nixon, a Republican, gave his 1974 address to a Congress controlled by Democrats. Clinton, a Democrat, gave his 1999 address to a Congress controlled by Republicans.
While informal Watergate hearings were well underway, the formal impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon started on February 6, 1974, just seven days after his SOTU. Nixon and Speaker Carl Albert shook hands. And Albert presented Nixon to Congress with “distinct privilege and high personal honor.” At the end of Nixons’s address, Albert again extended his hand. Nixon took it and the men shook hands.
Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998, thirty-one days before his 1999 SOTU. Because Clinton’s Senate trial was already underway (it started on January 7, 1999), there were suspicions that Clinton might postpone the SOTU. Rather than withering and whining in the face of impeachment, Clinton gave his address as scheduled.
Bill Clinton shook hands with Dennis Hastert, the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House. And Hastert introduced the President of the United States with “high privilege and distinct honor.” Like Nixon and Albert, Clinton and Hastert shook hands again at the end of the SOTU.
Nixon dodged the matter of Watergate through his formal remarks, but added a personal note before leaving the rostrum. Nixon called on Congress to bring investigations to an end declaring that “one year of Watergate is enough.”
Nixon got it half-right. The investigations didn’t end. But one year of Watergate was enough. Facing certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.
Bill Clinton didn’t mention impeachment at all during his 1999 SOTU. Instead, Clinton reflected on giving the final address of the twentieth century; a century of discovery, depression, war and revival. Then he said, ”A hundred years from tonight another American president will stand in this place and report on the state of the union, and he — or she — will look back on the twenty-first century shaped in so many ways by the decisions we make here and now.” Clinton and Congress ended the final SOTU of the twentieth century on a high note for the America.
And so it was with this backdrop I set my expectations for 2020.
Knowing that impeachment hung over the evening, and guessing thatTrump’s words would be both lofty and barbed, I still expected the speech to be bookended by a show of dignity. It wasn’t.
Trump immediately thrust the first foil. Handing his written remarks to the Vice President and the Speaker, and seeing Pelosi’s extended hand, he passed it by. Not by mistake. Intentionally.
Pelosi parried by dispensing with the traditional formal presidential introduction. No high privilege and distinct honor for Trump. Pelosi’s introduction was bitter and terse. Strangers on the street would do better. In fewer than sixty seconds the absence of dignity was obvious.
At the end of the president’s address, with Trump’s breath still warm from saying “God bless America,” Pelosi began ripping up his written speech. Not casually. Deliberately. Meant to be seen. Sure to be noticed.
Why expect Trump to shake Pelosi’s hand? She was the face of impeachment. And knowing full well that Trump was going to be acquitted by the Senate in fewer than twenty-four hours, why expect Pelosi to show Trump any respect?
Because we deserved better. For those ninety minutes the public deserved to be spared political indiscretions. Partisan knocks should have been saved for on-air pundits. Or for off-air living room and barroom brawls.
Watching Pelosi’s reactions to the braggadocious speech, and seeing Trump’s gallery antics, I was hoping Pelosi would search her memory for her first SOTU as Speaker of the House.
With the then president’s approval rating on track to hit all-time lows, Nancy Pelosi said she had the “high privilege and distinct honor” of introducing George W. Bush to Congress for his January 23, 2007 SOTU.
Then, beginning his remarks, Bush gave Pelosi an historic introduction.
He said, ”Tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the state of the union message with these words. Madam Speaker.”
Pelosi introduced Bush. Bush introduced Pelosi. And they shook hands. Politics aside, dignity carried the evening. Not just dignity. Class.
I wondered what was different now. What changed from 2007 to 2020?
Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed. Dignity never been photographed…
“Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference” (Robert Frank)
In 2018 I bought a camera.
In 2019, I worried that we weren’t paying attention. I worried that a domestic war was brewing. That lines in the sand were becoming dark and foreboding chasms. I took pictures. I searched the eyes of others for answers. I looked. But I didn’t see. I must do better.
Resolved: In 2020, I will make photographs. I will see. And I will not be indifferent.
Post Note: For a glimpse of a few eyes I searched in 2019, click here.