Thursday, March 23, 2006

The past goes up in smoke

The past goes up in smoke

An obscure junk store find last night, and a sign of the times: I uncovered an ashtray dated 1973-74 showing the Democratic members of the Iowa congressional delegation.

First off, in the era when the smoke-filled room has been replaced by the smoke-free room, an ashtray as political chum would be way politically incorrect anywhere outside the North Carolina GOP.

The faces on the ashtray include some of the giants who brought the Iowa Democrats from historic also-ran status to the modern, caucus-driven era. We held both Senate seats: Harold Hughes was at the end of his one term and Dick Clark was at the start of his. Another future Senator, John Culver, was in his last House term.

Then there was Neal Smith. First elected in the 1958 landslide, the only Iowa Dem to hold on in 1960, and mentor to a young Tom Harkin. I always felt bad about the way Smith's career ended. He'd waited over a decade for Appropriations Chair Bill Natcher to leave. Then when Natcher died in the spring of 1994, he was interim chair for a couple weeks, but he lost the race for permanent chair to Dave Obey of Wisconsin. The Iowa filing deadline fell before the House Democratic Caucus vote. So instead of running as Iowa's powerful Appropriations Chair, he was the guy who was passed over - and he was a sure thing retirement for 1996. But his heart was never in that last campaign, and Greg Ganske blindsided him.

As bad as that was, it's still better than the fate of the last face on the ashtray, Ed Mezvinsky. Things looked bright in that first term: knocked off longtime incumbent Fred Schwengel, a seat on the Watergate committee. But he had a tough race in `74, almost lost to some young diplomat named Leach. That GOP whiz kid from the staff of Don Rumsfeld and George Bush Sr. is still with us since taking out Mezvinsky in `76, and Ed went on to a sad end of mental health issues and indictment.

Today's ashtray - maybe a coffee cup, or perhaps a commemorative plate without the offending rim and cigarette notches - would have a lot more black space between the gold-leafed portraits of Tom Harkin and Leonard Boswell. So this little receptacle is a fascinating time capsule of a glorious era in Iowa Democratic politics.

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