Why you should care
Because he’s popping up everywhere these days.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
In Iowa, it’s said, you can’t spit these days without hitting a presidential candidate. This past week, you pretty much couldn’t read, watch or listen to the news without encountering Steffen Schmidt.
The other day, the political scientist opined to NPR that Donald Trump’s boycott of the Republican debate was “crazy — but crazy like a fox.” He told The Hill that Bernie Sanders will get a great turnout at the caucuses, and Bloomberg Politics that Jeb Bush’s candidacy will survive if he places at least third. There were quotes for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post; and appearances on Telemundo, Univision and Fox. Plus he taught his class, showed up for his weekly radio shows and flew down to Little Rock to deliver an endowed lecture at the University of Arkansas.
When I hear politicians promise things, I know those things are either not very sincere or not very realistic.
We could go on and on and on, and so could Schmidt. Loquaciousness, in fact, is one of the reasons the media calls on the self-proclaimed Dr. Politics so often. This is not to suggest Schmidt lacks other virtues. The professor is zany, a good storyteller and not particularly ideological. He has an endearing, deadpan manner. And having taught political science at Iowa State University since the early 1970s — his government class gets very high ratings — Schmidt probably is the most authoritative authority on the caucuses out there.
As he tapes a show at a community radio station in Ames, Schmidt seems to have an Iowa accent, with curly vowels that kind of close in on themselves. But later, at a café, he tells me he wasn’t born in the Midwest, or even in the United States. Rather, he spent the first part of his life in Colombia. His parents had come from Germany before World War II; his mother, a Jew, fled as Hitler rose. Like many immigrants, Schmidt’s family eschewed politics in favor of business. His father started what would become Colombia’s largest optometry company.
Young Schmidt was supposed to be an optometrist, but he misbehaved. At 14, he was shipped off to boarding school in Switzerland, where he was for a time the classmate of royal heirs and oil-company scions. Then to a military academy in Jacksonville, Florida. Schmidt shaped up by the time he enrolled at Rollins College, and there, under the tutelage of a professor who had a TV and radio show, he became captivated by politics, media and celebrity. “It was so interesting to be directly involved with very powerful people and hang around them and listen to how they talked and how they thought,” he says. He got his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and then Iowa State, where he’s been more or less since the 1970s.
To Schmidt, retaining his position as caucus authority means he can’t participate in the caucuses themselves. He does vote, but perhaps he has observed politics too long to really be passionate about it. “When I hear politicians promise things, I know those things are either not very sincere or not very realistic,” he says. Voters don’t want to hear complicated truths. Here is a hard truth, as Schmidt sees it: Presidents can’t do very much. We the public persist in believing they can, but “a lot of the world’s problems aren’t solved by tapping the hat and pulling a rabbit out of it,” he says.
Schmidt is careful to note that he respects all politicians, even the ones he disagrees with or makes fun of. Even as he tweets “Trumpiavelli my new term for Donald,” he notes that Trump has gotten his students more excited about politics than anyone he’s seen in ages. And yet the last time Schmidt got excited about a president was in the 1960s, with John F. Kennedy. And in the end, he says, “that made me more cynical, because his life was cut short.”
Maybe his cynicism comes from his mother’s side of the family, which was always “moving away from places where things were falling apart.” His mother’s family fled the Spanish Inquisition and Hitler’s Germany, and eventually Colombia. By the time Schmidt was a teenager, he says, violence and kidnappings were pervasive. All the members of the Schmidt family, even 15-year-old Steffen, slept with a gun, and they all got green cards for the United States. That history of flight gave Schmidt a “realistic appraisal of the fact that, no matter how bad things are, they can just go south very quickly.”
Or maybe the reason for Schmidt’s detachment is simpler: Politics is his job. Do them too long and too much and jobs can leech the excitement out of almost anything. Speaking of which, Schmidt has to go now. Iowa Public Radio, CNN en Espanol and Agence France-Presse are waiting.