When Hillary Silenced Her Haters … With a Roast

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Hillary Clinton is no stranger to awkward campaign situations. Or pointed criticism. And during this heated presidential campaign, she has turned to one of her most trusted aides on the campaign trail: her sense of humor. 

She used it to defang a particularly barbed question from a college student at a presidential town hall in Iowa earlier this year. She deployed it skillfully in a memorable exchange at a presidential debate two days after the 2008 Iowa caucuses when asked by the moderator why voters found Barack Obama more likable: “Well, that hurts my feelings” she said to raucous laughter right before the smug-sounding senator from Illinois impaled himself on his own “you’re likable enough, Hillary” interjection.

And whether or not you find Clinton all that likable, it’s hard not to admire the comedic resiliency she has demonstrated on occasion — and perhaps no occasion demanded it more than the Democratic National Committee’s roast of its chairman, Ron Brown, on Jan. 30, 1992, just a little more than a week before that year’s Iowa caucuses. 

Making fun of something that was perceived as a liability was quite risky.

Daniel Urman, Northeastern University

It was an event not so remarkable in itself: A schmoozy reception for the D.C. glitterati at the Sheraton Washington, emceed by CNN’s Larry King, that Clinton, age 44 and still a lawyer and first lady of Arkansas, had to attend — and crack jokes — as a surrogate roaster for her husband, who was campaigning for president and too busy to attend. King’s opening number contained a number of jokes about those not in attendance, including then-President George H.W. Bush (“out looking for a philosophy”), which the leering cable-news legend rounded off by asking, “It’s 10 o’clock, Hillary, where is Bill Clinton?”

That’s a tough act for any political spouse to follow gracefully, not to mention a cruel jab given that Clinton was not the object of the roast, nor had she, shall we say, had the best week. Three days before, at a motel in Pierre, South Dakota, she had flipped on the TV to King’s network and watched as Gennifer Flowers, looking like every married woman’s worst early-’90s nightmare, claimed to have had a 12-year affair with her husband. And now, after nationally televised appearances on 60 Minutes and Primetime Live and the entire country speculating about her marriage, Clinton had to answer King’s callow question.

“Bill Clinton is with the other woman in his life,” confessed Hillary after taking the podium in a black evening dress. “And I’m sure you’ll read about it as you’re checking out of the supermarket next week.… He is back in Little Rock … attending a Y teen dance with his daughter, Chelsea.”

Whew. And damn.

“Making fun of something that was perceived as a liability was quite risky,” says Daniel Urman, the director of Northeastern University’s Doctorate in Law and Policy program. “You could sense the nervous laughter in the room.”

Clinton continued, taking aim at that room: “I’ve heard so many rumors this week, I can’t keep track of them. And I know you’ve heard them too.” She paused. “You may have even started some of them.” Cue the squirming.

Funny? Not especially. Awkward? Absolutely. Tough? As nails. 

Enjoy the full incredible/cringeworthy performance below.

Dr. Politics Will See You Now

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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.

Ted Cruz: Likable or Not?

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Whether here in Iowa or elsewhere in America there’s been plenty of haterade dumped on Ted Cruz of late. John McCain once dubbed the Texas Senator a “wacko bird,” while Bob Dole recently called him an “extremist” and former president George W. Bush told supporters he “just doesn’t like the guy.”

But while even those in his own party gripe about his demeanor, Cruz’s favorability rating remains strong and only trails the affable Ben Carson among right-wingers and Republicans. To find out exactly what people on the campaign trail thought of the polarizing presidential candidate, I followed Cruz for more than 12 hours — along seven consecutive stops — to try to find out: Is this guy likable?

9:30 a.m.

I’ve just jumped from a hay bale to the upper rung of a bleacher seat —  it’s the only way I can see Cruz, surrounded by fans, cameras and boom mics. Now I’m looking down, and the Texan with slicked-back hair, a rugged outdoorsman’s jacket and hiking shoes is talking about ponies. “What’s your favorite My Little Pony?” Cruz asks his tiny supporter, a little girl who is wearing a Rainbow Dash beanie. ”Twilight,” she says. “I have two daughters, and they love Twilight,” Cruz says, before adding, with a grin: “My favorite, though, is Applejack. I just think she’s funny.”

These intimate encounters are Cruz’s biggest — and riskiest — bet in his plan to win Iowa. While Cruz speaks to dozens in this unheated barn, his chief rival, Donald Trump, is filling concert halls with thousands. But these face-to-face chats traditionally have won over Iowans, rather than TV appearances or megachurch rallies where some people from the big crowds may be drawn to Trump by spectacle rather than support. “The Iowa caucuses,” Cruz says, “will be won friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor.” After a 40-minute speech, he shakes hands with just about everyone. “If people say he’s not personable, it says more about Washington than it does him,” a local pastor, Josh Verwers, tells me.

11:47 a.m

Every campaign hero needs a sidekick stumper, and today Rick Perry is a Cruzer. From stop to stop, the former Texas governor and presidential hopeful, who dropped out in September, is raving about Cruz, sometimes noting how he’s “full of humility” or “one of the great listeners that I’ve ever been around.” 

Sure, that’s not how most people would describe Cruz. The controversial senator is better known for brash talk, which in a 21-hour speech in 2013 turned him into a star when he compared media pundits who let Obamacare happen to those who appeased Nazi Germany. And, more recently, he’s advocated tactics against ISIS that could put Syrian civilians at risk too, noting how he’d “carpet bomb” the bad guys while adding that he didn’t know if sand could glow in the dark “but we’re going to find out.”

Few out here are seeing that side of him, as he’s now dressed down to a blue sweater with his jeans. His tone is quiet, even humble, as he starts each speech thanking supporters. Still, those signature quips slip out here and there, including one of Cruz’s favorite lines about the word politics and how the first part, “poli-,” means many. “And ‘-tics,’ meaning bloodsucking parasites,” he says. “And that’s a fairly accurate representation of Washington, D.C.”

I admire Cruz’s principles. But can he be diplomatic?

Pastor J.D. Boatman

1:35 p.m.

I stop to ask Tim Overlin, one of the volunteers at a ’50s-style bar where around 200 people have gathered to see Cruz, if it matters if he isn’t well liked by his colleagues. “All that shows me is that he’s got all the right enemies,” says the Gen-Xer. He then recounts a moment when an older lady asked Cruz to pray with her at a gun range in Johnston, Iowa. It’s a heartwarming story, though it was also the place where Overlin recalls somebody taking a picture of a gun pointed at Cruz’s head.

3 p.m.

We’ve moved on to one of those old, single-room churches that dot America’s heartland and always seem to be painted white. In the crowd of 50 or so, a white-haired pastor named J.D. Boatman stands up to ask: “With Congress so polarized, how are you going to get your ideas through, especially given the fact that, evidently, you’re not the most-liked person in the world?”

The crowd laughs. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan wasn’t popular either, Cruz notes, particularly because he ran against a sitting Republican president in 1976 (before winning the presidency in 1980). “You think Republican leadership doesn’t like me?” asks Cruz. “They hated Reagan with a thousand white-hot suns.”

But Boatman isn’t sold on Cruz’s response. “Reagan was so winsome … he had his position, but he was gentle about it,” Boatman tells me privately. “I admire Cruz’s principles. But can he be diplomatic?”

4:30 p.m.

In the parking lot, I spot a giant RV that’s had cornstalks and the message “Caucusing for Cruz Is Caucusing Against Iowa Farmers” airbrushed onto its side. Experts say a bigger concern for Cruz than his popularity is the fact that he wants to abolish the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that requires fuel made from corn, among other products, to be mixed into the nation’s gasoline supply. Gov. Terry Branstad, who typically doesn’t make endorsements, told reporters that based on Cruz’s stance on ethanol, the corn-based fuel, it would be “a mistake” for Iowans to support him.

Before a crowd of a couple of hundred in Ottumwa, third-generation corn farmer James Hornick asks Cruz to explain his position, and Cruz doesn’t balk: “I don’t believe Washington should pick winners and losers,” he says. “There should be no mandates or subsidies, for any energy source, while on a level playing field.” And as he argues that corn production would actually do better under his plan, the crowd claps. Again. And again. Later, Hornick tells me, “I heard exactly what I needed to hear; I’ll take my chance on the free market.”

6:36 p.m.

Now things are getting interesting. After about nine hours on the trail today, Cruz gets onstage and switches up his stump speech: He has just challenged the Donald to a one-on-one debate. It’s a gutsy but bold move, given Cruz’s strength at debates. And for county tax commissioner Harry Graves, who drove two hours from Marion County, Missouri, to see Cruz speak, “It doesn’t matter to me whether Cruz is likable. Maybe he’s being intolerant of ineffective idiots.”

9:05 p.m. 

The sun has set and the son of a preacher is in full form, his voice rising and rife with inflection. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is in the crowd tonight here in Keosauqua, and Cruz talks some smack about the Texas-Nebraska football rivalry before gabbing about his favorite Ronald Reagan interview. “What we need to do is speak the truth and do so with a smile,” Cruz says while, yes, smiling.

For Sasse, the personality question is moot: “This isn’t a student council race,” he tells OZY. But if it were, Cruz isn’t doing a bad job among some voters. Chiropractor Troy Scheuermann, for one, recalls meeting Cruz at a conference in 2013, soon after the freshman senator was elected. It was only a five-minute encounter, but about a year later, as Scheuermann recalls it, “He saw me, and he said, ‘Hi, doctor.’ He remembered that.”

9:45 p.m.

It’s the last stop, and, while he was never made available through his staff for an interview, Cruz has just announced a website created by his team: DuckingDonald.com. Some voters certainly find this side of Cruz enjoyable, and it seems as though he knows it. “By the way,” Cruz says, pausing for that perfect delivery, “you have to have fun in a campaign.”


Can Bernie Get an Iowa Bounce?

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A goofy-looking outsider alights in Iowa; he doesn’t have a chance. He’s terrific, mind you — speaks his mind, galvanizes folks — but he’s just not electable. And then, over the weeks and the months, amid the frost-covered cornfields and single-stoplight towns, a kind of alchemy takes place. When the man leaves Iowa, he’ll be the candidate to beat, and the little flyover state will have launched him through the convention and into the White House. 

Sound familiar? Bernie Sanders sure hopes so.

With one week to the Iowa caucuses, the Vermont senator is gaining big in Iowa — and gunning hard for the mantle of President Barack Obama, who eight years ago gathered so much momentum here that former aides say he still reminisces about it. The lore is that Iowans’ seal of approval transformed the gangly first-term senator into a candidate who had to be reckoned with. And indeed, before 2008, many people balked at the notion that the United States was ready for a Black president, or that Obama could achieve anything in the “very white state” of Iowa, as Sanders reminded a boisterous crowd in Clinton, Iowa, on Saturday. “You made it happen,” Sanders said. “You made history.”

We feel pretty good about the unique campaign we’ve built.

On the face of it, it’s an odd comparison. Sanders is combative and gruff on the campaign trail, railing against one “obscenity” or another and openly calling his audience to revolution. Eight years ago, by contrast, Obama was suave, smiley and sensitive, and careful not to come off as an “angry Black man.” Besides, it’s Sanders’ rival, Hillary Clinton, who held a premier cabinet position in Obama’s administration and carries his imprimatur; she’s positioned herself as the better steward of his legacy. Robert Becker, Iowa director of the Sanders campaign, acknowledges some similarities, but says his man’s strategy stands alone: “We feel pretty good about the unique campaign we’ve built.” 

Yet despite the differences between Obama and Sanders — their miens, their coalitions, their  backgrounds — the two men share a few important traits, and it shows in the gathering halls of Iowan towns. For starters, their opponent was an establishment figure in ’08 and even more of one now. Let’s face it: Underdogs thrill in a way that a two-time presumptive nominee never could. “When I first heard him speak, I was transfixed,” says Colleen Kasbohm, a 47-year-old comptroller who, upon discovering Sanders, found herself attending rallies and donating to a campaign for the first time in her life. She was pleased that Sanders’ rally was standing-room only, she says, because “the more people learn about him and what he’s for, the more viable he becomes.” 

Some of Sanders’ rhetoric and narrative techniques recall those of Obama too. Channeling a little “Yes We Can,” Sanders tells his audience that democracy is their responsibility and that they’ll all have to pitch in after the election. “Change always comes from the bottom up,” he told the hundreds sweltering in their winter boots in the basement of a Masonic lodge on Saturday. Invoking progressive gains like the advent of collective bargaining, civil rights and women’s rights, he said, “That’s what history is about. It’s not a few people at the top coming up with clever ideas.” 

Clinton’s pitch, on the other hand, has focused more on the candidate’s record of working for Americans. She is “fighting for us,” her slogan says, not with us. Part of the reason is that Clinton has gads more executive experience to draw on than Sanders; on the stump, she weaves it in frequently. She tells stories about dealing with national-security threats, reminds audiences that she was the first to advocate for healthcare and vows to work fiercely on their behalf. 

Recent polls are all over the place, and the Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but this much is incontestable: It’s very close, and Sanders has made significant gains against Clinton, who held a sizable lead only a few months ago. But to capture some of Iowa’s magic for himself, Sanders will need to replicate Obama’s massive turnout in 2008. That year, 240,000 Iowans turned up at the Democratic caucuses, nearly twice that of 2004 and several times more than the number in 2000

“Iowans feel really proud of having ushered in the Obama presidency,” says Arun Chaudhary, who worked on Obama’s campaign in 2008 and now is creative director of Revolution Messaging, a political consultancy that’s working for the Sanders campaign. Obama, meanwhile, retained an affection for Iowa well into his presidency, ending his 2012 reelection campaign in Des Moines with tears in his eyes. Every January 3, the day of the 2008 caucus, the president would rewatch a video of his going out to the caucuses in Ankeny, Chaudhary says. 

No one knows whether Sanders will be reminiscing about Iowa campaign videos eight years hence. But even if he succeeds in Iowa, he’ll have to confront a quadrennial question: How much does Iowa’s endorsement really matter to the rest of the country? Winners of Iowa’s democratic caucus have often gone on to win the nomination, but not always, and there are limits to how far Midwestern magic can travel. Says John Nichols, a caucus precinct captain who introduced Sanders on Saturday: “It’s kind of crazy, the amount of attention we get — even though we’re just a little corn-fed state.” 


The Church of Trump

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In rural Sioux Center, Iowa, thousands of the faithful fill the pews at Christian Reformed Dordt College. Behind a brightly lit stage, there’s a massive organ, and two double-barreled speakers blast a popular spiritual anthem: “Your love never fails, it never gives up / It never runs out on me.” A Black 20-something with a yellow-topped Mohawk stands up and starts chanting — “U-S-A” and “One, two, three, we be-lieve that he can win!” — while folks hoot and holler in anticipation. Finally, popular Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress announces the man who some see as America’s savior: “He is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of the nation we love so dearly.”

Welcome to the Church of Trump.

As Donald J. Trump has barnstormed across the nation, he has built a politically incorrect path to the presidency that has him leading national polls, and experts flummoxed. The billionaire real estate mogul, whose campaign didn’t respond to our requests for comment, leads here in Iowa too, with about a third of likely Republican caucusgoers telling pollsters that they would elect him. His overwhelming support from white evangelicals is well documented, but the clergy of Trump is made up of much more than mere churchgoers; it’s the disenchanted everyman (and woman) who believes the country has lost its intrinsic identity — and wants to make America great again.

Just a week ago, most political scientists, when asked about Trump’s grassroots plan in Iowa — the handshaking, phone calling and door knocking that traditionally is crucial for politicians hoping to win the Hawkeye State — balked. “Donald Trump hasn’t done anything on the ground,” said Drake University’s Arthur Sanders. And, some argue, Trump’s trumpeters are largely unconventional, disenfranchised folks with a poor record of actually heading to the polls come Election Day. Many believe this means the front-runner’s lead is fragile, that on caucus day — Monday — it could all melt away like snow under the midday sun.

Yet on this particularly frigid weekend morning, hundreds of the Trump faithful wait in line for an hour or more, a line that extends so far it takes an aerial shot to fully capture the scene. In this context, Trump’s strategy in Iowa is not a strategy per se, but an impassioned call for believers to rise up and rebuild their community. It’s a revival — and one that could ultimately raise him to the office of the president.

While gazing at his flock — 1,500 seated in front of him — Trump speaks: “I’m a true believer. Is everybody a true believer in this room?”

Bundled up in a Trump 2016 scarf and beanie, Jeremy Boyts says he’s at his 40th campaign event. “I’m working for the campaign, spreading the good word,” says the financial planner from Missouri who’s holding up a corkboard with buttons supporting gun rights, the Constitution and other Trumpian talking points. “He’s special,” says a soybean farmer from Struble, while Kathy Moulton, an evangelical Christian who drove here from South Dakota, says the Donald has strong, solid American values, “and America is founded in religion.”


By now, Trump has been called pretty much everything under the sun. Carnival barker. Xenophobe. Chaos candidate. Gollum. But he also engenders an enthusiasm that seems to shine brighter on the campaign trail than during his tenure as a reality TV star. While gazing at his flock — 1,500 seated in front of him, event organizers say, plus an overflow crowd of 500 or so watching a live feed — Trump speaks: “I’m a true believer. Is everybody a true believer in this room?”

The phrase is a knowing nod to a very specific religious term: a Christian who interprets the Bible strictly and, in most cases, has publicly accepted Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Savior. But Trump’s appeal also cuts across religious lines, to those who feel persecuted and no longer see a country made in their image. It’s the typical fallen-yet-saved-by-grace narrative that often rings from the pulpit; but in a way, says Anthony Gaughan, a political scientist at Drake University, Trump “is presenting himself as a redemption figure: ‘I was one of the corrupting campaign contributors, but now I’m going to make the system right because I know how it works.’ ”

As his critics contend, Trump exploits fear and anger. After the dire talk subsides, though, Trump channels the rhetoric of Hope and Change that precipitated President Obama’s rise. “Trump has a certain amount of optimism,” says Dennis Goldford, co-author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses. “ ‘We’re in deep trouble,’ he says, ‘but we’re going to fix it.’ ” Provided you elect him, of course. And the first step starts in Iowa. 

In the past, holding megachurch rallies here hasn’t been a winning strategy. Iowan voters have come to expect intimate conversations in coffee shops and diners, and to be wooed rather than preached at. When Mike Huckabee won the Republican nomination in Iowa in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012, it was through smaller, face-to-face interactions across the state. Yet Trump, unlike other presidential candidates, is willing to tell his disciples when they’ve strayed from what he sees as the righteous path: “How stupid are the people in Iowa?” he asked at a rally in Fort Dodge, after Ben Carson overtook him in state polls in November. Last week, at Dordt College, Trump expanded on his remarks: “You pick a lot of losers, folks … If you vote for Ted Cruz, you’re not going to win.”

By comparison, Cruz — Trump’s leading challenger — has taken the traditional route, drafting volunteers city by city and even announcing a “99 pastor” strategy to enlist a faith leader in each of Iowa’s counties to support him. That approach, and given how some of Trump’s supporters are from demographic groups that are less likely to show up on Monday, may give Cruz “a leg up,” says Justin Whitely Holmes, who researches political communication at the University of Northern Iowa. And, to be sure, not everyone buys Trump’s sermon on the mount: At Dordt, Brenda Fritsch is one of a dozen protesters urging voters to not associate Trump’s values with Christian ones. “From a philosophical standpoint, you can’t overlook the hate,” says Fritsch.

Then again, winning here didn’t do Santorum or Huckabee any favors, both of whom quickly faded after Iowa. Unlike them, Trump has built broader support by creating a movement rather than a moment. “He’s a phenomenon,” Sanders says. (In national polls, Trump still leads second-place Cruz by about 16 percentage points, on average, while in New Hampshire, he commands almost triple that of Cruz’s support.) Even Fritsch is fighting an uphill battle. “My parents support Trump,” she says. “They feel like he gets away with things no one else can get away with, so if he can get away it, then he can get things done.”


Can Carson Make a Comeback?

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Along the frozen plains of rural Iowa, past cornfields covered in an ocean of snow, there lies a tiny town called Creston with a tiny cafe called the Adams Street Espresso & Soda Shoppe. The quaint diner comfortably seats a few dozen, but on this frigid January day, a hundred or so people are crouched and crammed together to get a glimpse of the one, the only, Ben Carson. He’s got the attention of a preacher, and this heartland crowd of families tells us they like his faith, his humility and — man, oh, man — that self-made rags-to-riches story. Who wouldn’t? 

Yet once the stump speech has been made and the selfie-taking fades, most of these residents have one thing they still won’t say: that they’ll unquestionably caucus for the retired neurosurgeon and evangelical hero. “He’s definitely in my top three,” hedges Vonnie Kinkade, a local conservative organizer. Longtime resident and handyman Ron Hower is equally noncommittal, and so is basketball mom Joy Hemsworth.

As everyone within the crowded 11-person Republican field shifts for a stronger position with less than a week before the caucus here, Carson has become a political bridesmaid: well-liked by many, but nobody’s favorite. That wasn’t the case just a few short months ago, when the soft-spoken Christian bloomed into Iowa’s sweetheart, surging to a 9 percentage-point lead in October and becoming the first candidate since July with a polling advantage over the brash Donald Trump. But today, Trump is the front-runner who’s filling up arenas, while Carson — stuck firmly in fourth place — is at risk of becoming a one-hit wonder relegated to coffee shop status. Even Carson, as he recently told OZY, understands how precarious this race can be: “You can never divorce yourself from the good or the bad.” But can Carson make the ultimate comeback?

It’s sometimes said that belief is part faith and part reason. In Carson’s case, few question whether he’s got enough of the former, yet many wonder if he’s got enough of the latter, specifically when it comes to his knowledge of national security. “Nobody abandoned him because they no longer found his ‘faith story’ compelling,” says Arthur Sanders, a political scientist at Drake University. “But it’s not sufficient to get their vote.” Indeed, Carson started tumbling in the polls with the rise of ISIS; the Paris bombings made safety a top priority for voters. Things got worse, political experts say, after he struggled to pronounce the names of certain foreign groups (“hummus” for Hamas, for example) while showing a general incoherence on the topic.

You can never divorce yourself from the good or the bad.

-Ben Carson to OZY

It’s a problem his campaign seems acutely aware of, so much so that Carson has taken to trotting out his national security advisor and campaign chairman, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Dees, to play his opening act — and first defense. “There is this false narrative that’s been propagated about his knowledge of foreign affairs,” Dees tells the residents of Creston, before noting that there’s no candidate he’d trust more if he were back on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Jason Osborne, a spokesman for the campaign, tells OZY that Carson has correctly pronounced Hamas many times in the past and that “he is very comfortable with how to lead.”

If there’s any place for a Republican to stage a comeback, it’s Iowa. Remember, Rick Santorum went from third to first in the final week here in 2012, and Mike Huckabee had a similar rise in 2008. Carson wants to be next on that list — first by recapturing his evangelical base, then by tapping into the anti-establishment fervor that Trump has harnessed so well. He’s been more vocally critical of the GOP, even suggesting in December that he’d consider a third-party run (which he quickly walked away from after blowback). It’s a clever move for an electorate that distrusts both parties more than ever: In a recent Fox News poll, more than half of GOP primary voters said they felt their party had betrayed them, while 37 percent of Democrats felt similarly. 


Here in Creston, as Carson regales his caffeine-fueled flock of fans with tales, he stakes out a pox on both parties’ path to victory. “We, the people, keep sending back to Washington people who don’t care about the future,” Carson says. “It’s not just a Democrat problem. It’s a Republican problem, too. They’ve all been doing this.” His sentiment rings true among some, including 69-year-old great-grandpa Charlie Westman: “What I like about Ben is he’s not a lifetime Republican or Democrat — he’s a real person.”

The only problem? This is also largely Ted Cruz’s appeal, Sanders says, and so far, the Texas senator has done a better job. Recently, Cruz accused mainstream Republicans of trying to shutter his candidacy by coalescing around Trump. Nobody — even Carson — does indignant rage better than Cruz, who often rails against the “Washington cartel” and has led most Iowa polls in recent weeks.

To be sure, Carson still has his own core strengths. He’s well liked, with some of the highest favorability ratings in the field. And after raising around $23 million in the last three months of 2015 alone, his campaign remains cash-flush heading into this whirlwind week. In rare candor, his spokesman Osborne adds that Carson feels like he’s now able to articulate what exactly he can do, “which he didn’t feel like he could do before.” So while, at this point, Carson seems to have faded to the back of the pack, that doesn’t mean, in the last few days before the caucus, “something can’t happen,” says Dennis Goldford, author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses.

But as Carson continues to push the rogue narrative — his campaign says that, having never been elected, he’s got a greater claim to outsider status — he’s writing another ending for himself: one where he’s becoming a true outsider. Establishment types can’t support him, and evangelicals have ditched him for Cruz or Trump. His race isn’t a refuge, either: From the neon-blue set of BET’s #AllVotesMatter Twitter Townhall at Drake University, Carson sat with New Orleans rapper Dee-1 and answered questions about color, submitted through tweets. Online, the only African-American candidate in this year’s presidential race got an overwhelmingly cold reception — even from Black pundits. “Dr. Carson isn’t trying to get the votes of pundits,” Osborne argues. “He’s trying to get the votes of people.”

Bernie’s Secret Weapon in Iowa

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Becker swears he always introduces himself as “Robert Becker, first and last,” yet everyone calls him Becker. And by everyone, we mean people from Indonesia to Iowa and many places in between. Even his email handle is an all-caps BECKER. (“Who does that?” asks a prominent consultant, a touch of envy in his voice.)

Becker, 47, is a globe-trotting, lifelong organizer who’s presently the Iowa state director for Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He is burly, well over 6 feet, and as terse as the Marlboro Man, with a smoking habit to match. Unlike the smooth talkers who populate most campaigns, Becker is all gravelly bass. He didn’t go to college and he doesn’t aspire to some posh, strategic post. Instead, the son of a firefighter stumbled into organizing when he was barely out of his teens, knocking on doors in Texas for an environmental group and getting pumped about fighting the system. His trajectory since has taken him to places like Des Moines (three times), northern Virginia, Zimbabwe, Haiti and Egypt, where he was nearly imprisoned in the turmoil after the Arab Spring. 

It’s pure, raw, red-meat adrenaline fire, what he does.

“There are certain folks that stick out, and Becker is one of them,” says Brent Roske, a TV journalist and filmmaker who spends his days and nights reporting on and hobnobbing with Des Moines’ political class. Plenty of strategists look like they stepped off a West Wing set, with their Ivy League degrees and hopes of landing a spot near the Oval Office. Becker doesn’t want that. He “just does things differently,” says Roske. “It’s pure, raw, red-meat adrenaline fire, what he does.”

Most conversations about Becker circle back, at some point, to his trials in Egypt. He landed in Cairo in 2011 at time of promise, a few months after the revolution, to work with the National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the Democratic Party. Becker’s job was to train members of political organizations. All was well until the government became suspicious of outsiders and accused NDI employees, among others, of sabotaging the regime. NDI recalled its American employees home. Becker refused. He stuck around for 18 months of criminal hearings, appearing with his Egyptian co-defendants in a courtroom cage every few months. Only after he was convicted and sentenced to two years — and his staff got suspended sentences—  did Becker flee. “I got lucky in that I withstood a trial and was still able to get out,” Becker says. 

That episode, colleagues say, demonstrated some of Becker’s best qualities: stubbornness, loyalty and an ability to risk everything for political belief. “Anyone that’s willing to sit in jail for an idea — he’s the clearest example of the cause guy out there,” says Pete D’Alessandro, an old hand in Iowa’s caucuses and the guy who hired Becker for the Sanders campaign last year. Or, as Timothy Connolly, a former State Department official who’s worked with Becker on various campaigns, puts it, “He risked imprisonment rather than risk the safety of his staff in Cairo.” Some observers have even tried to link the Egyptian revolution with Bernie Sanders’ own call to “join the political revolution,” as though Becker were going from one uprising to the next. Becker doesn’t like the through line. He has Egyptian friends who are still in jail, at least one in solitary confinement. “Nobody’s dying in this revolution,” he says, referring to the campaign. 

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Volunteers at the Bernie Sanders Iowa headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday.

Source Cassi Alexandra for OZY

Not that Becker pooh-poohs his own work — “I wake up every morning with one of the coolest jobs on the planet,” he says — and whatever he’s doing seems to be working. On the eve of the caucuses, the Sanders campaign is ascendant, and the polls show the Vermont socialist neck and neck with his main rival, Hillary Clinton. Inside the campaign’s Des Moines headquarters, wedged between a Hy-Vee grocery and an Aaron’s discount furniture store, the vibe is amiable and productive. Staffers and volunteers make calls, clack away on laptops or just hang out. The main goal is to ensure that every Sanders supporter in Iowa gets a phone call or a personal visit reminding them to caucus. Though there are bags under his eyes, and something like a beard growing on his face, Becker seems optimistic, perhaps even relaxed.

Since June, Becker’s been living in a little three-bedroom house with other staffers, close to the office. But his permanent residence is the warm, sunny beach town of Vieques, in Puerto Rico. When the campaign is over, and Becker hopes it won’t be soon, he might take a break and then move on to the next place, who knows where. Becker was married for a time in the 1990s, but “it didn’t work out, mostly because I was never home.” With nine nieces and nephews, he says, “I figure my family’s done its part to repopulate the world.”

But enough about Becker. He’d rather discuss his man Bernie, or the Iowans he’s met, or the secret musical talents of his staff, or why tax credits don’t really help the working class. 

Then comes a happy little pandemonium. “It’s Ben and Jerry!” someone shouts; the founders of the ice cream company have stopped by toting illuminated Bernie signs and talking up a new flavor. The slab of chocolate at the top of “Bernie’s Yearning” represents the one percent, says Ben Cohen, and you have to take a soup spoon and smash up the chocolate to get to the ice cream beneath.


Raining Men, Hand Jive + Sex Depression

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You have sexy questions? Eugene has sexy answers. Write. Now: Eugene@ozy.com

Trying Bi: No Lie?

EUGENE, SIR: My guy and I just got invited to a “clothing optional” party by some friends of ours who are totally cool, normal people. We’re talking about how we’re going to swing; so far, we’ve gotten to watching. He’s OK if I hook up with other women, and I’m OK if he’s with other women, but he says he doesn’t want to do that. I think that’s because he thinks I will bring up other men. Anyway, at least we’re talking about it before we go.

The real issue, though, seems to be that he’s afraid other men will try to have sex with him. I told him he didn’t need to worry about that since no one was going to rape him. He laughed. But then I started picking up on something else: I think he’s bi-curious. I had a bad threesome experience with an ex-boyfriend and another bi-curious man. Bad in that it ended up with me just watching two men having sex. Now I don’t want to go to the party, but I can’t think of anything else. Is there a clever way to bring this up so he and I could talk about it? — Bi-Incurious

Dear Bi Bye: That’s not really what you want, I don’t think. What I mean is, there’s a difference between chatting about your eventual appearance at a group-sex venue and your wanting to create an opening where you can tell him what you just told me, which, in essence, is you don’t at any point want to see your man with a penis that’s not his in his mouth (don’t think about that yoga-fueled scenario too much). You already know that what you strongly suspect interests him, is what you find least interesting. Going public with this might have the undesired effect of driving his interest underground, where it’ll be harder to monitor, and that’s if you want to spend the relationship monitoring your man’s interest in other men. 

Which might be fun for some but sounds like a drag to me. Why spend the rest of your life going cop on your lover? Not the way one should spend their days. So how to bring this up? First, get yourself to a place where you can articulate what you don’t like about it without condemnation. Second, if the group-sex event is soon? Maybe hold off on it, until you’re both clear that attending involves an understanding that those in attendance are your sex toys and there for your pleasure. If you don’t use them at home? Don’t use them on a leather-sheet-covered bed in an orgy room. Simple.

And maybe, eventually, you’ll go his way on this or he’ll come your way, but I suspect you’ll have to come to his, since repression is a terrible thing to behold.


Lasting Damage?

EUGENE, SIR: I’ve been masturbating from an early age and now usually do it twice a day. Last time, though, I went on a date with a girl and afterward we went to her house to have sex. I reached orgasm too early even though I was wearing a condom. I feel I’ve lost my stamina in bed. I hope you will help me by sharing ways to increase it. — Nik

Dear Nik at Night: It may be too early to worry. But as an ace of anxiety, I can tell you that it’s also probably never too early to worry. Stamina? Experts who are not me seem to agree with the connection you’ve made between masturbation and stamina. Specifically, a stylistic connection. The boilerplate advice is to masturbate the way you want to have sex. So, if you want to have sex in short bursts? Masturbate that way. If you want to have looong, luxurious sex? Get out the candles, the incense, the wine and soft music and get ready for a masturbate-a-thon to end all masturbate-a-thons.

It’s conditioning, partly, and if your body isn’t used to freeing itself from its load until after 60 minutes of loving attention, it might get used to this. There are also chemical and surgical methods. Sometimes exercise, sometimes medication, but those seem overly aggressive from where I sit. Try changing your masturbation patterns first, and let me know how things come out. 

See what I did there? Cue laughter.

SOS: Sick of Sex

EUGENE, SIR: I think I’m done having sex with my husband. Our daughter is 4 years old and we’re only in our 40s, but I’m done. Men, their obsession with “tits” and women’s bodies in general and despite their wanting sex so badly, them doing it badly. I’d rather read a book. Am I alone here? — Mari

Dear Quite Contrary: You may find out just how alone you are here very soon. Because no matter how bad in bed your husband is, there may be someone out there who wants him. But that’s not really the point. The point is: You don’t want him, no matter how good in bed he gets. This could be what people call “the end of the road,” so while you might respect his skills as a father, you need to let him know he’s free to find some respect for the sex part outside the confines of whatever you all are living in. Sad but true. You may no longer want him, but to deny him is unkind.

Why You Love Ben Carson’s Preternatural Calm

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Political Animals: Venturing into the wild to examine the peculiar behavior of an all-American beast.

In America, we’ve grown accustomed to our political firebrands being loud, vociferous and unyielding. Many U.S. voters have a certain affinity for leaders with a pound-the-table, Stone Age confidence, from Huey Long to Donald Trump.

Enter Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon whose soft voice, slow delivery and unflappable calm persist even while the candidate is comparing abortion to slavery, or conditions in the U.S. to those in Nazi Germany. Some call Carson’s mellow demeanor “sleepy”; others liken it to a “long nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon.” Saturday Night Live performer Jay Pharoah’s impression of Carson borders on the catatonic.

But voters love it, citing it as one of the main reasons they back Carson. And even if Carson’s poll numbers have fallen from his flirtation with front-runner status in November, his net favorability rating — 40 percentage points according to a recent poll — still ranks highly (second only to Ted Cruz in the GOP field). Carson appears to represent a political outsider, both in terms of his profession and in his relaxed bedside manner — a manner that some psychologists say can positively influence our impressions of the candidate and his potential as a leader.

For one thing, a calm demeanor often signals confidence and a reassuring steadiness to others. And voters, says Justin Frank, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and the author of Obama on the Couch, are pretty good at discerning calm confidence from its “low energy” brethren. “Ben Carson exudes a kind of quiet confidence,” says Frank, “that is very different from indifference or pretending to be calm.”

And more than that:

According to recent psychology studies, appearing calm and confident is often a key factor in shaping others’ impressions of our intelligence level.

“Calm speech patterns lead to the impression that Carson is intelligent or capable — he’s not prone to fly off the handle,” says Nora Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, “which is what some people want in a political leader.” 

And many Americans want a commander-in-chief who will remain cool under fire. “With decades of experience performing medical procedures, where one small mistake makes the difference between life or death,” says Carson campaign spokesman Jason Osborne, “it is abundantly clear that Dr. Carson has the right temperament to lead our country forward.”

But of course ascertaining intelligence is more complicated, and relies on a constellation of nonverbal cues, says Murphy. Context is also important: The same smooth, gentlemanly manner that plays well on the campaign trail in Iowa may be a liability when verbally sparring on a debate stage. And part of what Carson’s preternatural calmness conveys is certainty, says Frank, which may or may not appeal, depending on the voter’s own political bent. For Republicans, certainty is a sign of confidence, Frank says, but for Democrats, thoughtfulness is an indicator of confidence.

Then there’s the small matter of what is actually said with such calm certainty. And as Carson’s recent struggles (and his claims regarding West Point scholarships and pyramids used for grain storage) may attest, unless you possess a Trump-like defiance of political gravity, that does still matter to voters — regardless of how it’s delivered.


Doctor Who? Medicine’s New Steely Helpers

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Cold and shiny, they zip and zoom on the slick linoleum floors of Changi General Hospital, located deep in Singaporean suburbia. When I get in the way, they let me know. “Please let me through,” requests a 375-pound robot with bright eyes and a Splenda-sweet smile. I freeze. “That wasn’t a question,” a nearby nurse whispers. The steely migrant is on a mission to deliver lab specimens to another ward. 

Changi General CEO Lee Chien Earn likes to call his hospital the “living lab,” a sort of incubator for medical helper bots, which, he says, will soon be “the future of hospitals everywhere.” Soon, meaning just a few years from now. The global medical robotics market is predicted to reach $7.6 billion by 2020, up from $2.7 billion in 2014, according to the India-based research firm IndustryARC. Some of these technologies first appeared more than a decade ago, but there wasn’t much interest. This time around, though, the equipment is more advanced and administrators are under pressure to cut costs. Lee wouldn’t disclose how much the hospital spent on its four artificial workers, but he says the investment will pay for itself in five years and that since arriving in February they’ve boosted productivity by 30 percent. Nurses say that has allowed them to focus on more meaningful tasks, but the robots have taken some getting used to. “They’re kind of like big cockroaches,” says Assistant Director Tenny Chow, referring to the way they slowly creep through the halls.

Others are experimenting with outsourcing the more personal aspects of the job. And this is where it gets weird.

Dystopian cyborg takeovers aside, the prospect is a bit unnerving. In this high-tech Asian hub, robots are going beyond the menial tasks we once assumed they would do, like sorting pills, and into more intimate realms of patient care, spaces where we once expected not just physical exams but emotional empathy. Mark Stephen Meadows, who speaks internationally about ethics in artificial intelligence and is president of Botanic.io, a San Francisco company that develops characters for social robots, says it raises a paradox that threatens the roles of families and caretakers in society: “It may be that avatars and robots can take better care of Grandma than I can.”

The prospect seems far-fetched now, especially considering how slow personalized medicine and patient technology have been to catch on in the States, but Meadows agrees that it’s not long before robots outnumber nurses. Until now, the gold standard in this field has been the Da Vinci Surgical System, which allows surgeons to insert a 3-D camera into a patient (via a small incision) that’s connected to a miniature instrument that can be manuevered from outside the body. But even that relies on humans to control the movement in real time. The machines Lee and Meadows speak of are voice-controlled androids that perform gynecological surgeries, automated delivery drones that can navigate the ICU, beds that convert Transformer-style to wheelchairs, computerized assistants that can sort out surgical instruments in the operating room and exoskeletons that do physical therapy with trauma patients. Singaporean hospitals are even rolling out a dancing “Gangnam Style” character to entertain patients.

Others are experimenting with outsourcing the more personal aspects of the job. And this is where it gets weird. In the United States, the robot Sophie diagnosis patients. Meanwhile, BlabDroid provides an ear for the dying to share their last words. It’s meant to be like a “confessional booth,” says Norrie Daroga, CEO of Wisconsin-based iDAvatars, which builds conversational bots. So these grinning mechanical zombies aren’t just going to be moving things anymore; we’ll be trusting them with our terminal loved ones and sniffling babies, Daroga says. 

Health-care equipment experts like Dr. Yulun Wang, CEO of InTouch Health, which pioneered the first FDA-approved surgical robot, warn that these icy hunks of metal will create new liability issues, especially since technology has outpaced the law. If a computer delivers a misdiagnosis, who is to blame? The engineer? The manufacturer? The hospital? Wang argues that instead of being autonomous, medical robots should be seen as a tool for physicians. Even Lee, whose hospital is pioneering the robotic technology in Singapore, doesn’t think droids can replace the “human touch.” Indeed, assistive robotic technology’s greatest potential is that it will free up health-care professionals to spend more one-on-one time with patients. A robot should never tell patients they have cancer, Lee says. “If it comes to that day, it will be very cold.” And although Lee claims no workers have been laid off since the uptick in productivity, that is likely an inevitable consequence if cost-saving is a goal. 

On my way out of the hospital, my bossy robot friend joins me in the elevator. After a brief hello, the doors open and she zips away to deliver patient records to a doctor in the oncology clinic. Right at that moment, another high-tech laborer delivering hundreds of pounds of food to the cafeteria speeds by. The living lab is a well-oiled machine.