The Santa Maria Winery in Carroll, Iowa is a lovely place. Great food, good atmosphere, an elegant events center. (I’m not much of a wine drinker, so I can’t attest to their signature product.) If you live in the area, I imagine you have attended all kinds of events at the Winery; weddings, wine tastings, anniversary parties, book clubs, and meetings with amateur film makers about their latest cold war documentaries.
Now, it is possible you may be saying to yourself, “meetings with filmmakers?” If so, you clearly forgot famous film producer Newton Leroy Gingrich (N.L.G. to his friends). Gingrich appeared at the Santa Maria Winery in Carroll on November 14, 2011 and hosted a special screening of his documentary, Nine Days that Changed the World. (Copies were available for purchase, of course.)
Why was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, one of the most recognizable politicians in the last thirty years, shilling twenty dollar copies of a movie in Iowa on a cold night in 2011? Well, because he was running for president. And what better way to run for president than by showing (and selling) your latest movie? Or book. Or maybe auditioning to host your own TV show. (Or, in Newt’s case, all of the above.)
In retrospect, it is easy to see which candidates ran for office as a business venture. (For example, also available at Newt’s event at the Winery in Carroll were his wife, Callista’s, line of children’s books. Callista was happy to sign a copy for you. If you bought it first.) There is no doubt that Newt ran, at least in large part, to sell his wares. He is a prolific author (as is Callista), a movie maker, and a once and future television commentator. (Crossfire, staring Newt Gingrich, available to anyone with access to S.E. Cupp’s parents’ DVR.) Newt started off his campaign for president to make money, and he did. (Around the time of the Florida primary he talked himself into actually trying to win, but that is neither here nor there.)
Has running for president always been about making money? Is that why candidates come to Iowa every four years? No, the primary process has changed significantly in the last twenty years, and this new breed of non-candidate candidate is an unfortunate side effect. The campaign through Iowa has become a circus, and the non-stop media coverage serves as much to make “stars” as it does to make leaders. In 2011, aspirants as unlikely as Michelle Bachmann get imbedded reporters and round the clock coverage six or seven months before the first votes are cast. This time around reporters are tripping over themselves to talk to the likes of Donald Trump. Why wouldn’t candidates use that to their financial advantage? (Heck, sometimes it happens by accident. In 2007, Mike Huckabee really wanted to be president. He lost, but still got rich and famous hosting his own TV show afterward.)
Looking at the ghosts of caucuses past, we can see which candidates ran (or flirted with running) in Iowa to make money. Newt stands proudly at the top of the list. But there were others, like Herman Cain, Donald Trump (last time), Sarah Palin, Alan Keyes and Wesley Clark. (Now, these, ahem, candidates are different from those who ran no-chance campaigns to get their messages out, like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, or those who ran their campaigns so poorly you hoped that they had an ulterior motive, like Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani.) It is harder to predict which candidates of caucuses present and future are in it for the money. But it is not impossible.
Take former Senator Jim Webb (D) as an example. Now, I realize that with the millions of grassroots supporters dumping money into the ‘Draft Jim Webb’ SuperPac, you may be surprised to see him on this list. (Ha!) Actually, it turns out that there was no ‘Draft Jim Webb’ campaign or any pre-formed constituency waiting for a Jim Webb candidacy. He has some support in Virginia, and among Democratic veteran groups but that is about it. So, I’m guessing he is in this for the money.
Why do I say that? First, if I could be so bold, he can’t, or won’t, win the Democratic nomination. Smart money in Vegas is on some lady named Hillary. Personally, I don’t believe any candidate is invulnerable. But I think for someone to beat team Clinton, they need a burning desire to win and there is no evidence that Jim Webb has that. Second, unlike your Bushes, or your Clintons, or your Romneys, or your Huntsmans, family Webb is neither old nor new money. Webb is a military man from a military family. He is well off, but the Webb’s won’t be bank rolling their own space tourism venture any time soon. (In fact, there have been rumors that A LOT of the money spent by his exploratory committee has been to pay his own family members.) Third, Webb, like the notorious N.L.G., is a prolific writer. It is easy to see him throwing a little table up in the corner of his events with a pile of military books for sale. Fourth, he doesn’t seem to be driving home some particular message. (As opposed to, say, Lindsey Graham, whose long shot candidacy is clearly explained by his desire to get out his twin messages of “bomb everyone” and “Rand Paul is an idiot.”) Fifth, until recently, Webb’s website contained a mile long form you needed to fill out if you wanted Senator Webb to grace your Iowa gathering with his presence. And, for the real kicker, the form had a space for the amount of honorarium you would be giving Webb for speaking to you. Now, I have seen a lot of candidates at a lot of Pizza Ranches. I’m pretty sure Rick Santorum never got paid for the privilege of spending a day smelling like broasted potatoes. But, until his campaign received complaints about it, Webb thought he deserved a little pocket change if you wanted to shake his hand.
Is Webb alone? No. Ben Carson has a number of books he’d like to see inch their way up the Amazon Bestseller List. Rick Santorum pulled a notorious N.L.G. and now runs his own movie studio, Echolight. Donald Trump is obviously selling whatever it is Donald Trump sells. (Hairspray and apprenticeships I guess.) Rick Perry is trying to line up some future gig. (But he forgot what it is. Oops.) Lincoln Chafee may have his eye on a cable news show, as do the likes of Carly Fiorina (she is great on Real Time) and Bobby Jindal (maybe replacing Pat Robertson on the 700 Club). As the campaign wears on, it will be easier to see who wants to lead the country and who wants to do a Scrooge McDuck into a money bin. Here’s a hint, though. If you find yourself at the Blue Bunny Visitors Center in Le Mars, and a candidate’s spouse tries to get you to buy their latest Berenstain Bears knock off, you’ll probably never see that person on Pennsylvania Avenue.
by Jason Winter