The sage from Jefferson
By ANNIE MEHL
David Yepsen, widely regarded today as one of the more trusted voices on Iowa politics, spent the hot, humid Hawkeye State summers with his nose buried between the pages of books in the Jefferson Public Library.
His parents had started him in kindergarten a year early. He was smaller than everyone else, so he couldn’t play sports. He didn’t have the knack for music, either.
Yepsen found his passion in the chapters of history books, the 1964 Greene County political posters he hung on his bedrooms walls and the long, inspirational conversations he had with his eighth-grade history and social studies teachers, John Guenther and Glenn Camp.
A Jefferson native, David Yepsen is the son of Arlon and Marj Yepsen. He grew up with brother Tom, now a retired school principal living in Jefferson, and sisters Mary Alice, a special education teacher in Southeast Polk outside of Des Moines and Sara, a nurse in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
After graduating from high school in 1968, Yepsen went to University of Iowa, where his interest in student government and political campaigns grew.
Eager to graduate from school, he found some journalism classes to help give him enough credits to finish.
“I was kind of intrigued by the intersection between media and politics,” Yepsen said.
Yepsen began working for the Daily Iowan and was soon introduced to Bill Zima, a former copy editor for the Des Moines Register. With help from friends and Zima, Yepsen discovered a niche for reporting and love for journalism.
“At school, I saw the impact that media people could have,” Yepsen said. “You could write a story — things happen. I spent time in student government; you pass resolutions, talk and all of that, but nothing happened, but you could write stories about things — stuff would happen.”
Yepsen went on to briefly work at the Quad-City Times, where he covered police and city hall. In 1974, he joined the Des Moines Tribune before beginning what would become a 34-year career as a reporter covering politics and government at The Des Moines Register.
In 2008, Yepsen left the Register to work as a director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
When Dean Borg, host of Iowa Public Television show “Iowa Press” announced his retirement, Yepsen jumped on board as the new “Iowa Press” host in early 2017.
Yepsen, 67, now spends his time talking with politicians, reporters and local advocates about various issues affecting Iowans such as mental health funding, privatization of Medicaid or any other concerns Iowans face today.
Jefferson Herald: What changes have you seen in Jefferson over the years? What do you think of the economic development happening, particularly with the recent announcement of Pillar in Jefferson as well as the $21.48 million bond referendum that was recently passed to modernize the Greene County schools and build a career academy at the site of a new high school in Greene County?
Yepsen: I think Jefferson is on a great track. I was really worried for a number of years covering politics in Iowa. Jefferson was falling victim to a problem that most rural communities have — a migration of young people. I was really sad about that.
In the last 10 years, I’ve noticed things started to change. I think it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s one coffee shop at a time. It’s a change in attitude that I think people with a more positive outlook started to come of age, and nothing succeeds like success, and gradually and a lot of people have been involved with it, including my friend Chuck (Offenburger) — Jefferson wasn’t going to roll over.
Jefferson Herald: What are your general thoughts on President Donald Trump?
Yepsen: I was surprised he won, as were many people. I’ve discovered with politicians, you don’t pass judgment on them while they’re in term. Even then you have to wait some period after they leave office to judge whether they were good or not. It’s too early to pass judgement on Donald Trump.
I am not happy with some of his conduct in office — I think it’s disgusting — and I think most people wish he would quit tweeting or wish he would be more careful about tweeting.
Someday we will go back, and we will be writing about how he used tweets in the presidency. He’s clearly having an impact on the judiciary — on the role of government in our lives.
Let’s see how that plays out. We’re right now in the middle of these negotiations of North Korea. The picture of Kim Jong-un shaking hands with a CIA director and the secretary of state. Donald Trump deserves some credit for that happening, and we don’t where it’s going to go, but he clearly as president ratcheted up the rhetoric, turned up the heat and convinced the Chinese and the Russians and the rest of the world that this had gone on long enough.
Jefferson Herald: What are your thoughts on the Democratic candidates for governor?
Yepsen: It’s too early to say. We are going to have the first, and I think, only statewide debate in May. I think Fred Hubbell, Nate Boulton and John Norris are probably at the top tier of candidates. The rest are somewhat below. I think it’s entirely possible that this goes to a state convention that nobody gets 35 percent of the vote — with six candidates, all of them with some base of support.
Jefferson Herald: Do you believe there is an urban-rural divide?
Yepsen: There is an urban-rural divide in Iowa, and I always tell audiences that I grew up in Jefferson, and people in Grand Junction think Jefferson is a big city. The interesting thing, if you go back in the history of the country, there has been a rural-urban divide since the very beginning of the republic. Frankly, that is true around the world. Rural people feel overlooked; they feel left behind. They think people look down on them — whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just a fact.
Leaders in rural areas have to inspire people to believe in them more — that we can, in fact, do things. I think it’s more rural than on the urban side.
Jefferson Herald: What are your thoughts on the 2020 presidential elections?
Yepsen: It’s way too early. We don’t know ... I think Iowa still will play a role. We are starting to see some candidates show up here. It’s never a guarantee that Iowa is going to be an important part of the process. Iowans have to keep fighting for the caucuses, because some people don’t think we should have them. And Iowans have to keep the caucuses fair, because the rest of the country says, ‘Those are civil people out there and they vet the candidates,’ and so Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, to a lesser extent get a divided apple.
It’s a long way to 2019, where the process will really heat up, so stay tuned.
I think it will be important.
Jefferson Herald: Are there any politicians you have interviewed that stood out to you or were your favorite to work with?
Yepsen: I have enormous respect for people in politics. These are people in the arena. It is so easy — there are so many Americans that say ‘Oh politics is dirty. I don’t like it.’ But it’s not going to get any better by people ignoring it. It’s only going to get better, and the country is only going to get better, if people care about the country and the state get involved. So I have great admiration for all of them.
Jefferson Herald: Has there been any one politician that was the most challenging to work with or interview?
Yepsen: Journalists are people with big megaphones, and politicians are careful. Sometimes that can become frustrating, because they become inaccessible, and I think that journalists and political leaders have to have a healthy respect for one another and understand the role that each plays — understand that they are useful to each other.
They have information, too, that journalists need. Politicians need journalists too, because one way that political leaders lead is through the media. It’s so easy for that relationship to get off the rails. People get angry on either side, and things get said. We live in a really uncivil time, and there’s just a coarseness to society that didn’t exist even a few years ago.
Jefferson Herald: What role would you say social media plays in political campaigns and politics as a whole today?
Yepsen: We’ve always had negative campaigns and robust campaigns. What has happened now, though, is the media — the electronic media, and it isn’t just social media — I think the modern era started in about 1994.
It started to get negative when radio and television started putting this stuff in our lap all of the time. Then you get cable, and then you get social media, and it’s 24/7, and there is just venom and hostility and a lack of civility and profanity.
Jefferson Herald: Do you see it as an issue that we have only Republicans holding the majority of the top spots in both the state and federal levels of government in Iowa? There is only one Democrat, U.S. Dave Loebsack, representing Iowa in Congress.
Yepsen: No, they won elections. It’s an evolution. The Democrats had a very bad cycle in 2010. The Republicans did well in 2016. I know why each one of those races happened.
The Republicans ran more electable candidates, and the Democrats had some bad candidates that they ran — candidates with personal baggages. I do think Iowa is maybe trending more Republican. You look at Iowa in 2016; Trump won by almost 10 percent over Hillary (Clinton). She was an incredibly flawed candidate, and by flawed I mean her negatives were very high. Does that apply to other candidates now? We’ll see.
Jefferson Herald: What is your general take on the millennial generation?
Yepsen: I think everybody badmouths the youngest generation. I remember people bad-mouthing Baby Boomers, you know — spoiled, long hair, their music was bad. I think it’s wrong to paint people with that kind of distinction.
I think the greatest generation that we had was the World War II era. They were in their 20s when they went off to war, so it’s a little early to pass judgement on millennials today. We don’t know what challenges they are going to face.
Jefferson Herald: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a better and smarter consumer of news and media?
Yepsen: I think people should consume a variety of news — news from different sources. They should think about, where is this information coming from? Who’s paying for this message? You buy news just the way you buy potatoes in the grocery store. You look at them and — are they good? You’ve got to be a wise consumer.
You can’t just not consume anything, because then you are ignorant, and our democracy does not function with uninformed people. That’s why the democracy founders made the First Amendment that they did, because they knew that free speech was important.
That’s why they made a big deal about public education. Clueless people and people that are ignorant are going to be left behind in the future. You need to consume news, you need to be a smart consumer and you need to be balanced.
Jefferson Herald: What is your take on identity politics today?
Yepsen: We have to be careful about how we manipulate each other based on who we are. I worry that people just form judgments about other people without knowing other information. We look at people, and their race and their gender and their religion, and we don’t look any deeper than that. Unfortunately, that goes with a lot of what’s happening with Facebook — media manipulation.
What was the best political movie ever made?
What was the best political biography ever written?
The new book on Ulysses S. Grant, “Grant” by Ron Chernow
What was the best political book ever written?
“The Making of the President, 1960” by Theodore H. White
What do you remember most about growing up in Jefferson?
“The schools. I liked hot summer afternoons in the library. The smell of the books. I really have a fond place in my heart for the library. It was a warm time, lazy summers.”
What has the best policy idea that you ever heard that was never implemented?
“As a reporter, that’s what you were doing was covering ideas and policies. People were interested in that kind of thing. It’s just like mental health. My master’s degree is in public administration. There were some episodes in American history that were formative. Abraham Lincoln’s decision to build the intercontinental railroad. In 1940, Congress voted by a very narrow margin to reinstitute the draft, and it was very controversial at the time, but had we not done that, we wouldn’t have had an army to help fight in World War II.”
What is the best small-town restaurant in Iowa?
“I love the uptown cafes. Every town has got uptown cafes. You find them by the number of pickup trucks sitting outside. I can go all around the state and pick places like that. It’s where you glue a community together.”