Caged but not confused in Trump’s media pen

Yes, on this night in Council Bluffs there would be the stage antics, the stand-up routine from the president, the hand-waving, the impersonations from behind the official seal (he’s better at mimicking women than men, if any psychologist has a read on that).

I’d surely report some zingers from our commander-in-chief — his now exhausted labeling of Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” — and his newly minted rhyme (don’t underestimate the influence of Kanye) on Democrat Cindy Axne (“Tax-Me,” Trump said, adding, “That was so easy.”).

But as a rural Iowa newspaper owner, my mission for the coverage of President Donald Trump’s rally in Council Bluffs centered on the agricultural angle — a big one — involving Iowa commodity-boosting ethanol.

I didn’t go the Mid-America Center in the western reaches of our state looking for column fodder. This was no dash to Trump bash. Case in point: we ran this headline in the Carroll Daily Times Herald: “From promise to pump, Trump boosts ethanol: President packs 10,000 into buoyant Council Bluffs rally where he announces 12-month E15.”

Hardly “enemy-of-the-people” stuff.

But to report this material — at once essential for our economy and unequivocally positive for the president — I had to endure some disquieting treatment.

First, the Trump team escorts members of the media to a pen near the back of the event center. If you have to leave for the bathroom, the Trump staff/volunteers walk you there — and make sure you don’t talk to anyone at the event. A Los Angeles Times reporter, Eli Stokols, and I were chaperoned from the journalist’s fenced-off zone to the bathroom and back.

Several people from Iowa saw me along the way and wanted to chat, but I was directed toward the restroom and then shuttled right back to the media area. No talking to voters, citizens. A Trump volunteer actually stopped me from talking to people who initiated conversations with me — people who have known me for 20-plus years.

“Have covered a lot of Trump rallies, but never seen press pen as locked down as it is here in Council Bluffs,” Stokols said on Twitter from the Trump Council Bluffs event. “Have now been escorted to the bathrooms and yelled at by advance team for attempting to talk with Trump supporters in the crowd.”

Fortunately, several staffers for Iowa elected officials and renewable energy leaders came over to the front of the media pen on their own to talk with me.

And I followed through with the intent of the night where our newspaper is concerned — hit the ethanol angle hard and early and explain the policy implications, the business facts.

Here’s how the lead of our story on the Trump rally ran:

Coon Rapids POET biorefinery general manager William Howell, one of Iowa’s leading advocates for ethanol, took a front-row seat in Council Bluffs Tuesday night as President Donald Trump told thousands of Iowans and Nebraskans his administration is expanding E15 fuel sales year-round, a White House verdict in favor of the Midwest after years of bruising political and regulatory battles between the oil and renewable fuels industries.

“I think it will raise the hopes of farmers,” Howell said.

Howell joined a crowd of about 10,000 people in Council Bluffs’ Mid-America Center Tuesday for a spirited Trump campaign rally — one with the ostensible mission of boosting the political fortunes of GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Rep. David Young, R-Van Meter, with the ethanol announcement.

“I shouldn’t say it early, but we’re going with E15 year-round,” Trump said. “I made that promise during the primaries, remember? I made that promise. Promises made, promises kept.”

Howell said the decision, made in a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of the more consequential a president could deliver for the rural Midwest.

“I think it is going to boost the Republican presence in the election cycle,” Howell said. “It’s all good, nothing bad.”

To report that, I had to first listen to jeering directed toward the media, driven in large part by Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann who used much of his speech (on a night meant for ethanol) to trash us. 

He whipped the crowd up, directing a palpably hostile energy in the direction of working journalists — a group that includes a lot of cameramen and women and technical people who never write or say a word, but rather, have been on hand to blast Trump’s every word into the homes of millions.

•  “I am so sick of journalists who are supposed to present information for all of us to decide. I am tired of so-called journalists constantly being political commentators,” Kaufmann said. 

•  “Do your jobs!” he screamed. Yes, screamed. The audience, on cue, chanted, “Do your jobs!”

•  “You know what NBC stands for? Never Been Crazier,” Kaufmann said.

Political rallies — both Democratic and Republican — attract some mentally unstable people — idolaters, really, considering their hero worshipping of Trump or Obama — who don’t understand the theatrical aspects, the rhetorical tricks, of the game of politics. They take words literally, as marching orders, permission to be crazy.

Trump supporters walked the perimeter of the media pen in Council Bluffs waving signs and pointing fingers and making ugly comments.

At the same time, Trump assailed Democrats as “dangerous” and “wackos” and “unhinged” as the audience chanted “lock her up” in response not only to references to former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton but also Trump’s suggestion that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., leaked documents in the Senate Judiciary hearings on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

It’s a toxic atmosphere, and one many Republicans tell me makes them uncomfortable.

Two weeks ago, in a remote Kansas cemetery, we buried my late father, a Korean War-era veteran. In my eulogy, I also paid respects to even earlier generations of my family, recalling with fondness how my great-grandmother took so much pride being a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans. Her final resting place is near Dad’s. The echoes of the Civil War and my family’s involvement in it were very much in the air for me that rainy Saturday in Emporia, Kan.

A little more than 72 hours later, I’m at the Trump rally, trying to reconcile his America with the one my departed loved ones served to preserve.

Grandma and Dad, who hailed from the Emporia of journalist William Allen White, would want me to keep writing, keep working to put out newspapers, even if my president describes me as an enemy of the people.

To be honest, I’m OK with the criticism, but for the love of God, let me go to the bathroom on my own.

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