WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Thursday, May 19, 2016


Sharp-eyed readers at the Times noticed something unusual in the May 13, 2016 issue. Missing from his usual slot on the Editorial Page was Andrew Rosenthal, customarily identified as Editorial Page Editor. Occupying his position as new Editorial Page Editor was James Bennet, of The Atlantic magazine, not previously associated with the Editorial Page. In choosing Bennet to succeed Rosenthal, publisher Arthur Sulzberger leap-frogged him over several staffers with Editorial Page experience.

It remains to be seen whether Bennet will bring new editorial positions to the Times but it seems strange that the Times would name an Editorial Page Editor without previous daily opinion page experience.

James Bennet inherits staff and resources other editorial page editors can only dream about. The Times is a world class paper with a well-deserved reputation for excellence. The opinion pages share that reputation.

Bennett will contribute. He will write editorials and shape the content of the opinion pages and will also shape the editorials of staff members by the way he edits their work.

The challenge to the new team at the Times is to maintain the superior quality of the Times. That means continuing to respect the intelligence of its readers. An integral part of that is appealing to their reason. We wish the new team well.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


[Editor's Note: On the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, we reprint below a scathing critique of the state's caucus process written by Gil Cranberg nearly three decades ago. It is no less relevant today than it was when originally published.]

The Iowa Caucuses Have No Clothes
By Gilbert Cranberg
May 31, 1987 (reprinted from The New York Times)

''Get thee to Iowa,'' political soothsayers advised Democratic candidates in the aftermath of the funny thing that happened to Gary Hart on his way to the White House. I have a better suggestion: Stay away.

If enough Presidential candidates boycotted the Feb. 8 precinct caucuses, the event no longer would be invested with significance - significance it does not deserve.

Iowans are sensible, literate people. The system their politicians cooked up to give them a piece of the Presidential-nominating action is unworthy of them. It is dumb - so dumb that most Iowans do not participate.

The 1984 Democratic precinct caucuses attracted eight candidates. The contenders criss-crossed the state for months, wearing out themselves, their workers and, apparently, their audience. The Iowa and national press covered the contest breathlessly. And on caucus night only 75,000 -just 14 percent - of the state's 534,000 registered Democrats went to the precinct meeting places. [Editor's Note: With the exception of an unusually high Democratic turnout for the 2008 Democratic caucuses -- about 39 percent -- estimates show that roughly 1 out of 5 eligible caucus goers turned out for the caucuses in the last two election cycles.] The caucuses disfranchise Iowans who are out of town or who work nights or are handicapped or too frail to brave a nasty winter night.

A caucus is a neighborhood gathering. The 2,500 Democratic caucuses feature an arcane delegate-election procedure that requires wheeling and dealing, sometimes for hours. All in public. If you do not relish political wrangling with neighbors, or you cherish the secret ballot, the caucuses are not for you - as they are not for most Iowa Democrats.

Republican caucuses are more sedate, though no better attended. The big event is a straw vote on the candidates. That tally makes the next day's headlines. The most significant event, though, is the election of delegates to G.O.P. county conventions. Those elections shape Iowa's delegation to the national convention. The press hardly pays attention to caucus selection of these delegates because Republicans have not figured out a way to make it newsworthy by providing hard numbers.

Political activists dominate both party caucuses. The fuss over the caucuses is about the choices by small numbers of elites, charged up over causes ranging from the arms race to abortion to evangelical Christianity, in a state that, in any case, is atypical demographically and economically.

Campaigning for the caucuses is akin to finding needles in a haystack. The candidates who find the most needles - that is, the likely caucus-goers - get anointed as front-runners and top challengers. Obscured by the hoopla is the insignificant fraction of voters who decide the outcomes. Mr. Hart was judged by the press to be Walter F. Mondale's chief rival in 1984 after luring a mere 9,000 or so followers to the caucuses.

So candidates roam rural Iowa looking for straw votes by offering photo opportunities with pigs. A former governor pedals across the state. The search for scarce caucus participants puts the candidates on a merry-go-round of picnics, coffees and living-room tete-a-tetes.

An estimated 2,000 members of the national press corps will report the doings, much to the delight of the state's tourism and economic-development promoters. Toss in expenditures for campaign offices, staff, ads, meals, auto rentals and hotels, and Iowa has a thriving election industry. Given the intrinsic worth of the caucuses, they are a classic case of the proverbial rube taking city slickers to the cleaners.

Yes, Iowa's caucuses give underfinanced unknowns a shot at the Presidency. The relatively low cost of a campaign is more than offset, though, by the toll in stamina and time taken by the ordeal. The Iowa parties may be among the chief victims when their best workers become too pooped to politick in the general election after 18 months of battling each other.

The youngster who blurted the truth, ''Look, ma, the Emperor has no clothes'' brought people to their senses. Politicians who proclaimed the idiocy of the Iowa caucuses, refused to participate and demanded reform of the hodgepodge of offshoots would perform a similar service. The purpose of a nominating process is to demonstrate fitness for office: Opting out of the madness by tossing a towel into the ring instead of a hat would do exactly that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


With the praise lavished upon the Iowa caucuses as grassroots democracy and the
attention that supposedly makes Iowa “the center of the political universe,” perhaps it is
worth hearing from a few who would see the Feb. 1, 2016 caucuses as counter to the
American dream.

No, they are not the sore losers in previous years. Nor are they those who gripe about
Iowa being the first in the nation to have a say as to who will hold “the most important
office of government in the history of the world” — as Harry Truman characterized the

They are, however, people with credentials to assess the 2016 caucus, particularly the
GOP version. They include George Washington, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin and
America’s poet and prophet, Walt Whitman.

All warned about the “spirit of party” and the fear “factions” would put ideological
concerns above the “common good,” sacrificing what is best for the nation to serve the
agendas of the few.

Welcome to Iowa and the 2016 GOP caucus campaign, where open minds and
compromise are verboten — just like in Congress these days.

Consider, however, George Washington in his 1796 farewell address: “Let me warn
you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party…”
His warning: “The domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of
revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the
most horrid enormities is itself a frightful despotism… It agitates the Community with ill
founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Ill-founded jealousies? False alarms? Animosity? Sounds like Washington was
commenting on GOP candidate debates.

James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, 1787, defined factions as “a number of
citizens adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of
the community…A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government,
and many other points…have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with
mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other
than to cooperate for their common good ….”

Vex? Oppress? Might add fearmongering to the list.

Benjamin Franklin at the 1787 Constitutional convention feared, “We shall be
divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves
shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age(s). And what is worse,
Mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by
Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.”

Government by chance, war and conquest? So much for “government of the people,
by the people and for the people.”

Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas (1871) encouraged young Americans to “enter
into politics,” but cautioned against “these half-brain'd nominees, the many ignorant ballots
and many elected failures and blatherers…. For America, if eligible at all to downfall and
ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world
could not beat her down But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but
their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and
of equal brotherhood.”

From a current perspective, philosopher Jacob Needleman put it succinctly in his
2002 book, The American Soul: “…the founders of our country did not fight and die for the
right to be selfish and self-involved, nor did they make holy cause of the childish impulse to
have no constraints upon ourselves, to get just what we like or want whenever or however
we want it. They did not risk so much just so that a man or woman could live and act
independently of obligation to society.”

One wish is that the 2016 caucus will not only weed out candidates, but also weed
out the worst aspects of spirit of party and factions that Washington and Madison worried
about and that dominate caucus rhetoric.

It’s not about civility, as the conventional wisdom would have it — even duels to the
death have civil ritual. It’s about finding a common ground to best serve our nation,
appealing to the highest common denominator. Not the lowest.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Say what you will — and we all have — the lead-up to the 2016 election so far is….is….is?

Well, maybe Shakespeare characterized much of the give-and-take among presidential candidates in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Or maybe he caught the spirit of today’s political rhetoric in Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

When it comes to the “sound and fury” of presidential debates, consider a quote attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

And some 270 years ago, Thomas Gray explained why Republican and Democratic candidates ignore obvious and well-founded truths and instead play to the misguided, and even false, beliefs of their base. Gray wrote, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." (So GOP candidates question the worth of vaccines, ignore climate change and defy anyone to mention evolution.)

Linking any one of the Shakespearean or other insights to a specific episode in today’s campaign entertainment is frustrating, however; the flow of charges and counter-charges, slogans and sound bites is halfway around the world before you can sort things out.

Better to focus on something relatively stable in the 2016 campaign — Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” and the other candidates who say our nation is a basket case sorely in need of their quack remedies.

The line “Make America Great Again” scores at least a hat trick by being much ado about nothing, full of sound and fury and appealing to a blissful base. It’s the sort of political and mindless manipulation that George Orwell warned about in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”

“Make America Great Again.” What does that mean? At Fourth of July commemorations three months ago and for at least a century Americans have heard speakers say America IS the greatest nation on earth. That declaration Fourth after Fourth goes unchallenged — at least until it suits today’s candidates to resort to Halloween and horror stories instead of flag waving.

In a few ways we’re better than ever. The Affordable Care Act has extended medical insurance coverage to several million of our fellow citizens. Court decisions have extended human rights to people other than white men. Few of us desire a supposed return to be “great again” if that “again” means subservience to white males with everyone else in the back of the bus.

Besides, an agenda for greatness must look forward, not backward.

Look forward to actions and not just talk about serving the millions of armed forces veterans so long neglected in actions, but well-supported by bumper stickers. Look forward to dealing with our prison incarceration rate, the worst in the world. Look forward to enhancing, not debasing, women’s reproductive rights and health care. Look forward to making college education costs manageable and encouraging, not prohibitive. Look forward not to cutting or raising taxes, but to giving citizens a better return on the taxes they already pay. Those and other steps to greatness are all but ignored in the “Much Ado About Nothing” and “sound and fury” approach.

Further, what does it mean to be a great nation? Is that a goal simply to talk about, after which we can lean back and relax? Or maybe strut about, having achieved greatness? Or is national greatness always more of a starting point, a challenge to continually extend freedom and the fruits of greatness to others in our nation and beyond, rather than building walls?

Sadly, we remain far short of the nation that James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others envisioned in their grand experiment. Rather than yearn for a return to a delusional past, however, we should accept the challenges and opportunities in the years ahead. That’s what elections are supposed to be about — despite Trump and the debates.


Offered below is an Iowa newspaper's editorial endorsement of Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia for U.S. President. It likely was the first-in-the-nation endorsement for a candidate then known as “Jimmy Who?”

But the endorsement resonates today because of Mr. Carter’s recent diagnosis of cancer and because the qualities ascribed to him in the endorsement differ so markedly from what candidates claim today.

The endorsement was from John McCormally, editor of the Burlington Hawk Eye from 1968 to 1979; before coming to Iowa he was editor of the Hutchinson, Kansas, News, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for news and editorial coverage of the need for legislative reapportionment. John died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 71. A grandson, John McCormally, is an Iowa assistant attorney general.

The Burlington Hawk Eye

Jimmy Carter For President ...

December 20, 1974

By John McCormally

I reserve the right to change my mind several times between now and November 1976, but as of now, I'm for Jimmy Carter for president. And if I had to decide today, I'd round out the ticket by teaming the outgoing governor of Georgia up with the in-coming governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso, for vice president.

That gives you a ticket nicely balanced, north and south, male and female, with executive experience, the right touches of liberalism without being suicidally radical. Best of all, neither of them has ever given the impression they thought they were God Almighty.

That's why neither of them has impressed you much. They haven't yet been remanufactured by the media and put on sale as the saviors of mankind and leaders of the free world. How faithful I remain to them will depend a lot on how successfully they resist the determination of the icon makers to turn them into plastic persons.

Liberals will consider Carter's first liability his southern address. I shared that bigotry once myself, distrusting anyone from the South. But if recent events have taught us anything, it is that, block for block, there are more rednecks in Boston than there are in Atlanta.

The other thing that disenchants the kingmakers is that Carter just doesn't look like king making material; it is safe to say that most people still have never heard of him. He doesn't give any assurance of "generations of peace" or that his administration will produce the greatest events since creation.

Which is all in his favor. If there's anything we don't need, it's another superman. We need to start out with the premise - which we abandoned with Coolidge - that all we need for president is someone capable of managing one of the three branches of government for four years, with the generally accepted minimum of honesty and ability that is expected of all of us on our jobs. If we luck out and do better than that, it's a welcome bonus. In fact, the less we expect of the president, the more attention we will pay to the performance of the congress and judiciary and the state governments and the business conglomerates that own the country, all of which affect our daily lives far more than any president.

Still, we want a president who sets an acceptable tone. If he is too obviously a charlatan, like Johnson, too obviously a crook, like Nixon, or too obviously a dodo, like Ford, he detracts from the overall performance.…

Carter's an appealing fellow. There's an air of decency, a disarming simplicity, about him that's long been lacking in Washington. He has a varied background: Annapolis graduate, practicing scientist, peanut farmer, and politician.

He still needs to be measured against whoever else, in either party, comes on, but for now, I think he's the man to beat.

And for the benefit of the female chauvinist piglets, I wouldn't care if the ticket were reversed.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


The recent death of an American hero, Dr. Frances Kelsey, like the deaths of most real heroes, is cause for both joy and lament. Joy because such heroes reflect our society at its best; lament because of the contrast between their heroics and the shortcomings of others that too often haunt us.

Dr. Kelsey was one of those folks routinely damned by those who want to be the next U.S. president. She was a bureaucrat — you know, a government employee who gets in the way of the marketplace and free enterprise and creating jobs.

Sure enough, Dr. Kelsey cost drug manufacturer Richardson-Merrell millions of dollars and cost the U.S. countless jobs. In the early 1960s she had questions about a drug introduced in Germany in1957 and then available in 46 nations around the world; that was Merrell’s Kevadon, whose generic name was thalidomide.

Despite pressure from the pharmaceutical industry and free-market ideologues, she blocked thalidomide from a hasty entrance into the U.S. market. After griping about obstructionist government regulators, in 1962 Merrell withdrew its application for marketing Kevadon in the U.S. Evidence of the birth defects it caused was overwhelming — not in the way of tests in government labs, but in the way of children born with flipper-like limbs and other birth defects. It’s estimated that at least 10,000 babies, whose mothers had taken the drug, were born with deformities. 17 such births were recorded in the U.S. by mothers who apparently got the drug in Canada. Most of the estimated 100,000 women who took the drug to combat morning sickness suffered miscarriages. Estimates are that 5,000 to 6,000 thalidomide victims survive today. (In recent years, thalidomide has been found to be helpful in treating some forms of cancer and leprosy.)

Dr. Kelsey was new to her drug-approval post in the Food and Drug Administration in 1960 when assigned to review and expected by many to routinely approve thalidomide. Fortunately, however, for some 30 years she had already been a researcher dealing with related drugs and their effects. (She got her first research job — before government regulators would introduce equal employment opportunities for women — because the fellow who hired her assumed Frances was a man.)

At the FDA, she saw some red flags about thalidomide as did some of her colleagues. Her experience and her courage served us well — even though the likes of her are fodder for politicians who draw laughs when they amuse their supporters with the line “I’m from the government; I’m here to help you.”

Dr. Kelsey worked in government into her 90s and died at 101, on Aug. 7. Some commentaries about her noted that at the same time that Dr. Kelsey was blocking thalidomide, another person, a former federal employee in the U.S. Fish and WildLife Service, was about to publish a book, “Silent Spring”, which led to the banning of DDT. She, of course, was Rachel Carson, who died in 1962 at 57.

So, the work of Kelsey and Carson merits praise — Kelsey-and-Carson or Carson-and-Kelsey has a nice ring to it as a name for a public-interest firm, doesn’t it? But KC Inc. is cause for lament, too. After all, they were scientists, the kind of people whose work is scorned nowadays by deniers of climate change, foes of vaccination, opponents of the teaching of evolution or those, like Iowa’s governor and the Farm Bureau, who ignore calls for sound public policy to combat pollution of Iowa waterways.

Curious choice, isn’t it? Rely on government regulators, or let private interests and political game playing drive public policy?

Sounds clear cut. But often enough the marketplace and sound public policy find something in common. When it comes to climate change, for example, the marketplace may recognize that scoffing at scientific findings is simply bad business. At least we can hope such awareness will ultimately drive government decision making.

When push comes to shove, however, as it does with water pollution in Iowa, folks like Carson and Kelsey are cause for joy, and the governor and Farm Bureau cause for lament. (Even if my “American” hero Dr. Kelsey was born in Canada and got dual citizenship in 1950 so she could continue to practice medicine here!)

Friday, August 7, 2015


If you have suffered an election for more than four years, cease all electoral activity and seek help immediately. You may be suffering from Electile Dysfunction, a malady that afflicts large numbers of people and creates havoc for marital relations because of what it does for intercourse about anything other than presidential candidates. Electile Dysfunction is exacerbated by election analysts in urgent need of treatment for overactive blather.

Treatment of Electile Dysfunction is difficult given that the best treatment is abstention from ALL political stimuli, which is nearly impossible given the presence of election analysts and consultants.

Americans need to declare an end to the electoral madness! Enough already! Who needs more of Donald Trump and his drivel?