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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Paul Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, made the startling accusation Nov. 10 that members of the U.S. Supreme Court acted “corruptly” in agreeing to review a case concerning the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement. According to Krugman, the Supreme Court’s action could have “grotesque” consequences in a case that deserves to be laughed out of court because it involves nothing more than a typographical error in drafting.

The votes of four justices are required for the Supreme Court to agree to review a case. By custom, the votes of the justices are secret. If Krugman is correct in characterizing the high court’s action in the Affordable Care Act case as corrupt, then we have the cover-up of dishonesty at the highest levels of government.

And all without the slightest expression of concern by the press. The secrecy that surrounds Supreme Court justice votes on whether to accept cases for review has never been a cause of concern by the press as a whole even though the decisions on the composition of the high court’s docket are of the utmost importance. The press ought to wake up and quit passively tolerating this unnecessary government secrecy. Perhaps Krugman’s courage in taking the unprecedented action of labeling a high court vote as corrupt will encourage further press coverage of the court’s untenable secrecy policy on certiorari votes. It has been allowed to go unchallenged far too long.

Michael Gartner: BRUCE BRALEY

From the beginning, Iowa and national Democrats thought Bruce Braley was a shoo-in to win the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin.

He wasn’t.

He wasn’t because he isn't Tom Harkin — and smart as he is, he apparently never really studied how Harkin stayed in Congress for 40 years, ten years in the House of Representatives and then 30 years in the U.S. Senate.

In the 168-year history of the state, there have been only ten Democratic Senators, and two of those were George Jones and Augustus Dodge, the two men Iowa’s new legislature sent to the United States Senate when Iowa entered the Union. (There have been 24 Republicans.)

Harkin is the only Democratic Senator from Iowa ever to be elected by the people to serve two full terms, and he was elected five times. He was elected and re-elected for these reasons: He is an old-fashioned Upper Midwest Populist who is passionate in his beliefs. He cares about the ordinary Iowans and is comfortable with the farmer and the druggist and the teacher and the body-and-fender man (as well as with high-profile businessman Bill Knapp). He listens. He fights. And he throws body-and-soul into his campaigns. It helps, too, that he sleeps with his strategist.

Even with that passion, that drive, that wife-enforced discipline and a vast knowledge of the state, he never was known as Landslide Tom. He went to the Senate in 1985, beating incumbent Republican Roger Jepsen, a flawed candidate who had served one term. Harkin got 55% of the vote.

In the next three elections, the Republicans threw everything they had at him. In 1990, Harkin beat Congressman Tom Tauke, with 54% of the vote. In 1966, he beat Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot, with 52%. In 2002, he beat Congressman Greg Ganske, with 54%. Finally, the Republicans more or less gave up, nominating Christopher Reed, someone few people had heard of, in 2008, when Harkin got his biggest margin, getting 63% of the vote. (In his career, he beat more sitting members of Congress than anyone else in history.)

He never got the big margins that Iowans have given Republican Chuck Grassley, whose winning percentages were 53 (in 1980, when he beat incumbent John Culver), 66 (over John Roehrick), 70 (over Jean Lloyd-Jones), 68 (over David Osterberg), 72 (over Art Small) and 66 (over Roxanne Conlin). Iowans have always felt more comfortable with Grassley than with Harkin. Grassley makes us feel comfortable about the world; Harkin makes us think about the world.

Braley is a different sort, not Harkin and not Grassley. He’s a smart man, and he’s a nice man. He grew up on a farm and became a trial lawyer. In the end, the trial lawyer won out. In the campaign he sometimes seemed arrogant — that fatal crack about farmer Grassley not being a lawyer was as snooty as it was snotty.

“Braley listens for a minute then sort of just continues back on his merry way,” a senior Democratic official told the Washington Post. “He comes across as arrogant, and I think it’s because he is.” (Of course, if he had won, senior Democratic officials would say he was forceful and determined, not arrogant.)

In public, he sometimes seemed dispassionate about issues and almost impatient with the process. His campaign had little discipline, and it ran against a candidate, Joni Ernst, who might be the most disciplined and programmed (and telegenic) candidate in the history of the state. He sometimes seemed at sea.

Yet he was anointed for the race by Harkin himself; it was understood that Braley was Harkin’s choice, and that scared off any would-be primary opponents. So Braley never even got to take the test drive of a primary, which is too bad. Primaries are great practice and testing grounds for candidates, as Senator-elect Ernst can attest.

Instead, Braley entered as the full-blown candidate, and having been anointed by Harkin he almost seemed to expect to be anointed by the rest of the state. And while the candidate himself lacked spark — he’s “a poor fit for the state [who] looks like he is more comfortable in an office building than on plowed ground,” a Republican strategist wrote in a memo quoted by the Washington Post — the organization lacked cohesion and strategy. Who was in charge? The Des Moines consultants? The folks from the Senate Democratic Campaign committee? Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer? The candidate himself? People close to the campaign say it was never clear.

In the end, it wasn’t even that close: Ernst 52, Braley 44.

It was, of course, a huge Republican year, and Braley faced a candidate who caught on like wildfire. Still, he had money, a name and experience, and he was Tom Harkin’s man. But he wasn’t Tom Harkin. While Harkin listened and fought, Braley seemed to have a sense of entitlement. While the Harkins carefully managed campaigns, Braley let others fight over control. And while Harkin was disciplined, Braley went off on his “merry way.”

And unfortunately for Democrats, that “merry way” led back to Waterloo.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


An inmate at Iowa’s Maximum Security state prison once posed for me a simple but profound question: “Why are there only poor people here?” The question ought to preoccupy daily the best minds in criminal justice, including every member of the U.S. Supreme Court. A day shouldn’t pass without the justices pondering why the poor are so disadvantaged by the system and what can be done about it.

Not long after my encounter at the prison I found myself in a courtroom in Des Moines where decisions were being made on pre-trial release for those arrested overnight. Ordinarily judges required arrestees to post cash or work out deals with bail bondsmen to do it for them for a fee, despite the fact that Iowa law provides for pre-trial release without bail when an arrestee's community ties make it unlikely he or she will fail to appear at trial. On this particular day the presiding judge recognized me in court and motioned me to sit beside him on the bench. I explained I was there to observe the pre-trial release system and he offered to share with me whatever information he had when he made a release decision.

Before long, we settled into a routine; I questioned his reasons whenever he required money bail and he would almost always reconsider and allow release on the arrestee’s promise to appear.  In that one court then, the ideal of equal justice for the poor -- that is, justice divorced from ability to pay -- was realized however fleetingly and briefly but successfully.

There is no reason why what the judge and I worked out on the fly cannot be made part of the judicial system nationwide.

Decisions on pre-trial release should be explained to the public and not, as now, made overly dependent on money. It’s a scandal, too-long tolerated, that every day large numbers of poor people are imprisoned in this country, without being convicted of any crime, solely because of their poverty.


“Lie and Buy!”

How’s that for a sound bite?

Pretty good, I’d say, even discounting pride of authorship.

“Lie and Buy!”

What’s good about it? Well, you have to admit it’s memorable, if not catchy.
It rhymes, too.

But, you might ask, what does it mean, connote or describe?

Well, if you have to be picky or critical, here’s one take on “Lie and Buy!”:

Like all good sound bites it pulls together emotions, point of view, reinforcement of existing beliefs and, among other things, a statement that almost defies rebuttal or rational discussion.

“Lie and Buy!” for me is the sound bite that summarizes the 2014 political campaigns in Iowa and, I expect, elsewhere around the nation. So many candidates have ads that mislead, misinform, hoodwink, deceive and, well, lie.

So many big spenders want to buy candidates, buy power in legislatures and the Congress, buy influence and shape government policy so that they’ll have even more money in 2016 to buy still more influence.

Hence, “Lie and Buy!” overcomes wishful thinking or Polyanna prose like that of Adlai Stevenson who may have lost his 1952 and 1956 campaigns for the presidency because he urged candidates:

“Let's face it. Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you're attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man — war, poverty, and tyranny — and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each.”

Sadly, nowadays, candidates don’t seek triumph over assaults upon human dignity. Instead, under “Lie and Buy!” their campaigns themselves are assaults upon human dignity.