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.