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Discussion: Iowa Columnist Donald Kaul

posted on April 3, 2008 at 3:29 PM

For more than 25 years he was a fixture in Iowa, commenting on the public policy foibles of the day as well as Iowa’s cultural peculiarities. Indeed he helped give birth to one -- the great migrating party across the state, otherwise known as RAGBRAI.

Beyond that institution, Donald Kaul, has shaped Iowa opinions on all manner of issues.

While now retired to his native Michigan, his thoughts can still be read once a week on the website, minuteman.org.

He was in Iowa a while back and we caught up with him. The conversation began with a review of the early days of his "Over the Coffee" column.

DONALD KAUL: Parlin Miller wrote the column for 20-30 years before I took it over. They retired him sort of forcibly and I thought boy I'm going to write this, this really hip, fast column. It's going to be over the heads of most, most Iowans but some people would get it and maybe I'll have a little success with it. Well, what happened is I was under the heads of - I was over and I had more success than I really intended. I hadn't thought ever to work that long here or for the Des Moines Register.

Jeneane Beck: Just talk about that process because you were with the register, you left the register, you returned-

What prompted all that?

DONALD KAUL: Well I, I came here in 1960 and rather full of myself. I was married and had two children by that time and I had-

I was convinced that I would work two years in the sticks and then go to the London Bureau of the New York Times if nothing was available in Paris and it turned out I was a really lousy reporter. So, they, I was on the Tribune by that time. They transferred me to the Register would save my life. I did better, got the column and wrote the column here for seven years.

And it came to point where I had to make a move. I got job offer. So I use that as a crowbar to extort Washington out of them and for the Washington Bureau, and I thought I was going to be a national syndicated columnist out of there. I worked a long time another till '83 I suppose and then still not a syndicated columnist but doing well is the Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register. I used to joke I was the only local columnist who lived 500 miles from his paper and I got in a fight with my editor and I either quit or was fired depending on who you listen to. I listen to me, I think I was fired and I was in, I was in desperate shape actually. I had, my daughter was just starting college and my wife was just starting a business and the Cedar Rapids Gazette asked if I would write a column for them still in Washington.

I said terrific. So I did that for five years and the ravine changed in Des Moines and they came to me and in the mean time I gotten syndicated nationally and it worked out very well. I came back to the Register happy. The syndication went ok. About a hundred and fifty papers by - and I just played out the string and then I got to be sixty-five and then past sixty-five and I decided I didn't want to do that anymore. I was just worn out with a deadline. I was running five times a week when I first started. Nine years later I was running four times a week and nine years after that I went down to three. It was hard work in that sense. You just you have a deadline looking at you all the time and I gave it up and about six months later a fellow called me, it's the only way I get my jobs, I've never interviewed for a job and gotten it in my life.

They have to, they have to know who I am because I've, I think I do great in interviews and I do lousy and he said starting up this little ah, little do-gooder syndicate and would I write a column a week for them. I said sure.

JENEANE BECK: Minuteman.org

DONALD KAUL: Right and it's a lot of fun. It keeps me busy. Sort of gives some structure where, to your day, they pay me walk around money. It's really not a significant amount of money and that's where I am.

JENEANE BECK: With that in mind did you follow Iowa? Did you follow the caucuses?

DONALD KAUL: I always follow the caucuses certainly. I'm pretty much out of contact with Iowa as a place, legislature, and it was just too bad because the legislature used to be very funny.

JENEANE BECK: It still is.

DONALD KAUL: Ah yeah. But I watch the caucuses and I thought they had a good caucus this year. I'm a great caucus fan for covering it. It, and the New Hampshire primary. I think that's why they exist really because reporters love them but as I'm not sure about it as a way to start the presidential nomination process. Except that this year it worked the way it's suppose to work. I thought it was really pretty good.

JENEANE BECK: You mean because participation was up? More people?

DONALD KAUL: Yeah exactly, exactly and, and it sort of, it sort of roiled the, the waters and got the thing going. They're famous for picking the loser in an election and I think they did this year too - certainly with Republican side. That shouldn't make any difference because you got 49 states coming along and I've sort of changed my mind.

JENEANE BECK: Well what about the remaining three? Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain- somebody more fun to write about than the others or-

DONALD KAUL: Well the whole thing - it's the Obama/Clinton knife fight is fun to write about because you always have an opinion. McCain, not so much. I thought the Republican field was pretty week actually and he was the best of them I thought by a lot and Obama and Hillary on the other hand now that's, that's a sort of symbolic fight. Feminism pitted against the Civil Rights Movement. It's, I don't know how it's going to play out. I think they may kill each other.

Not literally but I mean politically. I think one of them will come out of the convention with one nose pushed over to the side, an ear hanging by a thread, missing three front teeth. That's what I think.

JENEANE BECK: You used to cover conventions-


JENEANE BECK: You want to go this year? Think you'll be there?

DONALD KAUL: No, no, no they've - Well actually this year I'd like to go. I won't be there because the syndicate doesn't have the money to send me but for the first time in many years I think this will be great. Could be a great convention.

JENEANE BECK: Should be.

DONALD KAUL: I mean all that, all that anger and frustration and passion sort of what politics are suppose to be, but so seldom are.

JENEANE BECK: Something that I don't know if you keep up on of course RAGBRAI, co-founder of that organization. I don't know if you saw over the last summer after this final or the last summer's RAGBRAI one of the counties, Crawford’s County has decided they want to ban RAGBRAI coming through. Actually on a sad not a gentleman was killed when he fell off his bike and struck his head but the issue was the county was sued over poor road conditions. What do you think about that? Most counties beg RAGBRAI to come through it and now you have got counties concerned about hosting these event.

DONALD KAUL: There was always concern we, we never can- John Karras, my colleague and I, we never conceived a RAGBRAI as a big mass event. We thought a few hundred people were about as many dingbats as you can get convinced to ride across Iowa in the summer.

JENEANE BECK: A lot more dingbats than you thought.

DONALD KAUL: My God, I mean, it was just amazing and they got probably not the first ten I think maybe two or three after that and it just got to be, to me not a lot of fun, but the people who go have a great time. It's a rolling party but we always worried about that liability issue on a variety of fronts, but fortunately Iowans tend not to be litigious and as far as I know we never got sued and we never had to make a settlement. We've had people die. We've had people terribly injured on the ride, that's going to happen. It's going to happen if they stay at home.

JENEANE BECK: When I told people I was going to interview you several people said ask him about six on six basketball. Ask him if that's why he had to leave Iowa just couldn't get past the six on six girls basketball.

DONALD KAUL: Are you kidding?

JENEANE BECK: You're known for your-

DONALD KAUL: Exactly! Six on Six Basketball made my career.

JENEANE BECK: You love it!

DONALD KAUL: In a way I remember seeing my first game. It's well before I had the column of course, and I came in to the Veteran's Auditorium. It was during the, the tournament and there were a bunch of girls on the floor standing out there with their hands on their hips. And some others were shooting little jump shots and jumping about that much and others were doing stretching exercises and I said when is the game going to start? They said it has.

JENEANE BECK: Right there it is. That's funny.

DONALD KAUL: So when I started I, I began writing about girls' basketball and I could write about anything. I could, I could trash Lyndon Johnson or later Richard Nixon. All no matter how severe I trashed things nothing got mail like when I trashed girls' basketball. I loved it. I still do and really to fair I thought the game was just awful but the tournament was just great. To have all those people come. A sense of community in that building and the good natured-ness of the, of the fans. they, I was serenaded by the entire Veteran's Auditorium singing let me call you sweetheart one year. Now you don't get that everywhere.

JENEANE BECK: No you don't get that.

DONALD KAUL: The NBA wouldn't have done that for me.

JENEANE BECK: I also had a colleague who said that she started her career in part because of reading your columns. So do you feel any guilt in the starting a young woman on a career path that just won't pay well and why?

DONALD KAUL: There's a part of me that says she will never have as much fun in the business as I had because it was kind of an accident of history. There was a golden age in terms of what you could do. On the other hand I'm sure there are old crocks saying that when I was a young guy in the business and there's this-

You get old and you sit down and tell more stories with people like your father-in-law and others and we always decide that in the old days there were giants and we were some of them.

JENEANE BECK: Do you worry about the profession in the sense of competing with blogs that some people may be writing things that are not accurate but other that are writing things that are accurate. Do you worry about the confusion amongst-

DONALD KAUL: I'm past worrying about it.

JENEANE BECK: Somebody else's problem?

DONALD KAUL: The internet , the television supplanted newspapers but only in the fact that they became more important that newspapers, there was still newspapers. When I went to Washington, when I started in Washington television, television networks were so watch what the, where the papers where going to find out where to point their cameras in a very short time the ink stain wretches were following the television cameras around. The internet has just atomized the whole process. There is no journalism as we used to know it anymore.

When you say media, I don't know what that means. It means so many different things. Yeah, I mean, I worry about it that a guy like a mad crutch can, can get the, the attention and the, even the impact that he does. Doesn't do any good to worry about it

JENEANE BECK: If people write their columns over the years, one of the things they might have noticed was a continual reference or occasional reference to Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Did that book have significant meaning to you or?

DONALD KAUL: Well I think it did for a lot of people of my age and generation. I thought it was a brilliant book, still think it was a brilliant book, but there were a number of books like that including those of Kurt Vonnegut who I met when he was at the University of Iowa and whom I got a fan letter from and that's one of the best days-

You could give me awards, give me a plaque, I don't need them, but a fan letter from Kurt Vonnegut. I wish I would have had one from Joseph Heller - but we never did. The book surmises the aspects of modern life.

JENEANE BECK: And so that's why it made it into your writing because it could sort of reference anything you-

DONALD KAUL: Well it's an irony-less that I, I basically a dumb irony sarcasm satire. When I was good anyway and yeah it was a model for it. He never wrote anything else as good and he never had to. He was good enough.

JENEANE BECK: And we know his name. That's all that matters. And he gave something to the language. “Catch 22” - it's international.


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