FORT DODGE, IOWA—When he stepped onto a makeshift stage at an historic town square here today, presidential contender Chris Dodd peered out at the faces of anticipation and instantly quipped that he really was Art Garfunkel.
Soon after, some 250 city and area residents, many of the boomers in their 50s and 60s, were treated to the real singer Paul Simon, who immediately went into an acoustic rendition of “Mrs. Robinson” and two other classics.
Simon, 65, is the first major celebrity to stump in this state with an ’08 contender. A longtime friend of Dodd’s and resident of his home state of Connecticut, Simon has helped the senator via his endorsement and contributions, but he also asked to journey with the campaign as it made its way on a bus trip across the state this week.
Although Simon has participated in concerts for candidates such as Al Gore, who he backed in 2000, but says that he has “never campaigned with anyone.”
“This is really the first time I have come out and been with a candidate and wanted to hear really what it is that people had to say, particularly what Iowa has to say” said Simon, wearing an untucked white shirt, khakis and black cap. “Because from the perspective of the northeast, Iowa is the quintessential, solid-thinking, logical midwestern America.”
Dodd, 63, is far behind in the polls. Granted, when it comes to votes, they are pretty meaningless this far out. Fellow senator John Kerry’s campaign was sputtering in this state at this period in 2003, but he went on to win the caucus. But polls do help out when it comes to fund-raising, so his campaign is looking for at least some movement in Iowa.
It’s doubtful that Simon’s endorsement would sway many votes, but he did add to Dodd’s visibility in terms of press coverage and attendance at events. A few of the Iowans I talked to said that Simon does add some credibility to Dodd’s campaign, particularly as it has had trouble getting heard in a race now defined by superstar contenders. Others insisted that they really were there for Dodd, not Simon, as they were exercising their ability to meet candidates in person before making up their minds.
Jo Ann Beall, a retired human services supervisor in Fort Dodge, is still undecided, but said that Simon “adds credibility” to Dodd’s effort. “Because [Simon] knows him, he knows his ability and knows what he has done,” she said. “I don’t think he would come out if he didn’t believe in him.
“And us baby boomers like him,” she adds. “We’ve remembered the history that our country has had since then and all that and Paul Simon’s part in it.”
But many in the crowd obviously were Simon fans, and brought Simon and Garfunkel classics for him to sign. Or they simply peppered him with questions. At an early morning appearance at a Country Kitchen restaurant in Mason City, he shook hands with a room packed with local Democrats. “You’re the second Paul Simon running for president to come here,” one woman quips to him. He laughs, and shares a story of his friendship with the late Illinois senator.
Simon then spoke to the entire group, lamenting the lack of time for anything other than soundbites in the debates and the fact that that race so far has been about who raises the most money. Then he offered an anecdote for levity: He noted that the first performance of Simon & Garfunkel was at a college in Davenport, Iowa — and the student union threatened to not pay them. They thought they were getting a comedy act like the Smothers Brothers. The crowd chuckled.
He then introduced Dodd, who charged through a litany of his accomplishments, a few of his proposals (“I’m the only candidate talking about a corporate carbon tax”) and a few requisite jabs at the Bush administration. He noted that while his generation was inspired into service by John F. Kennedy, after 9/11 Bush asked Americans “to go shopping.” “It was almost like a Doonsbury cartoon.”
The two seem like an unlikely friendship: Dodd, in his slightly raspy voice, speaks at a rapid fire pace as if he’s trying to cram as much information as possible into a limited amount of time. Simon is more soft-spoken and more introverted, and was clearly cautious about not stealing the show.
He demurred to Dodd when asked for his thoughts on the war in Iraq. “I know how he thinks, and it is very insightful and he has a great deal of wisdom,” Simon said. “I respect it greatly. Otherwise I don’t much believe in entertainers coming out and mixing up in politics. But this is my friend who I have deep regard for. I will go with Chris’s description of the positions.”
Nevertheless, the challenge for Dodd is how he distinguishes himself from the pack. He emphasizes his years in the Senate, his list of accomplishments and his ability to bring people together. Yet so do Joe Biden and Bill Richardson. And who is raising the most money? Obama. While Dodd noted that Iowa has a tendency to prove pundits wrong, he still needs the financial resources to make it to January.
So in this case, Simon certainly helped.
In Fort Dodge, Dodd is surrounded by Simon fans carrying albums and other artifacts for the singer to sign.
“I’m sure some came out to hear the music and some came out to hear the politics,” he said. “The combination of the two is not a bad thing during Fourth of July week.”
Before getting back on the bus, he did manage one last signature for Beall. It’s on a Simon and Garfunkel album she has brought with her.
Simon signed below his image. And sure enough, Dodd signed just below the face of Art Garfunkel.
Below, Simon sings a Dodd-inspired version of “Mrs. Robinson.”