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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Democracy in Clinton, Iowa



Life isn’t but a moment’s beautiful dance through time.
Caught in the past, present, and futures’ constant intertwine.
For the past, I am proud it’s made me what I’ve come to be.
For the future, I am hopeful it’s where I’ll reach the dreams I see.
For the present, I am most thankful, it’s where in this moment’s dance,
I live, I exist, I am me.

- Poem on a mural in downtown Clinton,
signed by “EB” on July 7th, 2008

I. The Why
And so, sitting in the passenger seat in Clinton, Iowa, overlooking the calm of Lake Clinton, the widest point on the Missisippi River according to Gary Herrity, former middle school teacher and principal, now local historian and (by his own description) professional retired golfer who is driving me around on day one at 20 miles per hour, rarely more, sometimes far less, so as to be sure that he has adequate time to draw upon over one hundred and fifty years of history to illuminate what we see around us, such as this lake, “one of the most beautiful spots in America.” Or the fact that four hundred people were not killed by the flood of November 11, 1940, as he was told confidently by another Clintonian. It was actually just two people, stranded for twenty hours, both rescued. These facts were easily established by reviewing the appropriate day’s edition of the Clinton Herald newspaper at the Clinton Public Library, which Herrity did (and his associate had not), the front page of which was lacking in any reference to a tragedy which, had it unfolded, would have undoubtedly been "one of the top stories of Clinton history.”
Recounting the conversation rhetorically, he asks, “You going to believe your microfiche twenty feet away from you, or me, city historian, or you going to believe someone who told you? Someone who told me has a lot more impact.”
A friend of mine, a sociologist by training, told me that whatever I chose to write about Clinton would be a lie, that no conclusions could be drawn that weren’t the witting or unwitting result of bias or ignorance or simply not having the whole story. I think that’s probably right, both for those reasons mentioned, and because it’s impossible to honestly tell a singular tale about something like a city, regardless of how relatively small it might be.
It is dishonest to say Clinton represents an America that no longer exists, one whose obsolescence is threatening to drag the town into memory with it – though that’s partially true, as many people here partially acknowledge. Nor is it accurate to say that Clinton’s residents have given up, that they’ve turned their backs on politics and politicians – though many evoke such disappointment with both that even the effusively optimistic 26-year-old Jacob Couppee (who this fall took some time away from his Masters degree and unpaid internship with the Regional Development Corporation to run for City Council) told me flatly as we sat in an ice cream parlor (soon to close for the winter) that as things stand, “Hope is beginning to fade.”