The Register and blue ghosts from 1974

Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.

The windowless Office Lounge bar on Grand Avenue nestled across a narrow alleyway from the Register and Tribune Building in downtown Des Moines was a hopping place in the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 6, 1974.

Longtime Office Lounge owner Dorothy Gabriel continued her election-night tradition of keeping the Register’s semi-official bar open after hours (to the apparent indifference of the Des Moines police) so that the newspaper’s staff could blow off the heat and tension of election night.

The beer, mixed drinks and laughter all flowed freely far into the night. As was the election night tradition in those days, reporters shared their jocular tales democracy’s underside that evening. The favorite quote had been gleaned from Republican Congressman Bill Scherle, a right-winger who had lost his southwest Iowa district to a young liberal Democrat, Tom Harkin. Scherle, who had a well-earned reputation for bombast, declared to a reporter, “I didn’t lose; the people did.”

Poor Scherle was just one minnow swept aside in the flood of votes and ink that night. Just three months earlier, Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency in disgrace, the ultimate fall from the Watergate scandal that had been unearthed largely by the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post. It was a heady time to be in journalism.

In the Iowa hinterlands, my fellow Register staffers had not only the shared industry pride of Woodstein’s exploits, but also the knowledge that our reporting set the agenda and boundaries of Iowa’s political debate. As that late night merged into early morning, our work was carried in more than quarter-million newspapers speeding toward destinations in all corners of Iowa. Those stories would be considered the definitive word in Iowa politics.

The Register liked to brag in those days that only the New York Times had won more Pulitzer Prizes. The newsroom’s most common boast was “it’s not news until it’s in the Register.”

But Iowans who weren’t journalism insiders were more impressed by three characteristics of the newspaper. One was its agricultural coverage which, Register insiders noted with pride, was studied regularly at the White House as a barometer of heartland agrarian thinking. The second was the famous “Big Peach” sports section, which in the pre-cable TV days of 1974 was a sort of printed ESPN for Iowa’s sports fans.

Finally, there was the Register’s exhaustive political coverage, a wheel of information from its spoke in the Iowa statehouse. The Register’s bigger staff and larger resources meant that no other printed or electronic source of information could come close to the Register’s comprehensive coverage. The Register’s political reporting was buttressed by its Iowa Poll, which in contrast to today’s poll-saturated era remained a singular force in Iowa politics for decades.

The result was a remarkable esprit de corps among Register editors, reporters, and photographers, comparable to a perpetually winning sports franchise. Register reporters were expected to ignore political egos, continue the newspaper’s legacy and be the best.

Politicians took heed.

A state political figure of some note told me soberly over lunch in the statehouse cafeteria one day, “I don’t particularly like the Register. You’re too liberal. But dammit, you guys can destroy a fellow.”

Such was the political and professional environment on election night, when a newly-hired Register staffer, David Yepsen, and I climbed to the upstairs at Babe’s Restaurant to catch the last words of Democratic nominee for governor, James Schaben. The assignment wasn’t complicated; Schaben, a conservative state senator from western Iowa, would be dispatched quickly by Governor Robert Ray.

Schaben had scored an upset win in the primary the previous spring by carpet-bombing the parking lots of Roman Catholic churches around Iowa with leaflets proclaiming his opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the case of Roe v. Wade, handed down a little more than a year earlier. Horrified progressive Democrats dropped Schaben like a tray of dirty dishes and turned what probably would have been an ordinary win by the popular Ray, a moderate who a decade earlier had stood against the conservative insurgence of Barry Goldwater, into a landslide.

As was often the case in those days, Schaben and his family chose to consider the Register the source of their electoral difficulties and let Dave and I know it. Nonetheless, we escaped to file our stories and then add our election night tale to the hilarious accounts recounted later in the Office Lounge.

Those memories crowded for me into crushing boredom of the Iowa election results last Tuesday, with one MAGA-stamped Republican after another turning Iowa into a sea of deep red that was emerging as a contrast to the rest of the U.S. Local TV anchors tried gamely to make the results seem and sound interesting, but their accounts seemed like hearing the same song over and over. My mind drifted back 48 years to that remarkably different Iowa.

What a night that election had been! For the U.S. Senate, retiring Senator Harold Hughes, the liberal’s liberal, was succeeded by the equally liberal John Culver, whose background as Ted Kennedy’s football teammate and confidant at Harvard was not considered a liability. In the Senate, Culver would join the equally liberal Dick Clark, whose upset of conservative Republican Jack Miller two years earlier was aided by a Register expose of Miller’s questionable tax loopholes.

Culver had defeated David Stanley, an heir to the Muscatine engineering fortune, who would later found Iowans for Tax Relief and become the scourge of budget-raising politicians.

In races for Iowa’s six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (two more than in 2022), besides the aforementioned win by Tom Harkin, another Democrat, Berkley Bedell, upset Republican Wiley Mayne in the congressional district that covered northwest Iowa, the same district later covered by GOP right-wingers Steve King and Randy Feenstra.

The feckless Mayne had the bad fortune in 1974 to be on the House committee that had voted impeachment of Nixon four months earlier. His efforts to defend the White House—while appealing to his then-moderate constituents back home—merely made poor Mayne look weak and indecisive and voters sent him back to Sioux City.

But another Iowan on that Judiciary Committee, Democrat Ed Mezvinsky, used the exposure to defeat rising Republic moderate Jim Leach in the southeast Iowa congressional district. The scholarly Leach, who had resigned his diplomatic office a year earlier in protest to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre (an attempt to ward off expansion of the Watergate investigation), would return to beat Mezvinsky two years later and would lean against the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s as head of the moderate Republicans in the House.

In another forerunner of future times, another winner in a congressional race that night was State Representative Charles Grassley (who already had sixteen years under his belt in the Iowa House) over Stephen Rapp for the northeast Iowa congressional district. Grassley’s homespun nature masked a burning ambition, which he would use to win Culver’s U.S. Senate seat in 1980.

Lamentably for Grassley in 1974, the victories of Democrats Neal Smith and Michael Blouin for Iowa’s other congressional seats meant that Grassley would be the lone Republican in Iowa’s U.S. House delegation when the 1975 session began.

The Republicans had their moments on that night in 1974. GOP statewide officials Bob Lounsberry, Maurice Baringer, Richard Turner, Lloyd Smith and Mel Synhorst were all returned to their positions at Iowa’s departments of Agriculture, Treasurer, Auditor, Attorney General and Secretary of State to join Republican Ray to form what would seem to be a solid Republican wall on the first floor of the statehouse.

But the voters elected a large enough crop of twenty and early thirty-something Democratic newcomers to give the Democrats majorities in both houses of the Iowa General Assembly. Those Democrats would work in remarkable harmony with Governor Ray for the next four years, until the Republicans regained control. That four-year era of bipartisan cooperation is frequently cited as a golden era in contrast to today’s hyper-partisanship in the statehouse.

A little-noticed Republican who withstood the Democratic tide in 1974 to win a second term was a 28-year-old State Representative Terry Branstad. His bizarre checked pants and hard right-wing perspective placed him well outside of the chosen group of young legislators that statehouse reporters informally tabbed for future political greatness.

That collection of 1974 political personalities, all squeezed into the crowded pages of the Wednesday, November 6 Register, would be enough to make that paper a collector’s edition. For years Register hands who had been present would warm their conversations with memories of that night.

The Democrats’ victories in 1974 were in step with national opinion, dominated by a lagging economy and voter disgust with Watergate and President Gerald Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon. That well-meaning gesture added to political peace in the nation but would burden the Republican Party through the 1974 and 1976 election cycles and led to Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.

But Iowans who understood their state were well aware of the role the Register played in Iowa’s politics. While Iowa lacked the big-city machine liberalism of Chicago, or the farmer-labor coalition that fueled progressive politics in Wisconsin and Minnesota, it had the moderate Republicanism of the Register. Under the ownership of the Cowles family and a series of progressive-minded editors, Harvey Ingham, W.W. Waymack and Kenneth McDonald, the Register’s ever-expanding circulation into every county of Iowa steered the state from the hard-right isolationism of other Midwestern states to a more middle of the road consensus.

On virtually every issue, from roads to schools, farm policy to foreign policy, civil rights to civil liberties, the Register landed on the progressive side of the question. While Iowa remained a dependably Republican state, the Register could provide a benevolent cover for Democrats such as Herschel Loveless, Harold Hughes and Neal Smith and moderate Republicans such as Robert Ray and Jim Leach.

In 1974, the Register was reinvigorating itself under new editor Michael Gartner, fresh from the Wall Street Journal and a Register legacy (his father Carl was longtime editor of the Sunday Picture Magazine). Gartner redirected the Register to a livelier writing style, harder reporting and a decided leftward drift in its editorial outlook.

The dominance of the Register in an era before the internet, 24-hour cable television, the ready availability of opinion on every subject and political perspective, is difficult to understand in today’s environment. I’m certainly not the only Register old-timer who would have relished the Gartner-led newspaper, with the power and resources it possessed in 1974, confronting Donald Trump’s grievance machine.

But by the time the Trump circus arrived in Iowa in 2016, the Register had been long a part of the Gannett corporate chain. Its circulation, which still stood comfortably above 400,000 on Sunday and 225,000 daily in 1974, had dwindled to slightly more than 50,000 on Sunday and 35,000 daily. Politicians no longer feared what the front page of the Register might do to their campaigns; no longer saw fit to explain their positions in meetings with Register editors or worry much about the Register’s endorsements.

As a holdover from the 1970s told me when I returned to the Register in 2007 after a 26-year absence, “they’re not afraid of us anymore.”

When the Republican-dominated Iowa Senate convened last January, the leadership took away the longstanding floor privileges for reporters, an action that would have been unthinkable in an earlier era. By the second decade of the 21st century, Iowa’s media was obliged to depend on a state agency of questionable authority, the Iowa Public Information Board, to do the work of opening meetings and documents that the Register did for decades simply through the threat its editorial power.

The decline of the Register and rise of a multitude of competing media meant the loss of something precious to Iowa; a unifying source of news and political commentary for the entire state that set boundaries for Iowa’s politics. Without the leavening power of the Register, Iowa’s politics have been free to spill over into extremism.

Almost against its will, Iowa has replaced the Register as a unifying force with one-party state government politics of an authoritarian style reminiscent of the Old South or old-time big-city machines. Believers in an earlier, more open form of democracy, await the outcome of such a transformation with trepidation.

Top image: Des Moines Register editor Michael Gartner (center) looks over an early edition on the night of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. “Iowa Boy” columnist Chuck Offenburger is on the far left. Photo by Bob Modersohn, who was a staff photographer at the newspaper at the time, published with permission.

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  • Well said; post should be a keeper

    The last two ‘graphs pretty much say it all and say it well, from the joy of have a unifying force in the state — unifying on issues — to the trepidation about years ahead.
    The Register as a unifying force was complemented by the 39 members of the Iowa Daily Press Association — mostly afternoon dailies across the state served by Skip Weber, the IDPA’s statehouse reporter. So we had a kind of common agenda for readers of both the morning Register and the afternoon dailies. The DSM Trib was not a member of the IDPA, but certainly was not a Register afterthought.
    Watchdog journalism at its best.
    Herb Strentz

  • Thanks for this retrospective

    This was published about the time I arrived in Iowa (From Texas with a short stop in Nebraska) and it reminds me of what a progressive and politically diverse place I now lived in. I was a reporter at KDTH Radio in Dubuque and was stunned by the state’s open records laws and the openness of officials to talking to the media.
    I worked a Sunday morning shift and the Register was waiting for me when I arrived at the station. It was the size of a phone book, I still get the Sunday edition today and every week I ask myself the same question: Why?