Political Mercury

February 17th, 2011 |



By Douglas Burns


Most important Iowan? Wallace over Hoover?


Over the last several weeks I’ve been running an online poll at our family newspaper, the Carroll Daily Times Herald. Newspapers do this from time to time, asking serious questions (about elections and public-policy issues) and supercilious ones (what is your favorite part of Thanksgiving?).

The poll now poses this sweeping question: Who is the most important Iowan in history?

So far, the overwhelming leader is a logical selection: President Herbert Hoover of West Branch. He’s collected 25 percent of the vote in the poll to this point.

Next up, is actor John Wayne at a strong 21 percent. This may seem indulgent to some, but there’s a sense to it. Through his resume of movies, Wayne, as much as any American, helped shape our self-image, helped define what we think it means (or should mean) to be American. Yes, this is not always a good thing as gunslinger images of the Old West confound diplomacy. But still, it’s there. A vote for Wayne, who was born in Winterset in 1907 under the decidedly less Hollywood-friendly name of Marion Morrison, is defensible.

Third in the poll, at 15 percent, is the duo of John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, co-inventors of the digital computer. President Obama, in his State of the Union Speech last month, mentioned Facebook, the Goliath social-networking tool that has commercialized the concept of Big Brother. The amount of information Facebook has in its stores staggers the mind. Without the digital computer, of course, there is no Google, no Facebook, and life as we know it, is not life as we know it. Some readers tell me this vote is a no-brainer.

That said, my vote for most important Iowan in history comes in fourth in the poll — Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Wallace, an Adair County product, not only served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s VP but also did stints as secretary of agriculture and secretary of commerce. He was the 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate and edited Wallace’s Farmer, the newspaper started by his family. If that’s not enough, Wallace founded the company that is now Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Wallace’s wide-ranging positions at the top of American government, combined with his influence in agriculture, make him the clear choice, I think.

But our readers disagree.

At this point Wallace is at 10 percent in our poll, tied with Johnny Carson, the late-night talk-show host who was born in Corning. Carson ruled the after-cocktails, before-bedtime airwaves in the era of three and four channels, a time when Americans had a collective experience with television — we’d all watch Carson and “Dallas” and “M.A.S.H.”

Today, with satellites and cable and the Net feeding customers hundreds of channels — plus competition from the Internet — it isn’t possible for a television personality to capture the nation’s collective attention routinely. At 41, I’m just barely old enough to recall some of this Carson dominance.

So who else made our most- important list?

Well, troublingly, but consistent with Iowa’s history, only one woman did — suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who has a women-in-politics center named in her honor at Iowa State University. Remember, Iowa has the awful distinction (along with Mississippi) of never having elected a woman as governor or to the U.S. House or U.S. Senate. Catt polled at 1 percent.

That’s lower than actor Ashton Kutcher, 4 percent, and artist Grant Wood, also 4 percent.

Astrophysicist James Van Allen comes it at 5 percent. Opera sensation Simon Estes polled 2 percent and big-band leader Glenn Miller, a western Iowan from Clarinda, comes in at 1 percent. Wall Lake’s Andy Williams polls at 2 percent.

Three Iowans who received no votes in the “most important poll” are: labor leader John L. Lewis, Admiral William Leahy and George Gallup.

The Gallup result in the poll is extraordinarily ironic as he is the American most associated, celebrated and respected for doing what our poll is doing: measuring public opinion (albeit in an unscientific way on our part).

I did, in what is arguably an unforgivable oversight, leave off the poll Nobel Prize winner and “father of the green revolution” Norman Borlaug, a native of Cresco, who developed a wheat that could stand up to conditions in the developing world, fending off hunger for millions, if not billions, of people.

There are dozens of other Iowans who could be in the running on this question, too. The website has a wonderful compendium of famous Iowans, with some brief descriptions of what makes them so, as well as links to sites like CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.