Context — June 7, 2018, 11:16 am

Not What It Takes

Running for president on less than $2,000 a day

On Tuesday, John H. Cox, a Republican, came in second in California’s gubernatorial jungle primary. He’ll face off against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in November. The GOP candidate fancies himself as the second coming of Jack Kemp, but Cox’s hardline immigration policies, which earned him President Trump’s endorsement, would’ve repulsed the man referred to as “the bleeding-heart conservative.” So, who is this new beast slouching towards Sacramento to be born? This February 2008 profile of Cox from the Iowa campaign trail tells you all you need to know.

Early last August, with the Iowa caucuses five months off, the field of Republican presidential hopefuls was cluttered and in considerable flux. Rudolph Giuliani, the national front-runner, had largely avoided Iowa, John McCain suddenly had little money on hand, and it remained to be seen whether Mitt Romney’s latter-day faith and recent pro-life conversion would play with the state’s conservatives. In a University of Iowa poll, a third of all likely Republican caucusgoers said they were undecided. The electorate seemed ready for new faces, and a host of second-tier candidates had been busy ensuring that theirs were seen all over the state. Among the most unlikely of these long-shots was John Cox, a fifty-two-year-old Chicago businessman whose name recognition hung dolorously below 1 percent. After eighteen months of steady campaigning, Cox still held out hope that Iowans could propel him to the front of the pack.

The second-tier candidate as a fixture in presidential politics dates back only to the 1970s. Prior to then, party bosses picked the candidates in private, and self-selecting entrants were extremely rare. But after the 1968 election, in which Hubert Humphrey pocketed the Democratic nomination without running in a single primary, the system was reformed. A commission headed by Senator George McGovern helped bring greater transparency to the process, opening the door to underdog aspirants who lacked their party’s imprimatur. In 1972, George McGovern walked through that portal himself, finishing strong in Iowa and jumping from as low as 3 percent of the vote in national polls to winning his party’s nomination. Four years later, Jimmy Carter, a relative unknown, was saved from obscurity by his legendary gains in the state. For back-of-the-pack candidates, Iowa is still where they can most plausibly dream their improbable dreams. It is, after all, the land of retail politics, where citizens are more likely to interact with the politician they ultimately vote for than in any other state in the nation. Candidates there reach people the old-fashioned way, by car or by bus, effectively lowering the barrier to entry. Even campaigns flush enough to splurge are forced away from klieg lights and sound bites and toward small gatherings of ordinary folks and fatty foods.

John Cox was attempting to fulfill his presidential dreams on a budget of just $1.2 million, funds that had come from his own pocket. This sum was equal to what Romney shelled out for television ads every two weeks and half of what Giuliani spent on printing and postage in the third quarter of 2007. Cox, who earned his considerable wealth in finance and real estate, understood how money controlled his chances. “Because I can’t get known, I can’t raise money,” he often lamented. “Because I can’t raise money, I can’t get known.” He’d been exhorted by staffers to deposit $10 million in his campaign coffers, with the qualification that he needn’t spend it: simply fax a bank statement to the Associated Press, sit back, and watch the sea change. But Cox is a doctrinaire fiscal conservative, and out of intellectual integrity, idealism, or parsimony, he has failed to heed their advice. Steve Forbes, another tycoon who, like Cox, has never been elected to anything, spent $80 million of his own money on his two presidential campaigns; Ross Perot ran through that much in 1992 alone. Yet for the two years of his implausible bid, Cox was spending on average just $1,600 a day.

To make up for this disparity, Cox was attempting to outwork his competition. He had already traveled to Iowa twenty-six times, logging more than 110 days and tens of thousands of miles in the state. Without fanfare or media coverage, he toured ethanol plants and veterans homes, relating the highlight of his private-sector success that would translate into trenchant leadership in Washington-his leveraged buyout of Jays Foods, the preeminent potato-chip brand of the Midwest, where he presided over a one-year $20 million swing from red to black, saving 600 jobs in the process. At a rec center in Hull, Iowa, Cox announced that his reasons for opposing Roe v. Wade were deeply personal, since he was conceived by an act of rape. “My mother was a single mom, and if abortion had been le- gal in 1955, I wouldn’t be here today.” In his stump speeches throughout the state, he talked repeatedly about his loathing for career politicians, whom he likened to pigs at the public trough. By last August, Cox had visited each of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties at least twice. Romney, by contrast, had bragged to the cameras that his sons, not he, had accomplished the feat but once. All Cox said he needed was a chance to “debate these stinking politicians,” to share in their media exposure, and his fortunes would change.

Because he started his campaign before others had even announced their candidacies, Cox scored some early returns, most notably a victory in a South Carolina straw poll, when he beat out legitimate front-runners. But his lack of name recognition gave Fox News grounds to bar him from its debate at the University of South Carolina. He also was excluded from the debate at the Reagan Library; although he used a photographer’s pass to gain access to the event, he wound up being forcibly removed when he tried to hold an impromptu press conference on the library’s steps. In Iowa, polls had shown Cox with as much of the vote as some of the candidates invited to a Des Moines debate, and two former Iowa governors (“very respected officials,” Cox said) wrote letters lobbying for his inclusion. Yet Cox was still shut out. He had begged for an appearance on Fox & Friends, only to have them say, “When we want a fringe candidate with no chance, we’ll call you.” Some long shots join the race for the land’s highest office to boost their national profiles, so as later to land a congressional seat or corporate sinecure. But the decidedly unglamorous way Cox had gone about running seemed incompatible with such an agenda.

I first heard of John Cox’s candidacy from a press release put out by a publicist who labors on behalf of right-wing causes. I soon learned, however, that Cox was also the husband of my sister’s college roommate, and that he craved any coverage he could get. When I contacted him directly, he invited me to travel with him during the week leading up to the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames. Then he called me back several times, entreating me to come. Since the straw poll would be broadcast on Fox News, he said, the event would be his “coming-out party,” his introduction to the national electorate. In Ames, he would finally get the opportunity to share a stage with his opponents; it would be the opening he needed to raise his stature, and “maybe, just maybe,” he told me, “the start of something.”

Cox spent the majority of his time in Iowa in a rented Ford Explorer, being shuttled between appearances by E.J. Cousar, the former head of the South Carolina College Republicans and one of the few African Americans I saw during my week in the Hawkeye State. I joined the two men, traveling with them back and forth across the Republican-red part of the choropleth map, a huge swath of terrain like a “C” that sits to the west of Iowa City. With Cox in the front seat working his Black- Berry or reading up for a Wisconsin real estate exam, the Ford hurtled over stretches of purplish, gently crumbling highway laid long ago over an interminable lush expanse-a land at scale and symmetry with the sky, where agro- processing facilities sit like tin cans on the horizon. My mother, a painter of ‘landscapes, once told me that there are no straight lines in nature. In Iowa last summer, I saw she was wrong.

Cox’s presidential run actually marked his fourth quest for public office, with two failed congressional bids under his belt and a demoralizing loss in the 2004 Cook County Recorder of Deeds race, in which he pledged to abolish the post if elected, claiming technology had made it redundant. “I wish I didn’t have to do what I’m doing right now,” he told me. “I wish there was somebody else out there.” Cox had considered throwing his support behind Mike Huckabee but decided that the former Baptist minister wasn’t a true conservative, since spending had increased by more than 50 percent during his tenure as Arkansas governor.

In the car with E.J., Cox talked constantly about campaign strategies. He has a heavy Chicago accent, a circular and braying envelopment of words that begins and ends somewhere behind the septum, and he tends to turn his points into a kind of aggressive questioning. “Iran is a major problem in that region, isn’t it?” he demanded of a reporter after showing up uninvited at the office of a small-town Iowa newspaper. ‘They’re building a nuclear weapon, right?” Most of the time he vacillated between far-fetched calculations of how he could make a decent showing in January and haunting speculations about the crucial events at which all the other candidates were at that moment convening. He also held forth constantly on the quotidian miracles loosed by the market. At the Midwest Deli & Grill in Holstein, Cox listened to the proprietress revile the farm bill and Mexicans, then pointed to a patron’s cordon bleu sandwich, remarking on the way competition kept its price from ballooning to $70. Whenever the Explorer rushed past a Pizza Ranch, the candidate commended the franchise for its wiliness: “They don’t go into the big cities where the Pizza Huts kill them.” From behind the wheel, E.J. would then shout, “You can’t throw a rock in this part of Iowa without hitting a Pizza Ranch.”

Outside a town called Sheldon, where the earth was reclaiming the roadside barns, E.J. seemed caught in a Pizza Ranch reverie when he noticed lights flashing red and blue in his rearview. Cox emitted a few “darn’s,” then wheeled around and ordered me to fetch one of his palm cards. By the time the police officer reached the driver’s side window, Cox was hunched over E.J., his hand extended. “I’m sorry, officer,” he said, “I’m John Cox. I’m running for president. We’re trying to get to an event in Paullina, and we’re late.”

There was silence for an anxious and elongated moment as the cop considered the palm card. “And lost,” he said finally. “You want to tum around here and take a right-follow me.” Although Cox gibed E.J. for his carelessness, he couldn’t mask the glee he felt for an opportunity to exercise sway, to be acknowledged and extended consideration simply by virtue of what he was undertaking.

The Paullina event was the O’Brien County Republican Gala, hosted in the town’s American Legion building, an aluminum-sided brown rectangle that clung squatly to the ground like a miniature mesa, a flaw in the otherwise even topography, plunked down on the curiously numbered 460th Street. To the right, a field of propane tanks gave way to a golf course. In the lot out front, Cox wondered aloud about the absence of the “Huckabee Mobile,” an obsidian sperm whale of a bus that put to shame the travel trailer belonging to California Congressman Duncan Hunter, with its life-size images of Hunter from his Vietnam War days displayed on the sides. (Cox told me he could “buy a bus tomorrow. But the point is, I’m trying to do this at not great cost.”) In fact, Huckabee, Hunter, and all the other candidates would not be attending the gala. To Cox’s disbelief, they had all sent proxies. Sam Brownback’s spokesperson was even slated to speak before Cox, a slight Cox could not bear, and once inside he stalked off to remedy the error.

The hall was scarcely lit and reeked of Sterno and Pine Sol, with one end cordoned off by long tables upon which lay all manner of campaign paraphernalia: G.O.P. boxer shorts, foam Romney baseball “mitts,” a leaflet from Senator Charles Grassley containing his family’s recipe for meat loaf. The mostly elderly crowd was then being treated to the musical stylings of the Oakdale Church men’s quartet. The group opened with “The Star Spangled Banner,” which its leader, Mark Hecox, belted out as if his mates were supposed to chase him. “We’re going to sing an old song,” Hecox announced next. After the first few notes, he shouted, “You can tap your toes. It’s okay!” And from the floor’s reverberations, it was clear that folks were doing just that as they sang along. The song’s chorus was representative of the quartet’s set list:

Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon,

Many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound.

All of the dead shall rise, righteous meet in the sky,

Going where no one dies, heavenward bound!

Between numbers Hecox launched into a screed on the separation of church and state, and he lauded the crowd for “bringing religion back into politics.” When “you really start to research,” he said, “you find out that the church and state separation was supposed to be a one-way street. That street was that the state could not interfere with the rights and functions of the church but the church had every right to influence the state.”

Then it was finally Cox’s tum to take the stage. In his speeches, Cox usually comes off stiff and self-important. His pinstriped suits and monogrammed cuffs, his immaculately coiffed silver hair and country-club tan, all cast him as an avatar of corporate culture out of place on the prairie. This evening he started off with a line he had used at any number of other campaign stops: while he was putting one of his four daughters to bed, she had asked him, “Daddy, do all fairy tales begin with ‘Once upon a time’!” and Cox said he had answered, “No, honey, there’s a whole series of fairy tales, and they begin with ‘If elected, I promise’!” He criticized Bush for having “ruined the Republican brand”; yet, he said, if Al Gore had been president on 9/11, “we’d be speaking Arabic or Farsi right now.” When he explained his chief credential, the turnaround of Jays, he inserted a joke: “I guess you could say I come through when the chips are down.” He trumpeted his twenty-five years as a Sunday-school teacher, lector, and parish school-board president. And he also proclaimed, “There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution.” In closing, Cox acknowledged that he’d been “operating a little below the radar.” But he promised a return to core Republican principles and conservative values. The O’Brien County contingent rewarded his candor with warm applause.

On his way out, Cox quickly pressed some flesh with the party flaks standing in the back rows. He then pushed through the double doors and out into the still-slanted evening light and toward the rented SUV. He had a TV interview scheduled in Sioux City, and with all the other candidates campaigning elsewhere, Cox saw this next event as a priority. Behind him, back toward the hall, there was a clang, and out into the lot burst Mark Hecox, the bandleader, who made a mad dash for Cox. Soon the singer was upon him, panting for lack of breath. “Hey,” he said to the candidate. “I want to write you a check”

According to Cox, he had lost a crucial component of the election even before his bid got started. When he decided to run for president, he traveled to Washington to land top-shelf political operatives. “Nobody even talked to me,” he said. Consultants, interns, volunteers – they naturally all wanted to work for a name, a more established and plausible candidate. Cox saw this as another consequence of the catch-22 whereby money leads to recognition and vice versa. Alex Castellanos, now on Romney’s payroll, had met with Cox about a job on his failed 2002 Senate campaign. “I contacted his office,” Cox said. “I never got a call back. I bet he’s made a million bucks already.”

At the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines a day before the straw poll, I met most of the staffers Cox did manage to wrangle. (The rest of his team was already in Ames setting up for his big chance.) Although it was a day of hundred- degree heat, Cox’s planner had triply stacked the itinerary, to maximize the candidate’s exposure and maybe also to make amends for the O’Brien County gala. While Cox was the main attraction in Paullina, the other candidates were indeed gathered together at a more significant outing, as they kicked off the State Fair in a parade through downtown Des Moines. Cox’s schedule was to start with a stint at the Des Moines Register’s soapbox, a stump speech in which Cox would address fairgoers amid bales of hay. This would be followed by the day’s main event, the AARP’s “Divided We Fail” roundtable, at which the candidates would debate issues near and dear to seniors. The schedule finally wound down with an appearance on Mac’s World, a conservative AM radio talk show hosted by local shock jock Mac McKoy, who considered Cox “one of our favorites.”

A man swathed in flannel despite the heat sprinted up to Cox on the fair’s main artery, snapped to attention, and saluted. He was Phil Collins, Cox’s longest-serving staffer. He later told me that he had secured at least a hundred radio and fifty newspaper interviews for Cox in fifteen different states. He also said he was a former Marine and that after hearing of Cox in 2001 he had moved from San Diego to Illinois to work on the candidate’s Senate run. After only a little prying, however, Phil admitted that he had actually moved to Chicago for a woman. At the fair, Phil seemed to be acting out some lampoon of duty, for just as he’d saluted, he was now violently lashing out his arm in a gesture so threatening that fairgoers braced themselves for impact only to find that the extended fist held a palm card.

Behind Phil lagged the apparently less zealous Mark Vanderohe, Ed Faddoul, and Linda Harrington. The coordinator of Cox’s Iowa campaign, Linda is a tall woman in her fifties with a tumbleweed of red hair and a macabre style of dress that one Barack Obama staffer characterized as “very Edward Scissorhands.” Linda told me that she worked nonstop for Cox, “cracking open the counties for him. Basically, I’ve done the impossible.” Other staffers intimated that Linda had become obsessed with the candidate. After one relentless fusillade of cell-phone calls from Linda, I heard Cox awkwardly explain to his wife, “One of the issues in a presidential campaign is you’ve got groupies.”

Linda’s task that day, as ever, was to liaise with members of the media and secure coverage for Cox, as well as to lug around a box of palm cards and Cox’s blazer, which contained his glasses and written responses to the AARP’s queries. At some point during the morning, likely after the soapbox, these items fell out of the jacket and were lost. Incensed and sweating profusely, Cox decided to regroup in the cool air of a service center, where, according to a map, lost children and adults could be found. The AARP event would be Cox’s first head-to-head forum with his rivals, and not only was he now without notes but he’d also been sweltering all day while his adversaries were, no doubt, laughing it up in their arctic RVs, with finger food and lightning-fast wireless. As Cox tried to re-create his responses, Linda, who still clung to the empty jacket, sidled up to me. She said that she and Cox agreed on almost every issue save one. “My opinion about when life starts is that the Bible says that your sin will be on you for four generations, and what people do, have done in the past-in their own lives and what their ancestors have done-affects their families and them. And so I think it starts way before the sperm and the egg.”

Back out in the heat, E.J. smoked menthols (a habit he believed Cox knew nothing about after weeks in the car with him) while Phil, Ed, and Mark continued to hand out literature. Ed Faddoul looked to be of retirement age but still worked as a consultant for a veterinary biologics firm. He was from Waukon in Allamakee County, the northeastern comer of the state, where the terrain is varied, almost mountainous, and, according to Cox, “rivals anything you might see in Vermont.” He had met Cox at a local Republican convention in 2006. When Cox spoke, Ed said to himself, “That’s my man.” Although Ed conceded that other candidates held similar views, he still preferred Cox, “because he has so exquisitely defined them.” As Ed described the Iowa Republican Party’s resistance to Cox’s run, he became about as rabid as a perfect gentleman can be. “First of all, these guys are literally part of a club, and there’s those that belong and those that don’t. John is an out- sider, which is a strong sales point as far as I’m concerned.”

When Cox and his team later entered the anteroom of the theater where the AARP roundtable was being held, Duncan Hunter was already onstage sermonizing on the evils of socialized medicine. Cox looked to Linda for an explanation, and she stared back blankly. Instead of an actual roundtable, Cox eventually learned, each candidate would sojourn onstage alone to field questions from preselected AARP types. There would be no debate. Cox wouldn’t even stand before the audience alongside the other candidates. With the prospect of confronting his adversaries once again deferred, Cox demanded that he be shown to his greenroom, so that he could at least use the facilities and freshen up a bit. But a roundtable worker said that Romney had yet to vacate it. She directed Cox to a door near the front entrance, where the public toilets were located.

With so much riding on Saturday’s straw poll, Cox called his staff together one evening to compose what he would need to say there. “So we can take some notes and offer suggestions, really get the passion down,” he explained. A conclave was convened in E.J.’s hotel room, with Cox propped against the front wall, papers strewn on the first of two twin beds beside a prone E.J., Cox’s campaign manager, Dan Herren, at a desk with a laptop, and Cox’s wife, Sarah, and New Hampshire coordinator Chris Richter perched on the other bed.

“What we’ve gotta do,” Cox said through clenched fists, “is figure out what’s gonna cause some guy sitting at home to say, ‘Gosh, where has that guy been? I want that guy as my next president!’ What would people want to see?” Nobody answered. Cox scanned the faces in the hotel room, searching for a revelation, a response, anything. The staffers averted their eyes, looked to one another pleadingly. Dan began to type on his computer. “It happens,” Cox finally hissed.

Cox bent over and shuffled the papers in front of him, inhaling and barely exhaling, feeling the tectonic pressure of the months and million-plus he’d sunk into the campaign tapering down to a few moments on that narrow dais in Ames. “I hate to admit it,” he said, “but my model is Obama. I want to be like Obama, and I want it to come off like his speeches. ‘We don’t have red states and blue states, but … whatever.’ And I imagine his speech got that way in a session like this.”

In the absence of grand, sweeping plots for revision, Cox proceeded to deliver the speech he already had, asking his team to focus instead on honing and trimming, as he’d have only eleven minutes to recite it after his introductory video ran on the coliseum’s giant screen. He finished the first pass and opened up the floor for comments. Again nothing from his advisers. The silence in the room became intolerable, at least for me, so I offered my amateur advice. Cox customarily began his “If elected, I promise” fairy-tale gag by announcing that he doesn’t have just one but “four daughters, a wife, and a female dog.” I suggested that the line was a dud because this last beat left the audience hearing “bitch,” an unfortunate juxtaposition with the women in his life. I recommended that he say the dog was named Hillary. Sarah quickly agreed, reminding Cox what one of his consultants had said early on, that “the way to get legitimacy in this race is to get one of the top-tier candidates to respond to you,” and wouldn’t such a line draw a response from the junior senator from New York? When asked, I also confirmed (over Dan’s objections) that Iran was east of Iraq, assuring that Cox’s vision of Iranians looking west and being brought to heel by the sight of liberated Iraqis driving BMWs at least made geographic sense.

After another practice run, Cox had the timing down well enough yet remained concerned that he’d be thrown off by long intervals of applause. With no way to foresee how his blandishments might register, the session became an exercise in mincing words. By the third read he was stumbling worse than on the first, botching lines like “We’re at war for the civilization of our country” and “Let our troops win with victory and honor.”

“It doesn’t have the kind of soaring rhetoric that I was thinking about having,” he said, suddenly hankering for the orotund, an inclination that seemed at odds with his campaign slogan: “Results, Not Rhetoric.” “Maybe I just want to communicate that I don’t want the empty promises anymore. I’m taking matters into my own hands because I don’t believe these guys; they all lie to me.” E.J. conceded as much but added, “The main thing is that you’ve got to tell people they’ve been lied to, not just you.” Cox gave a nod that really seemed to be a rebuff-his standard response to much of what E.J. suggested, such as the repeated plea that Cox avoid equating the IRS with slavery.

Cox scanned the room to gauge the group’s sentiment and seemed satisfied. He’d put in the time, prepared himself, and since this was something he controlled, not some media executive or party apparatchik, he’d get the desired result. He was reassured, confident now, content to be John Cox in this instance and not Barack Obama, and it was with something like relief that he assembled the stray papers of his draft when, suddenly, he stopped and looked up. “We’re in a life-and-death struggle with Islamic fascism, right?”

The Iowa Straw Poll billed itself as “the biggest political event in a non-election year.” More than 33,000 Republican activists and 453 credentialed members of the media had descended on the Iowa State University campus to distinguish the winners from the winnowed among a slightly abbreviated Republican field. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain had skipped the event, the former dismissing it as “a shakedown” – an observation that smacked of antagonism to Iowans but also seemed accurate. Just to appear on the straw-poll ballot, candidates had to pony up $15,000, and the winner would be determined by the votes of those in attendance, many of whose $35 tickets had been purchased by the candidates themselves.

Participation also required each Republican hopeful to host what amounted to a circus on the plot of earth he’d been forced to buy at auction. Mitt Romney’s spread, located on a pleasant patch of grass right outside the coliseum where the televised speeches would be delivered, was the size of a football field. To secure this real estate, Romney had outbid his nearest rival by $10,000. At the western edge of his land he’d erected a massive stage where The Nadas, a bluesy band, played under steel scaffolds studded with lights and pyrotechnics. A few feet away, in a massive tent, pulled pork for thousands was being dispensed. It was speculated that Romney had purchased as many as 10,000 tickets. He’d also paid an Iowa consultant $200,000 to produce the day’s event, rented a rock-climbing wall, and covered the cost of transporting his supporters across the state and back. Regular volunteers and “super-volunteers” (some of whom had been paid $1,000 a month by the campaign since April) darted around the compound in maize-colored MITT 2008 shirts. Estimates of his total expenditure for the day topped out at $4 million.

Across the way was Sam Brown-back’s area, which boasted a rock wall identical to Romney’s and the poll’s lone air-conditioned tent, inside of which Famous Dave’s BBQ was meted out in gracious heaps. The balmy tent also featured a death-metal band, which many of the elderly endured for the sake of the cooler air. The Kansas senator scored all this for the bargain price of $325,000. Ron Paul’s camp had shrewdly festooned the modest rise above the portable toilets with his placards, dominating the one view every voter was bound to take in at least once. The walkway was littered with signs bearing quotations from sources so eclectic (Ludwig Von Mises, Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, Tom Clancy) that even without mention of his name or his “Hope for America” slogan, it was clear only Paul could be responsible. Tommy Thompson’s tent down the hill had the aura of a wake, as the candidate had sworn to quit the race if he failed to finish first or second, and his chances seemed remote. At a cost of some $150,000, Mike Huckabee’s production on the other side of an immense parking lot provided pork, watermelon from his native Hope, Arkansas, and bottled water with his campaign logo printed on the label. There was a “Dunk a Democrat” booth and a stage on which his own band, Capitol Offense, performed their staid renditions of classic rock tunes.

Just over a low fence from where Tom Tancredo’s team was blasting “Born in the U.S.A.,” lay the minimalist dominion of John Cox, comprising two blindingly white tents, an inflated Castle of Bounce for the kids, and a large earthbound hot-air balloon emblazoned with the candidate’s name in Republican red. Since nary a spoonful of pulled pork nor a round-trip bus ride had been provided-just Jays potato chips, cotton candy, and snow cones-the Cox plot was understandably light on visitors. Upon seeing the setups of the other campaigns, Cox had been awestruck. “Boy,” he said after a time, “these guys have all kinds of money to burn.”

John Utz, Cox’s point man at the poll, was nevertheless fired up by the Cox offerings. “We’re small but we’re very entertaining,” he assured his boss. Later his enthusiasms turned to Cox’s impending speech: “It’s gonna be a John Cox rally in that auditorium! Romney’s gonna come out and it’ll sound like a golf clap, and then John Cox: Yeeaaaaaahhhhhhh!” He wandered around the candidate’s indoor staging area, yelling, “It’s a war room, it’s a war room!”

During their respective addresses inside the coliseum, candidates had the opportunity to fill a “mesh pit” with supporters. Because Romney drew the first slot, his very vocal contingent – led by an actual cheerleader – drowned out what was intended to be a group introduction, and the other candidates were caught standing and waving as Mitt’s acolytes screamed his name. Romney then gave his usual paean to “strength,” assuring the crowd that he knows “we can beat the jihadists” and that he’ll clean up “the dirty water” our kids are swimming in online. Tancredo’s “Army Against Amnesty” marched in and raised a new level of din, as the man considered by most pundits to be the worst speaker in the group gave the day’s most rousing speech. His peroration “This is our culture, fight for it! This is our flag, pick it up! This is our nation, take it back!” drew an atavistic burst from the crowd, his last words almost entirely lost in their cries.

After Tancredo, the air seemed to be sucked out of the hall. Nobody was left in the center aisles, which were reserved for those Iowans whose votes were for sale, and Cox had neither the inclination to pay them nor the staffers adequate to fill the pit. So the hall sat in a silence to which it was unaccustomed at three-quarters capacity. Then the first clarion horns of the Rocky theme blared over the PA, and Cox emerged before the crowd, carrying his youngest child and trailed by his young wife. He seemed at peace and assured, stolid as he stood at what he had called “the center of the political universe,” his voice leavened with the gravitas lent by the big stage. He didn’t say his dog was named Hillary, but he stood up for the Second Amendment, demonized the IRS, earned points for calling out Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for playing general, borrowed a little of Tancredo’s thunder by saying he was “a descendant of people who came to this country legally,” and, like just about everyone else, invoked Reagan’s Shining City on the Hill. For once Cox appeared natural, a man the nation at large might see and think credible as a candidate for his party’s nomination.

But it turned out to be for naught. Fox News had cut its feed after Romney’s speech and was now mired, with the rest of cable news, in an endless replay of the few known details concerning the six workers who had been trapped in a Utah mine collapse.

Romney garnered the most votes at the straw poll, with 4,516. The victory, which his camp touted as “a test of who was strong with the base,” cost him roughly $450 per vote, though some estimates put the figure at over $1,000. But the big winner in Ames was Mike Huckabee, who beat out Sam Brownback for the evangelical vote and came in second, only 2,000 votes behind Romney. Unlike Romney, Huckabee had not bused in any voters. The surprise showing conferred legitimacy on a candidate who had languished in sixth place, and by December Huckabee had actually overtaken Romney in many Iowa polls and was vying with Giuliani in some national ones. Iowa had indeed provided a second-tier candidate the dreamed-of boost.

John Cox received forty-one votes at the straw poll, or 0.3 percent, a figure roughly commensurate with his name recognition. Cox’s campaign manager, Dan Herren, was cheered that Cox’s vote total surpassed the showing there in 1999 of then Ohio Congressman John Kasich, a revered public official who managed just nine votes. But Kasich had actually withdrawn from the race more than a month before the poll and never made the journey to Ames. In the weeks after the straw poll, the Cox campaign faced other setbacks. Cox’s petition to take part in a debate in Dearborn, Michigan, was rejected, on the grounds that his name didn’t show up in polls. Later, he was invited to an MSNBC debate in Des Moines, only to have it postponed indefinitely. By October, Cox had become so disheartened about his prospects that his remarks at a Reagan Day dinner were widely interpreted as a concession. Cox rushed to assure a blogger from the Rocky Mountain News that though he’d “been doubting [his] own existence the last few months,” he wasn’t “technically out of the race. I’ve got a few more opportunities to get my message across. But it’s a realization that I’m not going to win.” There were reports of him publicly dressing down staffers, and that he’d jettisoned all but one scheduler. Things seemed dire as ever, yet the tag line of his November 12 op-ed in the Des Moines Register declared unequivocally: “John Cox is seeking the Republican nomination for president,” which, despite his best efforts, was still news to some.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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