DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember former Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee who rebuilt his life after the war by dedicating himself to public service. He died Tuesday at the age of 79. Cleland earned a Bronze Star and Silver Star in combat, then entered politics in 1970, two years after he was injured, winning a seat in the Georgia state Senate. He went on to head the Veterans Administration under President Carter, then became secretary of state in Georgia for 14 years.
Cleland served one term as a Democratic senator from Georgia. But when he ran for reelection in 2002, Republicans led by consultant Karl Rove, who hand-picked his opponent, Saxby Chambliss, questioned Leland's patriotism and implied he was soft on the war on terror. In his memoir, "Heart Of A Patriot: How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed And Karl Rove," Cleland wrote that in his mind, he replayed the grenade explosion again and again that blew away both legs and his right arm.
He found solace by immersing himself in politics and public service. But when he lost his bid for reelection to the Senate, he wrote, he fell into a deep depression. Cleveland returned to Walter Reed Hospital, where counseling medication and veterans, including those from Iraq and Afghanistan, helped him heal. In 2009, he was appointed secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission by President Obama. Terry Gross spoke with Max Cleland in 2009, when his memoir was published.
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TERRY GROSS: Max Cleland, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe your memory of what happened when the grenade that injured you blew up?
MAX CLELAND: Well, I had - it was April 8, '68. The sun was beginning to shine. The monsoons, I thought, were over. We were overlooking the Khe Sanh base. And the siege was broken that day by - our infantry battalion with the 1st Air Cavalry Division was moving into the Khe Sanh perimeter, and they needed a radio hook up on top of a mountain. And I went to do that because I was the signal officer for that unit.
I took a team and set up - tried to set up the signal operation there, but one of my men got off a chopper and dropped a grenade, unbeknownst to me, and I saw it. I turned around. I had my M-16 in my left hand and my steel pot on, my flak vest on. And I reached down with it to get it with my right hand because - thinking it might have dropped off my web gear because I had grenades, and everybody had them. And so the thing went off.
GROSS: You didn't know that the pin was out and that it was live.
CLELAND: No, no, no, no. No, no, no. And so boom. I looked down, and my right hand was gone, and the bone sticking out from the right. And then my right leg was gone. And my left leg was so badly shattered, it was amputated within the hour. I mean, I could see it off to the left in my boot. And I felt this massive burning sensation. I couldn't speak because shrapnel had fractured my windpipe. And I was calling for help. And I couldn't stand up.
And, you know, the guys on the hill ran toward me, started cutting off my uniform. And I thought, how odd, you know, somebody cutting off my uniform. There I was laying, dying, burning, smoking, as a matter of fact, because I was so close to the flash burns of the grenade that it seared my flesh, which is why I didn't bleed to death right there on the hill.
And within 15 minutes, I was in the division aid station. And an aide gave me a shot of morphine. And I said, do you think I'm going to make it? He said, you just might. In other words, my life hung by the balance 50/50. And I was then flown to a Quonset hut where five doctors saved my life, only to ultimately face the question of, why did I live? Why am I alive? What am I doing here? What's the meaning and purpose of life?
GROSS: You know now that the grenade that blew up was the grenade of a fellow soldier, but you went through years thinking that it was your grenade, that you dropped a grenade, that somehow the pin was out of your grenade and that you were responsible for blowing yourself up?
GROSS: How did you find out that that wasn't the case?
CLELAND: Well, by this time, I was in the U.S. Senate. And I had done a program, I think, for the History Channel on combat medics. And I talked about this experience about, you know, picking up the grenade, I thought it might have fallen off my web gear or something like that. The next day, I got a phone call. And my secretary said, there's some guy on the phone. And a guy named Dave Lloyd said he was there on the hill when you got blown up. And I said, well, put him through.
He said, well, it wasn't your grenade. I said, how do you know that? He says, because I was the first to you. And I said, you were? And he said, yeah, I remember cutting your uniform off and using my weapon belt as a tourniquet on your left leg. And I said, only somebody that was there would have known that.
So it wasn't my grenade. It wasn't my fault. And it was the fault of the, I think, the new guy who was getting off the chopper and who had - after Dave Lloyd went to me, he went to the other guy and found out that he had grenades still with the pins loose and they took them off of him because he was a walking time bomb.
GROSS: So let's get to the existential crisis after this happened to you. You know, now you're - you have only 1 of 4 of your limbs left. And you have visions of, like, lying on the - on your back for the rest of your life. Your dream had always been to get into politics and to become a senator. Before going to Vietnam, you'd been an intern for a senator, so you'd been to the Oval Office. You'd been to the Senate, and that's the life you wanted. So you decided to run for office. You ran for the state Senate and won. What was it like to campaign when you were so physically compromised?
CLELAND: Oh, yeah. You got that right. In my first campaign in 1970, virtually immediately after I got my limbs, ultimately, from the VA, as soon as I got home, I realized, you know, nobody was going to give me a job. Nobody's going to do something for me. Whatever. I was living at home with my parents. I said, this is not what I want. I'm 28 - 27, 28. And so wait a minute. This isn't the life I envisioned. So I got to get up and do something.
So I put on my artificial limbs. My mother and father helped me in the mornings. I went out. By then, I could drive a car. I had my hand controls on a car. And I wore my limbs. And I did my own campaigning, my own scheduling, my own money raising. I did it all from my mother's desk, for God's sakes. And I'm not sure how I did it, but it was really powerfully difficult. And I had never seen anybody do anything like that. And I did it, though, and it wore me out. Matter of fact, I could only wear my limbs for about six hours, and I would start bleeding in my crotch and whatever, I mean, because they would wear me down. And it was plastic and leather and steel on my skin.
So anyway, it was exhausting, but I had no other alternative if I wanted to get up and out. And believe it or not, nobody thought I could win. I wasn't sure I could win. And I started off way behind the eight ball. And nobody wanted to be the Democratic nominee in that suburban Republican county. So I got the Democratic nomination, won the general election and became Georgia's youngest state senator at the age of 28 and its only Vietnam veteran. This was 1970. And during that campaign, I met a young man named Jimmy Carter, and as they say, the rest is history. In 1977, President Carter appointed me head of the Veterans Administration. I was 34.
GROSS: And then when he was out of office, you were out of a job again.
CLELAND: Exactly. So back to Georgia, back living with my parents. This time I did not wear the limbs. I campaigned in my wheelchair. And I can tell you going up to somebody who has all their limbs and me shaking their left hand with my left hand - and I was right-handed - it was about as awkward as it gets. But ultimately, thank God, I won the Democratic primary and won the final general election and was secretary of state in Georgia for 12 years.
GROSS: You were thinking of running for governor of Georgia. And early on in that - I'm not sure if you'd officially declared yet or not but...
GROSS: You hadn't yet. OK. So you described this period as the first political dirty trick against you. I want you to describe the setup for that dirty trick. And it was dirty...
CLELAND: (Laughter) Well...
GROSS: It's dirty in both meanings of that word.
CLELAND: Well, that's correct. You know, by then, I had discovered phone sex, which wasn't bad (laughter). And a young lady that I was having that phone sex with, you know, she, unbeknownst to me, was friends with two adult males who were Republican, and they wanted to trap me because they saw me as a threat of running for governor in 1990 or so. So I was embarrassed terribly because they taped me on the phone and then they distributed that tape to a television station.
GROSS: They taped the phone sex conversation.
CLELAND: Right, exactly.
GROSS: And they put her up to this, right?
CLELAND: That's correct. That's correct. And then to the newspaper and all that kind of stuff. So it knocked me out of running for governor. And that was - you know, that was the way it was. But that was the first indication that the other side would go to any lengths to beat me.
GROSS: You say something very funny about this incident. You say that made it impossible for you to run for governor. It was very embarrassing. But at the same time, it raised your political profile because everybody knew who you were after this. And it proved that despite your handicaps, it proved you were a full red-blooded American male who had not lost his sex life or the requisite machinery. The tape proved it.
GROSS: Do you think that there were doubts about your requisite machinery that could have been a liability in an election?
CLELAND: Oh, I think that people see people in a wheelchair or missing limbs or whatever, and they think, subconsciously maybe, less of them. They think that they're unable to perform certain tasks, not necessarily sexually but just in general. Now, trust me, the fact that I'm human and an all-American male and still am, you don't want to particularly advertise that on a billboard or a TV shot, but you would assume that people would make that connection. However, a friend of mine told me after this incident that, well, this really helped you probably down in South Georgia (laughter). So I said, oh, my God. So it happened, but what I learned out of it was the fact that the other side would try to wipe you out and kill you. And they would do anything to do it.
DAVIES: Former U.S. Senator Max Cleland speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2009 interview with Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Senator Max Cleland. He died Tuesday at the age of 79.
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GROSS: Let's get to the campaign against you when you lost your Senate seat in 2002 in a campaign against the Republican Saxby Chambliss. There's a very now famous ad that he ran against you and that he pulled and revised a little bit and then put back on the air. Would you first describe the original ad?
CLELAND: Well, keep in mind that I lost both legs and my right arm in Vietnam and that Senator Chambliss never went to Vietnam at all - matter of fact, got out by a number of deferments on a trick knee. So to insinuate in any way that I was unpatriotic or not supportive of the country was criminal, really. And that's why I mentioned Karl Rove because it was the Karl Rove strategy based on the Lee Atwater idea, which Karl Rove got from him. And that is that you if you have weak positives, then you go after your enemy's negatives. You try - your whole purpose of a campaign is to drive your negatives - your opponent's negatives up, even after you - have to go after their military service. Now, therein lies the problem.
Now, anything one does in public life is fair game. I understand that. I get that. Thomas Jefferson said public office is public property. I get that. But we're talking about military service here. This started out with McCain in South Carolina where the five of us remaining Vietnam veterans in the Senate all wrote a letter defending him against the attacks, then the campaign against me in 2002 and then the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004. That was all calculated to take away an asset that we possessed, namely our military service, and drive our negatives up. Now, the ad against me showed bin Laden, and then it showed Saddam Hussein and their pictures and whatever and then morphing into my face. Now, that's crazy. That's crazy to indicate that I had - or to look like I had anything to do with bin Laden or Saddam Hussein was nuts. But the insinuation was that I couldn't defend America, that I - that somehow my votes in terms of amendments in committee on the Homeland Security bill were somehow translated into not being able to defend the country. As a matter of fact, I was one of the sponsors of the Homeland Security bill and fought for its passage. So all of that ad was basically a set of lies. But that's the extent to which those guys will go to win their elections.
GROSS: Well, because of protests against that ad, the ad was modified so that the - explain how the visual part of it was modified.
CLELAND: The protest came from McCain and from Chuck Hagel...
GROSS: Both Republicans.
CLELAND: ...Two Republicans, two Republican senators, my colleagues in the Senate and two fellow Vietnam veterans. And so supposedly, the ad was modified a little bit. But the point was made. The point, ultimately, is that this - your military service should stand, one way or the other.
GROSS: Well, I should say in the modified ad, you were no longer visually...
CLELAND: Well, the damage had already been done.
GROSS: How many times was it showed, the original one, before it was modified?
CLELAND: You can't not say that you're a liar. You know, you can't say, oops, I didn't mean that. So in so many ways, that shows what American politics has become. Bad campaigning results in bad governance.
GROSS: Now, you write that when you lost your Senate seat, your way of coping with life after Vietnam fell apart, that the pleasure of having a job worth doing and the money to keep you afloat were gone. You and your fiancee broke up, also, and it plunged you into this, like, terrible depression.
GROSS: Can you talk about what it was like to lose your job, to lose your sense of purpose? I mean, the only real jobs that you'd had, you know, after the military and after you lost three of your four limbs was elected office and then being...
CLELAND: That's correct.
GROSS: ...Appointed to the VA by President Carter. So I mean, your life had been politics.
CLELAND: That's right. And I had used politics and public service - and I am public service. That's what I do. I'd used that as my way of coping, of my way of fitting back in, of my way of finding my place in life and society. It was my way of earning an income, of having a little staff around me, of having an office, of something of a place to go to, you know, a way to survive. So politics became that for me. When I lost it, I lost everything. I lost my way of coping, only to find myself hitting bottom in every way in which you can hit bottom and finding myself back at Walter Reed in PTSD counseling, in massive depression, dealing with how in the world am I going to get a grip on my life anymore?
GROSS: Do you feel like you've been able to make peace with yourself, peace with the fact that what happened happened, peace with the fact that your body is so compromised and that you can't have what average people with average bodies have. Have you been able to make peace with that, or does it still make you angry every day?
CLELAND: I have my anger. I have my deep anger. When I see people running laps up and down the street, I wish I could do that. I try to do my own little laps in my apartment on pillows and stuff. I wish I could do that. I wish I could do a whole host of things I used to be able to do. So I think that makes it more important what I can do. And what I could do was run for public office and do those kind of things. When I couldn't do that anymore, then that's really when I hit bottom emotionally and spiritually. And - but I'm coming out of it because I've been there. I've been to a place where I didn't want to live anymore. And I understand that place, but it's not ultimately true.
GROSS: As the former head of the Veterans Administration under President Carter, do you feel like you get adequate veterans benefits now?
CLELAND: I do. Now, the guys coming back and gals coming back - boy, who can replace what they have lost? Who can administer to their needs? They've seen war. They've been part of war. And we have a whole host of things we need to do. And that healing for them really has only just begun.
GROSS: But do you think they're getting adequate benefits?
CLELAND: It's not so much a question of benefits as it is...
GROSS: ...Or care.
CLELAND: ...The question - well, the question of, did what I do have any meaning and purpose for the America that I love? That's the question. And so they'll be spending the rest of their lives trying to establish that meaning.
GROSS: Well, it sounds like when you ask yourself that question in terms of Vietnam, your answer is no, not really.
CLELAND: That's correct. But I'm still here, you know. I'm still alive. And I try to make the best of it.
DAVIES: Former U.S. Senator Max Cleland spoke with Terry Gross in 2009, when he just published his memoir "Heart Of A Patriot: How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed And Karl Rove." Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79.
Coming up, the battle to keep independent local journalism alive. We'll speak with Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake, Iowa, Times, whose paper is profiled in a documentary on PBS next week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. According to one study, 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004, and many communities are becoming so-called news deserts without any source of regular local news coverage. Today we're going to listen to the interview I recorded in September with Art Cullen, editor of a local paper struggling to stay alive and serve the rural town of Storm Lake, Iowa. The Storm Lake Times is profiled in a new documentary which airs Monday on PBS. The Storm Lake Times is family owned and run. Art Cullen is the editor. His brother, John, is publisher. And his wife, Dolores, is a photographer and culture writer who will happily pen a story about a two-headed calf. Also on the staff are Art's sister-in-law, Mary, who writes a food column, and his son Tom, the paper's lead reporter.
Art Cullen won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for what the Pulitzer committee described as tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa. Cullen is also author of the the author of the 2018 book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small Town Newspaper." The documentary film "Storm Lake," directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, will appear on PBS stations Monday night, part of the Independent Lens series.
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DAVIES: Art Cullen, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ART CULLEN: Well, thanks for having me, Dave. I appreciate it.
DAVIES: You know, the typical career path for a journalist is to start in a small market and then gradually move to bigger markets where there's hopefully more money and a bigger audience and more impact. You were well underway in your journalism career when you came back to Storm Lake, a town of - what? - a little less than 11,000. Why?
CULLEN: Well, my brother John had the crazy idea of starting a newspaper in our hometown in 1990, about the worst time in retrospect, about the worst time you could imagine starting a print publication in rural northwest Iowa. And I had been working at a daily newspaper. I'd been working my way up Interstate 35 to - in hopes of getting a job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And I was at the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette, a daily newspaper where I was the news editor. And I was kind of tired of corporate journalism, working for a large, publicly traded company. And John wanted to start this newspaper in our hometown. And so I came home.
DAVIES: You became the editor. It publishers twice a week - Tuesday and Thursday - right?
DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about Storm Lake and the surrounding area.
CULLEN: Well, Storm Lake is a meatpacking community. We're not sure how big it is. It's somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The census says about 11,000. But again, because about, you know, maybe half our population is immigrant, we're not really sure. And a large percent of them are undocumented who work in a Tyson pork plant and a Tyson turkey slaughter facility. And then there's also - Rembrandt Foods has about 5 million laying hens producing liquid eggs just a few miles north of Storm Lake. So this is a very - this is what you'd call a protein center, actually, for America, fueled by immigrant labor.
DAVIES: Storm Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County, which, if you look on a map, is a perfect square. A lot of farms in the surrounding community, right?
CULLEN: Right. Yeah. And it's - Storm Lake is the county seat, home to a 3,000-acre glacial lake which has been sedimenting in over time thanks to agricultural practices. And it's also home to a small liberal arts college called Buena Vista University. So it, you know, it's an interesting, very interesting little rural community.
DAVIES: People who follow journalism have been saying for a long time that people need real information, reliable information, not just something that pops up on a social media site, but something that's published by someone who will be there and is credible and, you know, has libel insurance and talks to people of all sides. It's important that people get real information and news about, you know, the world and politics and policy. But it's also, you remind us, important for maintaining a community. You say Iowa - towns in Iowa are generally about as strong as their banks and their newspaper. What does your paper paper do for the community, do you think, its presence there? What does it do besides just give people information?
CULLEN: Well, for example, our lake was sedimenting in from agricultural runoff. And we launched a campaign to restore the lake through dredging and watershed protection - conservation practices in the watershed and working with Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Tom Vilsack. We were able to build a 20-year watershed protection and lake dredging operation which removed 700,000 cubic yards of silt from Storm Lake. That's Iowa black gold sitting at the bottom of our lake. And that's just one example of what the newspaper has has been able to accomplish. And by bringing the community together - farmers, bankers, environmentalists, fishermen - we're all pulling for lake dredging.
And the newspaper was leading the campaign. So it did bring the community together. And oftentimes, and especially in rural communities, it's very difficult to pass a bond issue to build a new school building. And Storm Like passes with 60% or 70% approval ratings because the newspapers constantly urging the public that we've got to be a growing rural community, otherwise we're declining. So I think those are two great examples.
DAVIES: You went there in 1990, which is actually the year that I went to a daily paper in Philadelphia and was there for 20 years. And so I know, as you do, that those were the years that the traditional business model of newspapers fell apart as display advertising and classified ads disappeared into the internet. And I assume that what that means for you now is that you really need to rely on what we call circulation revenue. That's the people plopping down a dollar for the paper. And that means you've got to have local stuff that they want to read. Give us some examples of this - the things that keep people coming back to open the paper.
CULLEN: Well, you know, I think it - first of all, it's community news about the two-headed calf and the blind bowler rolling a perfect 300 game.
DAVIES: Did that really happen?
CULLEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Dale Davis, a blind bowler, rolled a perfect game at Century Lanes in Alta, which is a tiny community nearby. And people turn to it for the school board coverage and the city council coverage and, you know, sewer rates. We just, you know, got our water bill today, and it's significantly higher. And we've been covering this all along in the newspaper about how we're going to have significantly higher water rates going forward. So those are the things that keep people - the obituaries, the weddings and engagements. Those are the things that keep people coming back. And it's not about necessarily what the politicians said this week.
DAVIES: I mean, the film has some lovely moments like that. There's the - you always do a story on the first baby of each year, the, you know, first born on January 1. And then there's a moment where I believe your wife, Dolores, goes to cover the visit of the Iowa pork producers' Pork Queen....
DAVIES: ...It's a beauty queen. She goes to visit a second-grade class carrying what? You want to tell us this story? (Laughter).
CULLEN: Well, yeah. The Pork Queen's carrying a pig with a diaper on it (laughter) because, you know, pigs poop. And so it's a great moment. And, you know - and then Dolores was just talking about one of the big issues in Iowa is the stench from confinement units with thousands of hogs in them or poultry. And so it was just kind of funny that here is this hog wearing a diaper - actually, a pig wearing a diaper. It wasn't a full-grown hog. And - but it's - in Iowa, that scene is a completely normal thing, and - but when viewed by an audience in Vermont, it's hilarious.
DAVIES: But kids get connected to an important local employer and, as you write about often, a source of local pollution. There's complexity to all this. Yeah.
CULLEN: Costs and benefits.
DAVIES: Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times, serving a rural community in Iowa. The paper is profiled in the documentary "Storm Lake," which airs Monday night on PBS. We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the future of local journalism with Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, which serves a rural community in Iowa. The paper is profiled in the documentary "Storm Lake," which airs Monday night on PBS.
Storm Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County. How has the - I don't know - the demographic makeup of the county and, you know, the political texture of the county changed over the years you've been there?
CULLEN: Well, very interesting. This is - I call northwest Iowa a little slice of Texas. And you know, it's - this is very much a live-free-or-die kind of place. Farm Bureau dominates our politics, you know, very much, a libertarian style of - it was once said about Iowa that Iowa will go Democrat when hell goes Methodist.
CULLEN: So this is a very Republican area, and Storm Lake is a little dot of blue. It's very much like the country writ at large. The rural areas are very deeply red, and Storm Lake is this little blob of blue populated by a large contingent of Latinos, many of whom are from Mexico, many of whom are from San Antonio. So it's a very different place than most of rural Iowa. And so Storm Lake proper votes Democrat - supported Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But the county itself negates that vote and voted strongly for Trump in the last election.
DAVIES: And a lot of these immigrants work in the meatpacking plants and poultry processing plant that are - that's in the area. How have you engaged that part of the community?
CULLEN: Well, for one thing, we've been a very strong advocate for Latinos in particular who, you know, are here as DREAMers and, you know, young people who were brought here at age 2 or 3 at no choice of theirs. And now they're here stuck without papers. And you know, at one point, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump said they wanted to deport them all. So we've been a very strong advocate for legalizing the undocumented, not only DREAMers, but people with temporary protected status from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and for the people - hardworking people here in Storm Lake who came here avoiding drug gangs and desperate poverty in rural Mexico, Jalisco mainly.
And we had this congressman, Steve King, who was, you know, a real xenophobe. And so we opposed him for 20 years. And I think the Latino community appreciates it. But one real issue we have is illiteracy. And so a lot of rural immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala lack reading, you know, literacy in Spanish, much less English. So that's been a real challenge for us as to - the next generation who are graduating from high school and college here now will be newspaper readers, but their parents currently aren't.
DAVIES: You're a progressive, and you live in a county that has a lot of Republicans. I mean, you're a journalist. You got to talk to all kinds of people. How do they react to you? What kind of relationships do you have?
CULLEN: Most people think that we're fairly, you know, sensible or pragmatic progressives. And then there's a lot of people - 30% of the electorate, I would say, or the public would think that we're crazy Irish Catholic New Dealers, socialists and - which we are. We're Irish Catholic New Dealers. Can't help it. I was born that way. But they accept that, and we keep it to the editorial page. And I think what people really want is an honest discussion of the issues. And that's what we try and deliver.
DAVIES: You know, it's been my experience - and I covered politics for a long time in Pennsylvania - and that - it's been my experience that the kind of all-out war and bitterness that occurs between Republicans and Democrats at the national level is much less acute among local members of their parties because they have to live with these folks. I mean, it's just not so deeply partisan.
CULLEN: Yeah, but it's getting worse.
DAVIES: Well, that's what I was going to say, was - it's - I think I see a change over the last few years. And I'm wondering what you see and particularly, you know, in the wake of this election in which president - former President Trump was, you know, and is still, you know, propounding these, you know, baseless theories that there was fraud and that the election was stolen. What are these relationships like in Buena Vista County?
CULLEN: Well, yeah, it's Facebook mainly has really soured our civics. And so this movie's coming out, and it's a beautiful movie. It's not really very controversial. It's just holding up journalism and community life in sort of an idealized way, honestly. And there's nothing, you know, and, you know, 30 years ago, people in Storm Lake would have said, wow, that's really cool, you know. Storm Lake is being held up for something other than a forgotten town. And now with Facebook, you know, you got, of, the liberal rag, you know, who'd want to go see that?
You know, actually, it celebrates civic engagement in Storm Lake, Iowa, and how the Iowa caucuses were really, you know, a great exercise in neighbors discussing issues and candidates. And it really holds up Storm Lake as an exemplar. And yet, because of the snarkiness and cynicism that's fed by - on Facebook and other social media, you know, people diss this movie, you know. And again, it's just a minority, but that just wouldn't have happened 20 to 30 years ago. It would have been Iowa pride suffocating any of that.
DAVIES: Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake, Iowa, Times (ph), which is profiled in the new documentary film "Storm Lake," which airs Monday night on PBS. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, a small, family-run newspaper in Iowa. It's featured in a new documentary about keeping local journalism alive. The film, called "Storm Lake," airs Monday night on PBS.
Art Cullen, I want to talk about the editorial series that got you the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. This kind of begins with an environmental problem involving the Storm Lake, which is the lake that is right next to the city of Storm Lake and another river, I guess the Raccoon River. What was going wrong here and in - with these bodies of water?
CULLEN: All right. Back in the 1800s, when the white settlers arrived, this area was all marshland and tall grass prairie. And so they could farm. They drained all those marshes and slews and - with underground clay tile. And we've been increasing that - the amount of that underground tile through the years, especially since 1980. And what happens is when we apply fertilizer and you get a heavy rain, that fertilizer washes through the soil profile into these drainage tiles and hits the Raccoon River, which then flows to Des Moines. And Des Moines, with 500,000 drinking water consumers, draws its water supply from the Raccoon River. Hence, because of the nitrate pollution from anhydrous ammonia application to grow corn, Des Moines now has the largest nitrate removal system in North America. And so they sued these three northern Iowa counties upstream for polluting the Raccoon River.
DAVIES: Right. And they warned them that they were going to do this. The counties kind of didn't take it seriously. Your - in your editorial said this is a real problem. So the litigation begins. What happens next?
CULLEN: Well, because it's a pollution lawsuit, we figure out that - the Storm Lake Times figures out that the county can't - its insurance company won't pay its legal fees for defending this lawsuit. So we asked the county board of supervisors, our county commission, how are you going to cover these legal bills? They could impact our property tax base. And they said, essentially, it's none of your business. We have friends. And we said, who are your friends? And they said, are you heard of hearing? It's none of your business.
And so then we went off and joined with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which is a nonprofit urging government transparency throughout the state. And we started writing letters saying the Iowa public records law requires you to reveal these donors. And eventually, they agreed to us after having spent about a million dollars from the slush fund in legal. And within - so the counties eventually pulled out of this illegal arrangement that was funded primarily, as we determined from our own reporting, by Monsanto, the Koch brothers and the rest of the fertilizer industry.
And so the counties had to pull out of this illegal agreement because we harassed them out of it. And six weeks later, a federal District Court judge ruled that - he dismissed the lawsuit because you basically can't sue counties for agricultural pollution. And so the issue - we won sort of a pyrrhic victory. We got dark money out of the federal courts after they spent a million bucks. But Iowa - in Iowa, agriculture and the environment, which are at loggerheads, never got the hearing it deserved because the legislature is essentially owned by the Farm Bureau and the agrochemical complex. And they will never give the environment a hearing. And we had hoped that the courts would give the environment a hearing, and they didn't. So we're hoping now that Congress will correct this pollution problem in the next farm bill.
DAVIES: So the issue was, in part, public information, right? I mean, you have a public entity getting huge sums of money from private interests that aren't disclosed. But beyond that, there was a real substantive issue. You were argued that, hey, county, don't simply defend these practices. Let's get together and reach a settlement and try to address the problem. Right? You actually suggested that they meet and resolve it. And I think one of the parties said that they were going to, and then they canceled it and blamed you. Do I have this right? (Laughter).
CULLEN: Yeah, kind of (laughter), yeah. They said - OK, so we had suggested in a series of editorials, can't you knuckleheads just talk to each other? Well, of course they can't. They couldn't talk to each other. Couldn't the governor, Terry Branstad, talk to Bill Stowe, the CEO of the Des Moines Water Works? They're, you know, they're five minutes apart in Des Moines. No, they can't talk to each other. We don't want to hear each other. And so finally, we suggested that the Buena Vista County Attorney and Bill Stowe of the water works - who has since died, by the way - have a meeting.
And so they arranged for a quiet secret meeting in Fort Dodge at a Perkins restaurant. And when the county board of supervisors, the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors caught wind of that meeting. They said, no way are you going to that meeting. We aren't talking to those people. We got lawyers, and we got money. Why would we talk to them? And so that's how, you know, we've become in America. I have a bunch of - I got a million bucks from Monsanto and the Koch brothers. Why should I meet you at a Perkins?
DAVIES: And I read that the board of supervisors of the county said if Art Cullen says something, we'll do the opposite, which is...
CULLEN: That's exactly right. That's how stupid it got.
DAVIES: Well, it's kind of a depressing kind of measure of your own clout, isn't it?
DAVIES: So you can get the wrong thing done by suggesting...
CULLEN: Yeah, so that's how stupid - you know, people dig their heels in. And they can't even talk to each other. And that's where we - you know, it speaks to the larger issue, I think, of how we conduct our politics today.
DAVIES: One of the other little details from the story that I love is some of the players involved in this were going to be at a - at some kind of a charity golf outing. And your son Tom went to the country club, tracked them down on the course, and then in the clubhouse, still didn't get any answers, right?
CULLEN: Yeah, they spotted him trudging to the 18th hole, and they took off in golf carts, fleeing him. And then they got to the clubhouse, where they issued a no-comment. And it was - the politicians and the money were all golfing together and all drinking each other's booze. And that's how politics is conducted.
DAVIES: Well, Art Cohen, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CULLEN: Well, thank you, Dave. It's been a delight talking to you.
DAVIES: Art Cullen is the editor of the family-run newspaper the Storm Lake Times, serving a rural community in northwestern Iowa. Cullen won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. He and the paper are featured in the new documentary "Storm Lake." After our interview first aired in September, Cullen heard from a wealthy tech entrepreneur who offered funding - no strings attached - to keep the paper afloat through the pandemic. Cullen says he's accepted some of that assistance, and he's grateful. The documentary "Storm Lake" airs Monday night on PBS.
On Monday's show, how do two sisters just three years apart take extremely divergent paths in life? We talk with Dawn Turner, former columnist for the Chicago Tribune about her new memoir. While she became a successful writer, her sister died at 24 from chronic alcoholism. Both grew up in a Chicago neighborhood which Turner says government officials neglected and abandoned. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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