Iowa is losing an important state institution when David Yepsen leaves the Des Moines Register to head the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
I was Dave’s editor many years ago when we both had dark hair and weighed somewhat less than we do now. He taught me a lot about this business and I hope I taught him a little as well. Through caucus campaign after caucus campaign as a reporter and later as a columnist and blogger, Dave defined the issues and handicapped the candidates for Register readers and for visiting reporters from around the nation.
We worked closely together in coverage of the 1980 and ’84 Iowa caucuses. In 1984, Jim Flansburg had left his post as the Register’s chief political reporter to become editorial page editor. That moved Dave up to the chief political spot and made him one of the first stops on the itineraries of national reporters visiting Iowa to cover the caucus campaign.
I had created a caucus board game in 1983, celebrating and spoofing our state’s quadrennial role in the nation’s political process. While the game was a bust commercially (the Register didn’t know how to sell anything that wasn’t a newspaper or an ad), it was popular among visiting reporters. Several times visiting reporters would stop and interview Dave, then swing by my desk to ask about the game. I was an optional stop, but Dave was a must. I got my 15 minutes of fame; he was starting a quarter-century of fame.
I said half-jokingly that Dave could always take credit for having called the caucus outcome, because he predicted (usually with some hedging) every possible scenario during the campaign: John Glenn will win if this happens, Gary Hart could upset if that happens, Alan Cranston could sneak through if all these things happen. Change the names to Gephardt, Obama, Huckabee or Bush and the scenario was the same, campaign after campaign.
My favorite two Yepsen stories come from the days before Dave was famous. I have to say that I can’t vouch for the accuracy of either story because I heard them decades ago in a bar, where I spent some evenings in younger days with Dave and other Register colleagues. But they both show the resourcefulness that later would make Dave nationally famous.
In the first story, Dave was covering a tornado (Fort Dodge, as I recall) in the 1970s. Reporters didn’t carry cell phones then, so disaster coverage required finding a pay phone or a home or office phone to call the city desk and dictate a story. Phone circuits were jammed and Dave was unable to get a long distance line out of town. He remembered that every police station had a pay phone (so prisoners could make the one phone call required by law). So he went to the police station, dialed the operator on the pay phone and said in an authoritative voice that Iowa politicians would later recognize instantly: “This is David Yepsen at the police station and I need a long-distance line right away.” He got the line and dictated the story.
Dave had served in the National Guard and after an incident when a police officer had discharged a gun (as I recall, it might have been accidental), Dave examined the unusual hole it left in the wall. He recognized the hole as having been caused by a hollow-point bullet. Before long, he was able to break a story on the police using hollow-point bullets, which cause much more serious injuries than normal bullets.
Dave broke a lot more stories before heading off for the professorial life. I have to wonder, though, where Iowa, Iowa State and Drake were when an Iowa icon began considering a move to academia. We should have kept Dave’s insights here in Iowa.
Godspeed to a friend who became a giant in politics and journalism.
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