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Dalbey editorial: Don’t ‘Pooh’ Vilsack; market his kind of fun


Those photos of Gov. Tom Vilsack in his Winnie the Pooh costume showed up in the newspaper again the other day. Again, Vilsack was the target of a round of jokes – the governor had to be happy it’s not an election year – and Iowa got more jabbing about what must be deficits in its gubernatorial fiber for its citizens to elect a storybook character.

Au contraire. A governor who’s not afraid to strut around as the Scarecrow, Mad Hatter or Friar Tuck may give a lift to Iowa’s sinking reputation as a old, gray state that’s only getting older and grayer. Spin doctors and consultants have been hired with the hope they’ll be able to convince young professionals of Iowa’s merit as a playground. All they have to do is snap a few pictures of our governor frolicking around the Terrace Hill grounds during the annual Spring Fling event to promote literacy.

No joke. Imagine Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dressing up as a cartoon character. The last time he remotely displayed anything close to levity was during the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, when he managed to keep a straight face while labeling all the allegations surrounding hanging chads and improperly handled ballots an overreaction and partisan bickering. Florida’s a vacation spot as well as a retirement mecca for senior citizens, so maybe the stakes aren’t as high in Florida as they are in Iowa and Jeb Bush doesn’t need to don a costume, though any governor of pro-death-penalty Florida would make a dandy Grim Reaper.

In Iowa, the stakes are excruciatingly high. More than 15 percent of Iowa’s population is older than 65, and 2.1 percent is older than 85. It’s hard to find more daunting demographics anywhere else in the Midwest or United States. That’s part of the reason what people hear most often about Iowa is that its Medicare reimbursement rates are the lowest in the country; that its doctors, hospitals and clinics, and senior citizens are getting cheated; and that Medicare inequity delivers a $1 billion economic blow to the state. It’s not going to get better any time soon.

So it can’t hurt for Iowans, collectively, governor included, to go about life in a way that shouts we’re young at heart even if our bifocals need strengthening and our hairlines are receding. There’s no harm in seizing every opportunity to show that our state and its leaders know how to have fun, and not just the fun of tinkering with the tax code, putting together a multimillion-dollar economic development fund and sticking it to the smokers.

Perhaps more positive and less negative spin won’t attract tycoons who never go anywhere without a copy of Barron’s in their briefcases and huge piles of cash to invest. But it might resonate with young professionals who think casual Fridays need to be ratcheted up a notch or two, and that it’s OK to enter the pretend world once in a while.

Maybe making a costumed Vilsack the poster boy for Iowa, land of fun, is too extreme. It probably is. But you get the point. There’s a subtlety in the message, that Iowa’s a place whose people know how to separate work and play, and the value of both in healthy, productive lives.

Market that, Iowa.

Beth Dalbey is editorial director of Business Publications Corp. E-mail her at bethdalbey@bpcdm.com.

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