Meditating Iowans At Peace With Obama

By The Politico's Ben Smith

Sen. Barack Obama drew his heartiest welcome of a two-day swing through Iowa in the state's capital of inner peace.

To the frustration of the cameramen in the Fairfield town square, Obama delivered his remarks facing East, with the setting sun behind him blotting out their shots.

But here, there's a power even higher than the television networks: Obama had positioned himself in alignment with the rotation of the earth, in accordance with the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose followers moved en masse to this small Iowa city more than 30 years ago.

The Maharishi's transcendental meditators, along with vacationing pilgrims from the East coast, turned out in large numbers in the town's traditional green square to hear the Illinois senator deliver his stump speech on the night of July 3 — more people, Fairfield's sheriff said, than had come out to greet a sitting president.

"I saw him and I thought, 'Oh my god, this is somebody who could lead us into a new era,'" said Nancy Watkins, an international student adviser at the Maharishi University of Management.

The meditators cheered Obama heartily — not at his occasional gestures toward political red meat, but at the lines that sometimes leave other audiences in silence.

They were responding to the senator's call for national renewal that, though perhaps more Christian than New Age in concept, fit comfortably into a town square hemmed by shops with names like "Revelations" and the "Healthy Inspiration."

"Somehow we have lost the capacity to recognize ourselves in each other,"" Obama said, to an intently nodding crowd of at least 1,000. "You know, people talk a lot about the federal deficit, but one of the things that I always talk about is …an empathy deficit," he continued, to applause.

Obama spoke as Washington wallows in a summer of intense conflict. Subpoenas are flying from the Hill to the White House. Democratic denunciations of the war and the president are growing in volume. Earlier the same day, MoveOn.org had called on congressional Democrats to drag Vice President Dick Cheney to Capitol Hill to testify and, if he refused to come, to "impeach the guy."

But Obama, about a thousand miles from the nation's capital, seemed even farther away. In some of his speeches, he didn't even mention President Bush.

He told small-town Iowa Democrats of the huge crowds that had greeted him from Atlanta to Iowa City, and mulled what was drawing the masses to his campaign: Not, he said, his own person, but a desire for change.

"What they're also saying when I think they come out to these rallies is, 'We don't want to be against something — we want to be for something,'" he said repeatedly in Iowa.

This is a central gamble of Obama's campaign for President. The loudest voices in the Democratic Party — from Chairman Howard Dean to former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton — have been sounding steady notes of confrontation with the White House. Clinton and Edwards argue that they will win the partisan wars.

Obama argues that the country, and even partisans, are tired of partisan warfare.

Obama's message is received warmly in Iowa, and nowhere more than in Fairfield, a city with a population of about 10,000 that was transformed when the Maharishi chose to place his university on the campus of a failing private college.

The Maharishi, a native of India now reportedly aged about 90, was a celebrity at the time. He had played the guru to stars, including the Beatles.

But while his star power has waned, his following has endured, as has his college town. Now, it's a thriving scene of art galleries, Asian restaurants, and natural healing salons, site of the best organic pizza in Eastern Iowa. It has even sprouted a suburb — the fist new city incorporated in Iowa in decades — called Maharishi Vedic City, in which all buildings face East.

After September 11, the Maharishi was briefly back in the news when he introduced an antidote to terrorism called "Invincible Defense Technology," and reliant on the meditation technique known as "Yogic Flying."

"A lot of people here are very supportive of Dennis Kucinich," said Victoria Mattingly, 54, who works for a company that makes environmentally-friendly building materials.

Actually, Jefferson County, in which Fairfield sits, is one of the few Howard Dean carried in the 2004 caucuses — with Kucinich coming in a strong second. And some heard a strain of the Ohio congressman — with his talk of the world as "interconnected and interdependent," and his pledge to "heal this planet" — in Obama's speech.

"The memorable part for me about the connection we have to each other," said Keith Ratzlaff, a creative writing professor from nearby Pella who was a Kucinich delegate. "That's not something we've heard from the other candidates."

That line — "the capacity to recognize ourselves in each other" — was the one echoed by Fairfield's mayor, as well, a serene, tan meditator named Ed Malloy.

"He has a natural capacity to inspire," Malloy said. "I was very impressed with his theme of seeing yourself in others. It's a resonant theme here."

Behind him, a man driving a red, white and blue 1963 Cadillac convertible with the word "Obamalac" and "The Time Is Now" carefully stenciled across it was being gently chided by a wiry, smiling meditator.

"The time is now," the driver said, as he headed out of town.

"But the time is always now," the local man said.

By Ben Smith
© 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company