2016 Elections

When Khrushchev Came to Iowa

Progressives like the family famous for its 1959 photo op aren't quite behind Clinton yet.

Liz Garst at home.

Photographer: Leonid Bershidsky

To understand why Hillary Clinton may still clinch the Democratic nomination, both in Iowa and nationwide, it's worth talking to Liz Garst, the 64-year-old business manager for her family's farming and community banking business in Coon Rapids.

She is the granddaughter of Roswell Garst, the farmer who, about six decades ago, received Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on his farm in one of the weirdest events in Iowa history. Liz Garst, was eight at the time and a tomboy. She reluctantly put on a frilly white dress for the occasion and submitted to hugs and kisses from Khrushchev and his wife, Nina. "I liked her," Garst says now. "She smelled nice and didn't hug me too tightly."

Garst also remembers how her grandfather started throwing corn cobs at the throng of reporters that arrived with the Soviet leader that day in September 1959. He thought the journalists were preventing him from showing the farm to Khrushchev. They fought back, and the Soviet first secretary joined in the fun. "My grandmother was furiously angry," Garst remembers as we sip coffee in her kitchen on the outskirts of Coon Rapids. "'Don't you ever throw corn silage at reporters! Don't throw anything at anybody! It's not polite,'" she recalls her grandmother screaming at team Garst.

Liz, in the dress she wore for Krushchev's visit Photographer: Joe Munroe

The Khrushchev visit to Iowa is legendary in Russia. It convinced the mercurial leader to plant corn throughout his vast country, even in climates where it couldn't ripen. Even in my lifetime, long after Khrushchev was removed from office in a palace coup, I remember vast fields of this evergreen corn, only good for animal feed, in my native Moscow region. I just had to track down Roswell Garst's descendants in Iowa to find out how they were doing, and how they were going to vote in the Feb. 1 caucuses.

Roswell Garst was a franchisee of what started as the Hi-Bred Corn Company, founded in 1926 by Henry Wallace, who would become U.S. vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The company propagated hybrid corn, which could be machine-harvested and produced more grain. Garst pioneered a lot of the cutting-edge technology of the time: hybridization and the use of modern fertilizers, as well as machine harvesting.

When a Soviet agricultural delegation was in Iowa in 1955, Garst convinced its leader to take a look at his large farm. Soon, he got an invitation from Khrushchev himself to visit the Soviet Union. The two men, both crude country types with big belly-laughs and a passion for arguing just for the fun of it, took to each other. On his next visit, Roswell Garst brought his family and they visited with the Khrushchevs. That was when the Iowa farmer's wife politely invited the Soviet leader to Coon Rapids. She didn't think he would come, but he showed up with an enormous entourage. Iowa, with its reputation for niceness, gave the Communist leader a warmer welcome than California, which he had visited on the same trip.

Garst had a bit of a hard time explaining his closeness with Khrushchev to fellow Americans. Some farmers refused to buy seed corn from him, because they thought him a Communist sympathizer; the U.S. government was reluctant to grant him export licenses, lest U.S. technology end up in enemy hands. Liz Garst says that although her grandfather hadn't actually made much money selling to the Soviets, the Khrushchev connection paid off financially: The family business became famous throughout the U.S.

Garst told people he was helping Khrushchev because he was a salesman looking for new markets. That must have been true on a certain level, but there was another important reason for Garst's unusual openness to "the Commies." Like Wallace, he wasn't just a champion of agricultural innovation but also a progressive who believed in cooperating with the Soviet Union, not waging war on it. His theory was that if he could teach the Soviets to do agriculture properly, they would become less of a threat. "Hungry people are dangerous people," his granddaughter remembers him repeating.

Coon Rapids is a largely Republican town 1,300 souls, 70 miles West of the state capital, Des Moines. Still, the entire Garst family, both in Coon Rapids and scattered throughout the U.S., votes Democrat, Liz Garst says.

Although the clan sold Roswell Garst's original seed corn business, the Garsts are still big farmers, and they own stakes in community banks and an ethanol plant. They are in the process of handing over 5,500 acres of family land to a nature preserve they founded, and Garst is active in a number of liberal and environmentalist causes, water and soil conservation being her primary interests.

How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

She's also strongly pro-immigration. "We're barely keeping the schools and grocery stores open," she says. "Rural Iowa is getting depopulated. I wish we could get our hands on some Syrian families, although on this, I'm in a distinct minority."

So it comes as no surprise that Garst likes what Bernie Sanders has to say -- she has traveled to see all the Democratic candidates campaign. "But he's an idea man, not an administrator, not a manager." She won't be voting for him.

Garst, who says proudly she has never missed a caucus since 1968, recalls how in 2008, Barack Obama ran a perfectly organized campaign in Iowa. She had a coach who instructed her, as an organizer, what to do at every step. The coach told her to bake cookies for caucus night and bring a TV into the room because an important game would be on and people wouldn't want to miss it. The Sanders campaign, Garst says, isn't doing anything of the kind.

Sanders is frantically placing ads in local newspapers throughout Iowa, but his work with voters is running behind the enthusiasm of his mostly young supporters. To Coon Rapids Democrats, it appears as if Sanders's success was so unexpected to him and his staff that they've been unable to organize the campaign as methodically as Obama's people had done. Clinton's campaign is less chaotic, but Garst is reluctant to back her because of her 2003 vote for the war in Iraq, and because she believes the former Secretary of State has been too hawkish on Russia.

"Putin is something of a thug," Garst says of the Russian president, "and he reminds me of Khrushchev in that he doesn't think things through before he acts. But I always go back to Roswell, who was mad at Khruschev for putting down the Hungarian revolution in 1956, but said we needed to figure out how to get past that."

So Garst's first choice is Martin O'Malley, but since he's unlikely to get the 15 percent support needed to survive in an Iowa caucus, she expects to switch somewhat reluctantly to Clinton.

Few Democrats I have spoken to in Iowa are excited about Clinton, yet they are likely to rally to her in the end, simply because she appears to be the most qualified and organized of the party's candidates. It's her or the Republicans, and Garst admits she can't even talk politics with them. "America is in bad shape, really divided," she says. "The Republicans are so crazy it's embarrassing to ask them why they like Trump or Cruz. It's just undiscussable, and I think it's getting worse."

Clinton's fall-back status may not give her first place in Iowa, but it's a strong reason for her not to get discouraged. Even diehard progressives like Garst concede that she knows what she's doing and is capable of keeping the Republican nightmare at bay. All she needs to do is keep her calm and, as farmer Roswell Garst's wife taught her grandchildren, not throw anything at anyone. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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