Undressed up

One day last month, Barack Obama was having dinner with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Hillary Clinton was on the floor of the Senate. And Tom Vilsack? He was at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Burbank, with me.

That's when I knew his campaign was in trouble.

Vilsack entered alone, schlepping a carry-on. He ordered his lunch — coffee with milk and a lemon poppy-seed muffin — and sat down at a small corner table with me, after 17 cities in 14 days, too tired even for small talk. Vilsack, a popular former two-term governor of Iowa, is tall, solid, a character out of “Our Town.” Our meeting was yet another reminder that while incumbency is wholesale, speaking to millions, campaigning can be depressingly retail, one on one on one.

I could quickly see why Vilsack thought he had a chance. His centrist politics, his mature demeanor, his life story were all compelling. Abandoned by his birth parents, he was raised by loving but troubled parents — an alcoholic and abusive mother, for starters. Vilsack went on to earn a law degree and reach the statehouse. He won every race he ever entered, as he liked to remind supporters.

He was a two-term Democratic governor in a solidly red state. He opposed the Iraq War from the start, and he left office with a solid surplus after inheriting a severe deficit. Though not flashy or overly charismatic, he is amiable and straightforward. Maybe not the guy you'd want to have a beer with, but definitely good for a muffin and coffee.

I sought out Vilsack because, of all the candidates so far, he had a detailed plan for achieving energy security — he had made it the cornerstone of his campaign.

In fact, that was another clue that Vilsack's days were numbered: When the media crowns you the winner of “the idea primary,” as the Washington Post did, that's like being named “Greatest Maimonides Scholar” at the Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest. Nice skill, wrong contest.

Vilsack was unafraid to get specific on energy independence, in part because he had a track record, in Iowa, of achieving it.

Under his leadership, Iowa built six new state-of-the-art coal and natural gas power plants (the first in 20 years); became the leading state per capita in wind generation; and became the No. 1 producer of ethanol and soy diesel. Leading from the center, involving powerful industry and farm interests, he turned Iowa's energy economy around using clean technologies and creating a record level of employment.

Vilsack's campaign was built on doing the same for America.

Energy was Vilsack's key platform, because, he told me, energy is key to America's economic, environmental and national security. Solve the energy problem, he said, and you've made America safer, cleaner and more secure.

His platform detailed a range of federal incentives to increase the production and consumption of renewable fuel and energy; to sharply raise vehicle emission standards; to research alternative energy sources and increase conservation; to address the true costs of nuclear and coal-powered generations.

None of this was just bumper sticker slogans to Vilsack.

While governing a state basically known for growing corn and MFA's in creative writing, Vilsack correctly realized that corn is not the most efficient way of producing ethanol. He called for switching to other crops and in the meantime removing the tariff on Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugarcane and whose importation corn growers have long opposed.

I asked Vilsack how that idea played among Iowa farmers.

“This campaign lacks a lot of things,” he said, “but guts isn't one of them.

“Look,” he said. “There's nothing easy about what I'm proposing about energy security. This is a significant commitment to changing our economy and changing our approach to the rest of the world. It has to be done.”

The line from Iowa wind to Brazilian sugarcane to Israel was clear to him.

“A substantial reduction in our reliance on Middle Eastern oil puts us in a position where we have greater independence from that part of the world,” he said, “because we aren't as beholden to Saudi Arabia, for example. Nor are we directly funding countries like Iran that wish to do us harm, and wish to do Israel harm. It's extremely important from a national security standpoint and from a global security standpoint that we become ultimately independent from that foreign source of oil.”

Anyway, never mind. Vilsack's name might get floated for vice president or, more likely, for secretary of energy. But as far as Campaign 2008 is concerned, he's through. Last week, Vilsack pulled out of the race, citing his inability to compete with high profile money-raisers like Clinton and Obama.

How appropriate that the presidential race is gearing up now, just as we mark the Purim holiday. To get even close to winning, the candidates must simplify their personas, or adopt different ones.

Either way, we end up voting for the mask, not the man or woman.

But Vilsack came out early, without the mask. It may be that some other candidate, Republican or Democratic, will pick up on Vilsack's plan and run with it. I hope so. But for that candidate such a policy may end up being part of the mask, not the core, as it clearly was for Vilsack.

“There's only one person in this race who actually created a renewable energy economy,” Vilsack reminded me, “and that's me.”

We spoke for an hour. His cell phone rang once or twice, then a very young aide came to take him away. The candidate's biggest media close-up was to occur in an hour, when he would appear on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno had made so much fun of Vilsack's last name, he invited him on for a couple of minutes in the name of good sportsmanship.

A couple of gags and a week later, and Vilsack was out of the race.

Tommy, we hardly knew ye.

Happy Purim.