The man can put on a show.
For more than two minutes on Saturday, Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann excoriated the Quad-City Times editorial board, of which I'm a member. It's the region's equivalent to The New York Times, he said. High praise, I initially thought, but certainly not at a rally supporting Donald Trump. And then, wait for it... "With bad writers."
Standing in the crowd, recording Kaufmann's brand of sophistry — styled after fire-and-brimstone raining from an evangelical pulpit — I was in awe of his ability to read the crowd and play to it. This was a pro-Trump rally, after all, and Kaufmann was the emcee.
He denigrated his own academic achievements, calling his Ph.D. just another "piled high and deep." He established his rural bona fides — just another farm boy from Muscatine County. And, as if given a script from the White House, he attacked the local press, in this instance, the editorial board.
Kaufmann might not enjoy my writing. But I for one left that warehouse at Davenport Guns impressed by his rhetorical performance. There's a certain beauty in its simplicity.
Saturday wasn't the first time Kaufmann came after us. He singled us out earlier this year when he was re-elected to another three-year term atop Iowa GOP. He put the entirety of Iowa's media on notice at the party event in Des Moines. And then, he lobbed criticism at us that, historically, had been reserved for those so-called liberals at The Des Moines Register.
On Saturday, Kaufmann's indignation targeted a single recent editorial. In it, we criticized Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst for not forcefully rebuking the White House's claim that the Iowans packing their events were part of some nefarious, leftist-funded mob. We also suggested there's a level of cowardice on display when a member of Congress schedules veterans roundtables and private tours of manufacturing facilities, as Ernst did, when the constituency is clamoring to be heard. That was true in 2009 when the tea party hoped to corner Democrats. And it's true in 2017.
Obviously, I reject Kaufmann's assertion that Ernst's military service exempts her from criticism. Courage is not a universal trait, nor is it one that is on display only in battle. Kaufmann, by his own political choices, doesn't truly believe it, either. Republicans should kick him to the curb should his total support for President Trump ever "waver," he said. And yet, the president to whom Kaufmann staked his career called John McCain "a loser" for getting captured and tortured for years.
The thing is, Saturday's take-down of this paper's Opinion staff was a red herring. Kaufmann has fumed since last fall, when we went after him for continuing to support Trump, who at the time was tearing down McCain, a Gold Star family, women and several segments of brown people. It struck us that Kaufmann could, in good conscience, tout a man whom he had no choice but rebuke after the attack on McCain.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect is the difference in how Kaufmann acts when in front of a crowd and when he's engaging one-on-one. Thoroughly impressed with his command of the room, I had to shake his hand when Saturday's event wrapped up. Our eyes met while he greeted various people queuing for a handshake. I smiled and reached out my hand. He shook my hand and apologized for being an "a**hole." He said his job sometimes requires it, and reiterated that he thought that one editorial was too harsh. I countered that my job, too, requires me to be an "a**hole" from time to time. He quipped that I'm the bigger one, and we chuckled. After a little more banter, I promised Kaufmann space to respond at any point, should he feel a rebuttal is in order. That's always been our policy, I said.
In person, Kaufmann is bright, interesting and diplomatic. The accent melts away. He's an academic and a politician.
Kaufmann understands the game, in which we both play bit parts. And, as shown Saturday, he's very good at it.