The Last Butter

Politics and policy.
Aug. 14 1999 10:36 AM

The Last Butter

DES MOINES, Iowa--No sooner do I write a few nice words about Lamar than I run smack into him and his red-polo-shirted entourage at the Iowa State Fair. This is the big event in Des Moines this week, and all the candidates have been dropping by to eat corn dogs, drink ethanol, and hand out tickets for the Ames straw poll. Lamar, when I happen upon him, is standing in the Agriculture Pavilion gaping at a life-sized interpretation of the Last Supper--sculpted in butter.

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The work was created by an Iowa folk artist named Norma Duffy Lyon who calls herself the Butter Cow Lady. The Butter Cow Lady is locally famous for the big cows she crafts out of butter every year for the state fair. This year's model, a Brown Swiss, stands in the refrigerated case next to the one containing Jesus and crew. (She has also done a butter Garth Brooks, a butter Elvis, butter Clydesdale horses and a butter bas-relief of Grant Wood's American Gothic.) The Last Supper took approximately 10 days and a ton of butter to make.

If this piece turned up in the Whitney Museum labeled as an "installation" and funded by an NEA grant, conservatives would rise to decry it on the floor of the House of Representatives. But because it's at the Iowa State Fair, sponsored by the Midland Dairy Association, Republicans come instead to have their pictures taken with it. Gary Bauer was here yesterday. He was captured in a photograph beaming up at the butter Christ with his arm around the artist.

As Lamar stares, slack-jawed, at the display case, the Butter Cow Lady herself is inside of it, applying more Land O'Lakes to the left shoulder of an apostle who might be Judas. "What do you think?" I ask Alexander.

"Well!" he says. Long pause. "I'm not usually at a loss for words."

Alexander is the most gaffe-proof of politicians. I can't think of anything he's ever said that has gotten him in trouble. This may be part of his problem -- the country seems to respond better to risk-taking entrepreneurs than diligent, calculating types like Lamar. Even now, with everyone declaring his candidacy toast, he's not about to speak his mind just for the sake of it. I try to provoke him a bit more.

"Sort of walks a fine line between religious and sacrilegious, wouldn't you say?"

"Well!" he starts again. "It's ... it's ... it's enormously creative."

Apparently Alexander has not been reading his own obituaries. A reporter from Tennessee told me he had come to Iowa to do a story about "Lamar's Last Ride," but that it wasn't going to work. Lamar wouldn't go quietly. Having downgraded his expectations, he now says that even a fourth place finish in the straw poll will keep him in the presidential race. Though all but abandoned by the press, he seems determined to hang on. Walking around the state fair, he hurls himself at voters. Anyone who looks at him twice gets invited to eat BBQ and hear the singer Crystal Gayle perform at Alexander's tent at the straw poll. Encounters with people who recognize Lamar but only vaguely are sometimes a bit awkward.

"What's your name?" a woman sitting on a bench asks him.

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