Once he became governor, it sometimes seemed as if Tom Vilsack might not survive the experience. Early in his first term, Vilsack traveled to the far east on a trade mission, and wound up in the midst of an earthquake in Taiwan.
“I had rosary beads next to my bed. I grabbed them and I just said a prayer. In essense, I said you know if this is the time, I’m ready, and if it’s not, thanks for the opportunity to live another day,” Vilsack said during a telephone conference call with reporters back in Des Moines. “Things that were in the bathroom began flying around and basically it was very similar to a scene out of ‘The Exorcist’ with things flying all over the room.”
His next brush with danger came during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. As Vilsack made his way to the conference center, he found himself in the midst of the rioting. The governor’s state trooper escort grabbed Vilsack’s belt and pulled him out of the mayhem.
Vilsack himself spawned a political storm in 1999 when he signed an executive order declaring that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender state workers were not to be discriminated against because of their sexuality. A group of republican legislators sued, and hired a lawyer named Mark McCormick to press the case. McCormick is the democrat Vilsack beat in a primary in 1998 on his way to winning the governor’s race.
During his five years as governor, Vilsack has had three chiefs of staff and six different people have served in the role of press secretary or communications director.
Thomas Fogarty, an editor at U-S-A Today who used to cover politics for the Des Moines Register, says Vilsack’s tension with reporters was evident during his years in the senate. Fogarty says Vilsack had an “idealized vision” of what the press should do and wasn’t bashful about showing his dissatisfaction.
“I don’t think it much matters on the national stage,” Fogarty said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “I think if he were to become the vice presidential candidate the press would have at him in very controlled settings and I don’t think they would ever have that sort of informal contact that you have 14 hours a day sitting 15 feet away from him in the Iowa Senate chamber.”
Radio Iowa news director O.Kay Henderson has also spent hours covering Tom Vilsack. More on that experience is next in Radio Iowa’s review of Vilsack’s career.