Gurus Transcend Party Politics

Candidates Meet and Greet Fairfield's Meditators; Yogic Flyers Gather Tonight

The Wall Street Journal/January 3, 2008

Fairfield, Iowa -- In the run-up to today's caucuses in Iowa, candidates have had to scrutinize the issues that move voters here. In this town, many care less about immigration than meditation.

"Are you familiar with Transcendental Meditation?" Craig Berg, a bearded man in a faded parka, said as he buttonholed Republican candidate Fred Thompson during a recent campaign stop here.

Candidates typically arrive here prepared for that question. The campaign of Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware has let it be known here that his former chief of staff is an adherent of Transcendental Meditation. During an outdoor rally here last summer, Sen. Barack Obama turned his podium east out of respect for the Transcendental Meditation view that east is the natural direction of energy flow.

Iowa is widely perceived as a homogenous state of meat-eating corn-growing white Protestants. But exceptions to the American Gothic stereotype abound, from the sushi halls of Iowa City and grape trellises of the Amana Colonies to the ultra-orthodox Jews from Brooklyn who run a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville. Here in Fairfield, about 1,700 residents gather each afternoon in a pair of gold domes for a session of group meditation known as Yogic Flying.

Ahead of today's Iowa caucus, in which even a few dozen votes could tilt the race in many voting precincts, candidates have been making special pitches to demographics as small and eccentric as Fairfield's Transcendental Meditation community. Of this hamlet's 10,000 residents, barely a third of them are transcendental devotees. But their political influence is outsized. For the past six years the town has chosen as its mayor a Transcendental Meditation devotee named Ed Malloy. And for 12 years ending in 2004, Fairfield was home to a peace party, called the Natural Law Party, which hoped to elect a Transcendental Meditation practitioner as president.

Fairfield was a typical Iowa farming community until 1973, when the Maharishi University of Management purchased the bankrupt and discredited Parsons College, once dubbed "FlunkOut U" by a national magazine. Some locals regarded with skepticism the construction of two gold domes wherein Maharishi followers gathered daily for mass meditations. Natives lived uneasily with the outsiders, dubbing them "Rus" (pronounced "rooz") -- a shorthand for "Gurus.''

But the election of Mr. Malloy, a silver-haired and personable oil broker transplanted from Long Island, helped ease those tensions. Also helpful was that the Maharishi high school began turning out scores of national merit scholars who played a role in turning Fairfield into "Silicorn Valley," as it became known around here, home to more than 40 software development and telecom companies.

For politicians, a challenge here is to respect the community's faith in Yogic Flying, or mass meditation. Derived from a combination of quantum physics and the proven benefits of meditation, Yogic Flying occurs each afternoon at 5 p.m. when about 1,700 adherents gather in the gold domes. Supporters say the number 1,700 roughly represents 1% of the nation's population divided by its square root. Supporters believe that when meditation is performed in groups, it confers benefits not only to its individual practitioners but to society at large.

On Mr. Thompson's drive into town, neither the Quantum Mechanic service station nor Utopia trailer park alerted him to the challenges ahead. And he was initially caught off guard by Mr. Berg's reference to Transcendental Meditation. [map]

Recovering quickly, however, Mr. Thompson managed to name the founder of Transcendental Meditation - Maharishi Mahesh - and praise its benefits. "Rested mind and body, huh?" he said. "I could have used that a year ago."

Politically, Fairfield leans left. It belongs to the only county in Iowa that in 2004 placed deep-blue candidate Howard Dean atop the Democratic field, just ahead of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose vow to create a federal "Department of Peace" resonated with voters here.

Given those propensities, it's not surprising that barely a handful of supporters showed up to meet the bus of Republican hawk Mr. Thompson. But that doesn't mean Republicans aren't welcome here. The town square is host to several large billboards touting Republican pacifist Ron Paul, and many residents believe his Libertarian views will propel him to a win in this county in today's caucuses. Mayor Malloy and his wife even held a political open house last summer for Mr. Paul, prior to a large rally staged in the town.

But Mr. Paul, perhaps stung by allegations that his campaign has already attracted its share of political eccentrics, is making no to-do of his popularity here. Mr. Paul's deputy campaign manager, Joe Seehusen, carefully emphasizes that the congressman is only "politely intrigued'' by the Transcendental Meditation philosophy.

In response, Mayor Malloy - who never actually endorsed Mr. Paul - says, "Only about 50% of what he says resonates with me.''

Democrats, having the most votes to gain here, are trying hardest to win them. In a community where factory hog farms are widely criticized as environmentally hazardous, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson took special pains to bone up on them before attending a town meeting here. "I'd regulate the hell out of them,'' Mr. Richardson vowed.

John Edwards visited the town this week, as did Mr. Richardson. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has scheduled - and canceled - three stops here, according to Mayor Malloy. The Clinton campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.

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That seems to have helped Sen. Obama gain an edge. During his visit here last summer, Sen. Obama assured Mayor Malloy of the candidate's respect for Transcendental Meditation and the philosophy behind it. "He said he felt that if there was any candidate in the race to embrace this technique, he was that candidate,'' says Mayor Malloy.

The real Obama weapon, however, may be his wife, Michelle Obama. During a visit to Fairfield last month, she had several long conversations with the mayor's wife. "I think she and my wife are both very spiritual people,'' the mayor says.

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