Published October 27, 2007, Des Moines Register (c DMR 2007)

Jangling phone rings in season to celebrate democracy

Last week, it was 7:50 p.m. and on TV, Vincent D'Onofrio is getting right up in a suspect's face, intruding onto her head, playing that crick-necked detective on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." What an actor! What a change from the part he played in "Men in Black" - the cockroach alien in the "Egger" suit. How does the female lead put up with him? Upstaged all the darn time.

The phone rings. Hmm, denouement of the show or chatting on the phone? The phone rings some more. You pick the show, and D'Onofrio breaks open the killer's psyche. Meanwhile, your call-screening function goes into action.

It's ... Hillary inviting volunteers to Oak Park Elementary School, Bill Richardson inviting you to a talk about global threats - to the Society of Italian-Americans, or Tom Harkin calling about a meal with a number of candidates. (No calls from the Republicans. Funny thing.)

Annoying? I used to think so, much as I love the Iowa caucuses.

But then I think again. My courses at Drake University draw a mix of local and international students. And sometimes the visiting students describe their home countries' governments.

One young man is from an island country. "We have a king, but he's very, very old, so we worry."

"Because there's no successor?"

"Oh, there's a successor, his son, but he went to England to be educated and never came back. He's just jaunting around Europe, living the high life, being a playboy. We don't think he'll come back."

Another man is from a country in Asia. (Because students speak in classes with no expectation of their words being published, I'm not naming the students, and because foreign governments hire "clipping services" to track mentions of their nations in our newspapers, I am generally not identifying the countries, either.)

As for this unidentified country, the student told us there had just been a military coup d'état, and the coup leader was the new "president" - "but I don't know for how long." The student was worried about his family, living in the capital city, because he hadn't heard from them yet. These coups apparently happen so often, he seemed to treat this as routine: Coup equals new "president" equals check on family.

We've also discussed Pakistan's government. Its elections are so odd that the most recent one was made fun of on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." It seems Pakistan had an election on Oct. 6. Nearly half of the 1,170 electoral college members did not cast votes, but a whopping 98 percent of those who did cast ballots voted for Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Yup, 98 percent. Sure. Right.

Finally, in one class, a young woman from Africa described her country's government. "It's a democracy," she said, "and everyone votes." I was so happy to hear this, after a litany of dictatorships and absentee rulers.

But then another student asked her, "Are there choices?"

"Oh, yes, there are two political parties - the ruling party and an opposition party ... but there are watchers at the polls to see who you vote for. Everyone has to carry their party membership cards everywhere they go. If you're not carrying the right party's card, you can't buy food or rent an apartment."

So, when that ringing phone drives me crazy this fall, and I'm tempted to be rude to some nice high school kid calling from a political campaign, I try to remember: Every call is a blessing, a cause to rejoice, a sign we have the best possible government humans can devise.

I'm not ready for sainthood yet, so I still might not pick up my phone every time it rings this caucus season, but I do smile to hear it. Because we have that precious gift of a free vote, open campaigning, meeting the candidates and choosing for ourselves, we're actually allowed to make and receive those annoying campaign calls. So ... ring in the season!

LEE JOLLIFFE is an associate professor of journalism at Drake University.

Photo: Hillary with her Polk County staff, flag alteration by Prof. Jolliffe.