Satirist Donald Kaul delighted readers for half a century with the dark humor he discovered in everything from having his hair catch fire while fiddling with a water heater to what he called Richard Nixon’s “unctuous manner.”
Like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Kaul knew his place in history and how news cycles work. Those Founders passed away on July 4, 1826, 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, Kaul died as the 46th Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) got underway.
His spirit lives on through that wildly fun ramble, which he offhandedly co-founded with his friend and fellow journalist John Karras in 1973.
I was his last editor when I ran OtherWords, an editorial service that distributed Kaul’s dispatches following his second exit from the Des Moines Register. Whenever I mentioned that part of my job to Iowans, they’d get starry-eyed and baffled.
The combination seemed weird until it dawned on me: I might as well have said I was Warren Buffett’s broker.
Iowans didn’t care that Kaul never won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary that he deserved. His clairvoyance and hilarious voice made him their editorial superhero. Why would I, or any mortal, need to check his facts?
Still, Iowans got that someone would have to handle mail from Kaul’s readers. The chore got bigger when he took a break after surviving a heart attack six years before his death.
My favorite letters came from Don’s fans who’d created multi-state delivery chains. A member of these cadres would snip his column from their local paper and mail the clip to another Kaul addict who lived in a town that didn’t carry it, and so on.
The worst missives were right-wing rants, especially the menacing ones that followed Kaul’s call for firearm sanity following the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. An excerpt taken out of context inspired someone to publish Kaul’s photo, home number, and address on a website, inviting their brethren to drop by and dare the columnist to “take their guns.” Don and his wife, Sue, left their phone off the hook and braved it out.
The same militia of angry, and presumably well-armed, callers jammed the Register’s lines for a week once it ran the column, bringing the opinion piece to the riflemen’s attention. It was a relief when the fearmongering subsided.
Between all the gun slinging and the Republicans “cheating” their way to political hegemony, the vegan-leaning liberal found plenty of meat to skewer in the Obama years. And when Donald Trump’s political fortunes coagulated, Kaul also foresaw what might await.
“We need a leader who will match our enemies lie for lie,” Kaul wrote in one of his final columns. “Trump has shown a real genius for that. He can tell a lie and make it sound like an unpleasant truth.”
Yet Kaul used his perch to salute life-affirming experiences too, like his love for his wife and the eulogy former President Barack Obama gave at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a state lawmaker murdered in the racist South Carolina church massacre.
“I’m as close to a state of grace as you can get without actually believing in God,” wrote Kaul, a devout atheist, after he watched the televised service. “But I believe in something: a power that’s larger than oneself that arises from masses of people struggling for justice and listening to — as Lincoln said in his first inaugural address — ‘the better angels of their nature.’”