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From Hollywood To Des Moines, In Search Of Political Action


Here's something to think about. The next president may well be campaigning in Iowa today. The first-in-the-nation caucus state is the place to be if you want to get up close and personal with presidential candidates. NPR's Tamara Keith has this profile of a man who left Hollywood for Des Moines for that very reason.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has just finished speaking at a campaign event, and a handful of other reporters from national news outlets and I are following him. But he's making a beeline for someone else.

BERNIE SANDERS: Hey, how are you?

BRENT ROSKE: Good to see you, sir.

KEITH: Sanders's communications director, Michael Briggs, steps in to tell us we're going to have to wait.

MICHAEL BRIGGS: This is a Des Moines reporter, and he's more important than you guys are.

KEITH: This man, who is apparently more important than Fox News, AP, The Wall Street Journal and NPR, is Brent Roske. He's a 41-year-old writer-director-producer turned Iowa television host. His show, "Roske On Politics" airs on local TV stations around the state. And over the last few months, he's had - often brief - one-on-one interviews with almost every presidential candidate. But a little more than a year ago, Roske was a candidate himself.


ROSKE: Hi, I'm Brent Roske and I'm running for U.S. Congress. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm sick of the partisan games in politics. I'm sick of the fighting, I'm sick of the bickering, and I don't know about you, but I want to be proud again of our government.

KEITH: Roske ran as an Independent in the congressional district representing Beverly Hills, while living on a boat - he admits to boost media coverage of his long-shot campaign. Roske has a short cropped beard and the look of someone who's having just a little bit more fun than the rest of us. But the way he describes it, running for Congress doesn't seem enjoyable at all.

ROSKE: It cost me jobs. It cost me relationships that earned me a lot of money in Los Angeles. It did.

KEITH: His campaign didn't get very far, but Roske wasn't done with politics. He just needed a new angle. He bought a house in Des Moines he had only seen on the Internet, and moved - or maybe fled - to the first-in-the-nation caucus state. He came to Iowa to make a movie called "Courting Des Moines," a political drama with the caucuses as a backdrop, but quickly found himself in the television business.

ROSKE: You know, look, I have brought Hollywood hustle to the Iowa caucus coverage game. Thank goodness for me, no one else had really played this trick here yet. So, you know, I'm going to figure it out.

KEITH: Exhibit A - his guest wrangler.

ROSKE: The local talent agent in town, here, I said, I need to hire one of your convention spokesmodels.

KEITH: On the day I met her, she was wearing a tight red dress with lacy black stockings, and she helped Roske nab interviews with Senators Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley.

ROSKE: I really wanted him on the show, wasn't getting much response. And all of a sudden, literally, he appeared in front of the camera, (imitating spokesmodel), this is Brent, he'll be chatting with you.

That was perfect. That was great work on her part.

KEITH: When I ask long-time Iowa reporters about Roske, the reaction typically involves eye-rolling, and, yeah, he admits the spokesmodel thing made some journalists mad. But Roske says he doesn't need her anymore because he's developed relationships with numerous presidential campaigns.

At the recent Roast and Ride, a big Republican campaign event featuring a Harley ride through Iowa, Roske was the third bike in line, right behind Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate Scott Walker.

ROSKE: I hoped, when I was coming to Iowa, that I would be able to ingrain in actual campaigns. And boy, the Harley ride goes to show that I've been doing OK.

KEITH: Roske doesn't consider himself a journalist, rather more of a storyteller. He likes to say his show isn't hardball, it's a softball. He wants to give all the candidates a chance to show their best selves and generally edits out the parts of the interviews where they get too partisan.

ROSKE: I'm actually trying to do my part to help save American democracy. And I know, (laughter)...

KEITH: And you can't keep a straight face.

ROSKE: I know. Is that for real? Yes, in fact.

KEITH: Roske's movie is slated to come out in a very limited release shortly before the Iowa caucuses. And then the question for Roske becomes, does he stay in Iowa, where he's now kind of a big deal, or does he go back to LA and return to his old life where everyone is doing the Hollywood hustle? Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.