WASHINGTON, Iowa - It is the final day of his best year at work, and Keith Lazar, 62, settles into his office at the community bank. He eats a doughnut and turns on an instrumental CD titled “Relaxation.’’ Outside his window, the town square is bustling with proof of his impact during the past 12 months: trucks financed by his loans, restaurants expanding because of his savings advice, and businesses created with his support.
The first customer of the day is a hog farmer wearing overalls and work boots, another longtime customer enjoying a record year. He wants to apply for a loan so he can expand his operation again. Lazar waves him inside.
“Hiya, Keith,’’ the farmer says. “How’s it going?’’
“Couldn’t be better,’’ Lazar says. “Life is good.’’
Life is good. It has become Lazar’s default greeting. What could be better at the beginning of 2012 in this other city called Washington, a town of 7,200 surrounded by the corn and soybean fields of eastern Iowa? This is the Washington with a 4 percent unemployment rate, with record-breaking hog and cattle production, with a new high school and a $6 million library.
It is also a place where, day after day, presidential candidates make their case that the country is a horrific mess.
When Iowa holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses today, a major campaign moment will unfold here, in one of the most robust towns in one of the most robust states. It is an ironic way for the 2012 election to begin: Politicians come here to talk about the problems of someplace else. Lazar and his friends in Washington can render a crucial verdict on issues from which they may feel disconnected.
“This is a nation in crisis,’’ Rick Perry said at the local coffee shop last week.
“The Washington machine is strangling our economy,’’ said a local TV ad for Ron Paul.
“We’re seeing a war on our values,’’ Rick Santorum said on the evening news.
“Life is good,’’ says Lazar, a lifelong Republican who likes Mitt Romney best, although he does not like any of them enough to participate in the caucuses.
For some voters like Lazar, the calculus is different: The population around Washington’s town square is growing, along with small businesses and the middle class. The economy is stable.
For the bank, no year has been as good as 2011. Lazar’s year-end statement shows a net profit of $2.7 million. So rather than think about the problems in Washington, D.C., he focuses on the occasional problem in his Washington. Late in the afternoon, the owner of a tanning salon arrives at his office, looking frazzled, explaining that she is short on her mortgage payment for a rental property. Her renter moved out with no notice.
“What can I do?’’ she asks.
Optimism. Trust. Kindness. Those are the values in Lazar’s Washington that ensure life is good. There might be big problems elsewhere, but this is not one. “Just skip the payment this month and you’ll make an extra payment at the end of your loan,’’ he says.
“Can it be that easy?’’ she asks.
“It can be,’’ he says.