Neal Smith’s 2019 memoir “From My Century to Yours: Wisdom From the Near 100-Year Life of Former Congressman Neal E. Smith” is both fascinating and frustrating.

It’s fascinating because Smith, a Democrat from Polk County, was a power in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1995. He tells behind-the-scenes stories about developments, including Corps of Engineers lakes at Saylorville and Red Rock, which were in his district, as well as Lake Rathbun, which was outside his district.

The stories, however, are frustrating because much of the book is stream-of-consciousness that suffers from a lack of context and detail. It’s like Smith is pulling back the curtain of history but only enough to provide tantalizing glimpses. 

His version of the creation of Iowa Public Television is an example.

“I was involved with Iowa Public Television by accident from the time of its origin,” Smith wrote.

During the early 1950s, he explained, Polk County Superintendent of Schools Ralph Norris came up with a plan to educate low-IQ students who at that time were discouraged from attending public schools.

Norris wanted to purchase broadcasting equipment and hire part-time instructors to teach reading, writing and basic math that “students could listen to at home.”

He sent Smith, who was an attorney for the school board, to Washington, D.C., to see if a broadcasting system was available in army surplus.

“Senator [Guy] Gillette, from Iowa, who happened to be my cousin, found one and had it sent to Polk County,” Smith wrote with no further explanation of how he and fellow Democrat Gillette, a two-term U.S. senator (1936-45 and 1949-55), were related. (Gillette was not mentioned again.)

Nor was there detail about the broadcasting system, except to say that it was initially housed in a building in Altoona but soon moved to Des Moines Technical High School at 1800 Grand Ave.

Smith added that he was in Congress when airwaves were allocated to public broadcasting and “I made sure public television had channels because private companies wanted all of the available channels and very few members of Congress were willing to oppose them.”

Smith was one of the earliest political figures anywhere to recognize “outdoor recreation has economic value,” and he spent many of his 36 years in Congress working to bring opportunities to Central Iowa.

Along with Saylorville, Red Rock and Rathbun lakes, his achievements include Gray’s Lake, which only became a city park in the late 1960s because Smith was able to dig around in the federal budget and find “an old expired program that had $500,000 left in funds that were about to expire.”

“I had the program declared unexpired,” he wrote.

Another abbreviated story involves how the site of a planned nuclear power plant in Jasper County ultimately became the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge.

For many years, Smith was a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee where his use of congressional earmarks designating federal funds for specific projects in his Central Iowa district was legendary, with Smith working his magic in Republican as well as Democratic administrations.

Typically, such deals involved trade-offs, although few are mentioned in the book.  

When Smith was defeated in 1994 by Republican Greg Ganske, he was in the process of earmarking federal funds that could be used by businessman John Ruan to build a World Trade Center in Des Moines, although there is no mention of those efforts in the book.

Smith turned 100 last March, and I know it is too much to expect any centenarian to recount a political career as complex as his. But I do hope that sometime in my lifetime a skilled historian will accurately capture and retell the rich detail of Smith’s accomplishments.