MANCHESTER, N.H. — If you’re really into American politics, this New Hampshire city might be the happiest place on earth outside of Washington, D.C. Think about it – most of us are lucky if we ever have a face-to-face encounter with a president or a presidential candidate; locals here are tripping over them every time they go out for at least one year out of every four.
Somehow, this state — not terribly populous, not terribly diverse, not terribly representative of America as a whole, this wedge of New England gets even more than a decisive role in national elections. Every couple of cycles, locals witness some iconic moment in American history: Edmund Muskie crying, or wiping away snow, effectively ending a Democratic frontrunner’s bid in 1972. Ronald Reagan flashing a bit of steely anger, declaring that he paid for that microphone in 1980. Bill Clinton coming back amid the Gennifer Flowers story, and conning the national press corps into believing that second place was the real win in 1992. Pat Buchanan, terrifying the political establishment by calling on his followers to “mount up and ride to the sounds of the guns” in 1996.
The last few cycles have been a bit on the dull side. If John McCain had gone on to win the GOP nomination in 2000, we would remember that year’s primary as a turning point that exposed the lingering vulnerability of the Bush name in national politics. As it is, New Hampshire stands as an anomaly, the site of the last major electoral defeat for George W. Bush when it counted. Also that year, in the undercard fight, Bill Bradley took on the Al Gore machine with all the ferocity of a kitten taking on a locomotive, with about the same results.
In 2004’s modest drama here was Granite Staters saying, ‘yup, Howard Dean sounded nuts to us too,’ and burying the chances of their neighboring governor. So perhaps we’re overdue for one of those moments that political junkies talk about for years to come.
Perhaps it’s because New Hampshire is so culturally different from the nation’s traditional centers of power – New York, Washington, Los Angeles – that makes it such alien territory for ambitious pols. What other country eliminates nominees for their national leader because they’re insufficiently genial while shaking hands in a diner? Where else does a region known for skiing, foliage, and syrup become the decisive fulcrum of selecting a leader?
A December stroll down Elm Street, one of the main commercial avenues in Manchester, reveals signs of the true local passion, national politics, as ubiquitous as Christmas lights and wreaths that are symbols of that other season of stress and excitement.
Traditionalists’ hearts may be warmed by the sight of an old-fashioned nativity scene in Stanton Park. Of course, right above the manger is a sign that says, “THE DISPLAY OF THIS SCENE BY THE CITY OF MANCHESTER IS NOT INTENDED AS ADVOCACY OF ANY RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE OR BELIEF.” Thank you, secular humanists and ACLU.
A block north from the square is the Merrimack Restaurant, which touts itself as a place where national politics and good food meet. The outside wall is dominated by a mural of Gary Hart, Steve Forbes, Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and Bob Dole. The walls by the entrance are lined with photos of every candidate from Bill Clinton to Alan Keyes with the owners (although I didn’t see George W. Bush). If the sight of an original copy of Paul Tsongas’ campaign booklet from 1992, A Call to Economic Arms framed on the wall is the sort of thing that excites you, this is your place.
Both there, and at Joe Kelly’s (another diner down the street) a traveling companion and I ordered a “Texas burger.” In both Elm Street dining establishments, we learned that what makes it a “Texas” burger is… cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise. No barbeque sauce, chili, pepper jack cheese – no glimpse of something or anything distinctly southwestern, but apparently a few vegetables are sufficient to earn the label “Texan” here. No wonder Phil Gramm ran into trouble in this state; too much of a culture clash.
Above the restaurant you can find the local offices of Dennis Kucinich for President, adorned with signs saying “Strength Through Peace.” (I resisted the temptation to ring the doorbell and gently tell them they have it backwards.)
Here and there along Elm Street there are abandoned storefronts – although I suppose they could be not defunct retail establishments, but the remnants of local offices of longshot candidates. One can easily imagine the empty store windows earning their own listing in the National Registry of Historical Places as Icons of Clichéd Campaign Journalism About Economic Troubles. There’s more than one pawnshop in sight, perhaps utilized by candidates desperate to get enough cash for one last attack ad on election eve.
And the ads here are ubiquitous; it’s like the last few days before a campaign for a solid six weeks. On Monday Night Football game between the Patriots and the Ravens – as good a program as you’ll find if you want to reach local men – there were three Giuliani ads, three Romney ads, one McCain, and one Edwards. (Democrats don’t watch Monday Night Football?) Sadly, no sign of Mike Huckabee’s Chuck Norris ad, which seemed a perfect fit for the programming and the audience.
At Hillary Clinton’s office in Manchester, the fine folks inside eagerly give me Hillary bumper stickers, buttons, and yard sign to give to the Mrs.. A few readers might wonder why I didn’t express my distaste for the Democratic frontrunner, but trust me when I say this is the wrong week to be hostile, confrontational, or suspicious in a New Hampshire office of the Hillary Clinton campaign.
If there’s any vibe to this year’s election environment, it might be one of paranoia.
About thirty feet from Hillary’s Manchester office, slightly-faded graffiti on the sidewalk outside reads:
9/11 WAS AN
IT’S A FACT
About an hour later at the hotel restaurant, my waiter sees a television headline about the most recent intelligence report on Iran, and takes a moment to exclaim, “I just hate fearmongers… I really think that late next year something terrible will happen, and Bush will declare martial law. And you can’t have elections during martial law. Can you really say that party is above that sort of thing?”
Yes, yes I can. I can also really say that any cabal that includes Alberto Gonzales as a key player in its nefarious plans will probably find itself incapable of quietly making personnel changes at the Justice Department, much less successfully completing a complicated scenario to keep executive power that they seem to be halfhearted about actually using in the lame duck years.
But instead I just order the hot turkey sandwich with sweet potato fries.
I know that “flinty independents” is the Rosetta Stone of the New Hampshire Campaign Trail Political Journalism clichés, and we’re supposed to salute the locals’ skepticism and gimlet-eyed scrutiny. But I can’t help but think that Granite Staters have the least reason to find our political leaders distant, sinister, and cold.
Why would locals see villainy in their aspiring political leaders, when they’re constantly being courted by them? Walk around Manchester, and you’ll see posters of John McCain inviting you to meet Red Sox great Curt Schilling, or Barack and Michelle Obama inviting you to meet “Ms. Oprah Winfrey” on Dec. 9. What a sales pitch! “Even if you don’t like us, we’ll introduce you to our celebrity friends that you do like.” Millions of Americans can’t get their Member of Congress to return their e-mail with anything but a form response, but the folks up here have senators lining up to help them carry in the groceries.
Still, with the winter wonderland atmosphere in the snow, and the small town feel even in a mid-sized city, it’s easy to envy those who live here. Maybe a tone of skepticism and dissatisfaction is a result of environmental conditions. In this neck of the woods, you can always find a sympathetic ear…that would like your vote.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog for NRO. Costs for his trip to New Hampshire were covered by MySpace.com, the sponsor of an online candidate forum with John McCain.