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Remembering New Hampshire Primaries Past, Thinking of Primary to Come

Hillary Clinton is the Favorite in New Hampshire
Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

Are you READY FOR HILLARY? I'm a Democrat, and the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary promises to be a monumental bore unless the pusillanimous progressives can actual get off their posteriors and get a genuine populist like Elizabeth Warren to take on the Wall St. Establishment's handmaiden.

If George W. Bush was the 21st Century's Herbert Hoover, then "Billary" rate consideration as the Warren G. Harding/Calvin Coolidge combination of this millennium. They are a team, after all, and Bill Clinton signed the Wall St. crafted legislation that struck down nearly three-quarters of a century of New Deal financial regulations that were designed to stop another meltdown from taking place.

Bill Clinton slashed the heart out of financial regulation with pen in left hand, and the meltdown came. In celebration, he and Hillary married their daughter off to a financial speculator, a profession that had been outlawed since the second Roosevelt. They now are looking forward to the positive spin of being grandparents when The Little Train That Couldn't Despite $250 Million in Campaign Cash of 2008 begins chugging out of the station with 10 times that among of loot in her coal hoppers for 2016.

Spirit of '76

That train is already a-rolling, as anyone who attended the 2014 New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention could attest. There was a READY FOR HILLARY banner festooned on the wall in the main auditorium, and lunch was on Hillary's shadow campaign operatives. N.H. State Senator Donna Soucy, a close friend and ally of State Party Czar Ray Buckley, gave a speech during lunch, but I didn't hear it. At the time of her speech, I and several other Granite State Democrats were sitting with Buckley (who happened to pick my table as it was one of the only ones left with room and was near a door offering a cool breeze in the hot cafeteria).

It was at that lunch that I learned Ray Buckley had launched his political career during the 1976 New Hampshire primary. I did too. I worked for Birch Bayh, a liberal's liberal who is the only person since the Founding Fathers who authored two constitutional amendments. (A third, the Equal Rights Amendment, eventually ran out of steam and expired not long after the Bicentennial.) With the liberal vote split, Bayh came in third or fourth, behind the conservative Jimmy Carter and the liberal Mo Udall.

It was during lunch at the that I first heard that Ray Buckley, who was my age but didn't have a driver's license at the time, had joined the Jimmy Carter campaign in '76. (Carter's New Hampshire campaign director, chosen as he was only one of three people at the initial meeting of Carter supporters and the two others thought it should be him, was Bill Shaheen, wife of former governor and current U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen.) He went on to be the Granite State Party chair and a kingmaker and I, well, I went on just to be me.

Forty years later, with Hillary anointed for the nomination like the Vice President of a President as popular as Ronald Reagan or her husband Bill, 2016 was sure to be less exciting for Democrats than it was during that Bicentennial year.

The Wall St. Establishment prefers it that way.

Born in New Hampshire

I was born in New Hampshire. Politics has always been an element of life in the Granite State, part of the air breathed in from toddlerhood. I can remember the heroic John F. Kennedy as president, and I can remember his funeral. What I can't remember is that fabled day that marks the memories of the Baby Boom generation: Where were you the day JFK was shot? It's blacked out in my mind.

My high school English teacher, the late Joe Sullivan (who also was a sports columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader, the only state-wide newspaper in New Hampshire) was a bag-boy at Sully's supermarket, which is now a CVS drugstore. On November 23, 1963, the word came to Sully's that JFK was shot, and a man in the checkout line said, "It's Johnson. Johnson had him killed." Mr. Sullivan, at the time before he was a Mister, told my freshman English class a decade later that he felt anger at the man for making such a stupid remark.

I bring this up as my first memory of the New Hampshire primary was seeing that same Lyndon Johnson come to my hometown of Manchester in 1964. I did not know that there was a presidential primary: I did know that there was a President and he was coming to Manchester. My mother and father gathered up us kids and went down to Elm St. and positioned ourselves near the entrance to the underground public toilets at Victory Park. Four years earlier, JFK had made his last speech of the 1960 Presidential campaign election night in Manchester, at this very spot. I was four and perched securely on my father's shoulders so I could see over the crowd.

What I saw was a Lincoln Continental drive up to the crossroads at Elm and Merrimack Streets and stop. The President -- and he was very much the President I recognized from TV -- got out of the car and waved. The crowds were huge and happily enthusiastic. It was just like a parade, one of those wonderments of childhood. After the President waved and shook hands with those happy folks at the front of the crowd, after soaking in his adulation, he got back in the "Kennedy car" and drove off. The Kennedy car, the Lincoln, held almost as much fascination for me as did the man himself. LBJ won a huge electoral landslide that November. Four years later, he was a politically crippled President unsure whether to go on.

A Political Colossus Collapses

1968 was a big year for the New Hampshire primary, as it was wide-open year, despite the presence of a sitting President who could aspire to reelection. I was in the third grade, and like many a Granite State child, was fully conscious of politics. I revered Robert F. Kennedy. Later during that spring, I later detail for my third grade class, each Wednesday, RFK's pilgrim's progress through the other states' primaries towards the Democratic nomination. But before the assassination changed history, there was the New Hampshire primary. And RFK wasn't running. That didn't dampen my enthusiasm.

Four years earlier, Lyndon Baines Johnson had been a colossus of American politics, bettering Franklin D. Roosevelt in the plurality of votes he racked up over the hapless Barry Goldwater. (Goldwater's acolyte, who was a washed-up has-been TV actor in 1964, would later better LBJ when he wiped out Walter Mondale in 1984, the only time since I became eligible to vote I skipped a presidential election.) Then, came the debacle that was the Vietnam War, although the failure of Johnson's war policies had been kept under wraps until the Tet Offensive shattered American confidence in early 1968.

Tet emboldened the anti-war activists in New Hampshire who were determined to push the fortunes of their anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy.

The emotionally uncertain Johnson, as he felt befitted his presidential stature, would not run outright for the nomination, which he felt should be his by right, but he had approved a write-in campaign. In 1964, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. won the New Hampshire primary through a write-in campaign, while serving as LBJ's ambassador to South Vietnam and not actually setting foot in the state. Such was the state of democracy in New Hampshire, a state that boasted the fourth-largest legislature in the English-speaking world, after the parliaments of Great Britain and India and the U.S. Congress. I did know that there was a man named Eugene McCarthy running for president, whom I tended to confuse with someone named Joe McCarthy that the TV recently had ran a documentary on. I did not watch the documentary, as I was eight years old and there was only one TV in the house (besides a small portable boob tube in my teenage sister's bedroom on which I would later watch the '68 Olympics Games), and bedtimes were strictly adhered to. I read about it in TV Guide. Eugene/Joe McCarthy -- it was somewhat confusing. At the time, I thought Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Robert Goulet were the same man.

Paul Newman, the Paul Newman, had come to our next door neighbor's house to campaign for McCarthy (Eugene, not Joe), and had drawn what was a sizable crowd in our somewhat suburban neighborhood, about a score or more of people, including my sister, mother and brother, our father having vermoosed from the domestic scene the year before. (I had been forbidden to leave the house but could see all from the front room window.) There were maybe half-a-dozen newspapermen, two of whom were photographers. One of my sisters left the event as Newman was late, but the other got to say "Hi, Paul!" to the superstar, whom she later claimed was only a disappointing five-and-a-half-feet tall. My brother described how Newman had signed his name on the inside of the neighbor's dish cabinet. That signature is still there to this day, although the neighbors are long gone.

My classmate Moira, whose father was a history professor at St. Anselm's College (which was a block away from our ouse) had met McCarthy as her parents had sponsored a house-party for him. Liberal that she was, McCarthy had won her support. I was a premature RFK supporter, and we got to campaign for our candidates -- giving speeches before the 3rd grade class -- as a run-up to a mock primary election. I can't remember who the winner of the mock election was, either McCarthy or Kennedy, but I do remember that out of the score of students, LBJ only got two votes. For Johnson, it was the harbinger of the end. He dropped out of the race soon after my 3rd grade mock primary election.

Tears in the Snow

1972 was a more memorable year, as being 12-years-old, I had a chance of being more active. Nixon was running for reelection, and one thing about living in Manchester, New Hampshire, is that you see every candidate as they are always there. At 12-years-old, you can get around, either by foot or bicycle, and are not so reliant on your parents. Nixon flew in on Air Force One, waved to the crowd, got into a limousine and, as he motored off to some fund-raising function, popped up out of the moon roof for a last wave at the mass. He was not one to press the flesh as was LBJ. My brother and his friends ran after the limousine to wave to Tricky Dick. A Secret Service agent hanging to the limo, possibly sensing the boys' future entrepreneurial career in stealing hubcaps, kicked my brother in the shin.

That was the year Muskie cried, standing in a snowstorm before the Union Leader's office building. The Union Leader was then, as it is now, a right-wing rag with opinions little changed since Paleolithic times. For years, it was "managed" the way Uncle Joe Stalin "managed" the former Soviet Union by a cartoonish, baldheaded reactionary named William Loeb who had connections to Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, if not the Mafia, and to the Nixon White House. It was rumored that Loeb could not stay overnight in New Hampshire due to legal troubles. Muskie was my candidate, but he took umbrage with the Union-Leader after the publication of the infamous "Canuck letter" (a dirty trick hatched by the White House) and an article denouncing his wife as a loose woman. It could be that Muskie's "tears" were just melting snow flakes on his red-hot face, but he did display emotion and had reacted to Loeb's expert baiting.

My take on the event was that he did not cry, but the media went for the more exploitative angle and claimed he did. That was also the year that George McGovern came to the bowling alley we hung out in in Pinardville (a few blocks from our house -- my brother later was banned for throwing a pool ball through the window) and went to the factory my Aunt Isabel worked at, and shook hands with her. She thought he was a wonderful man, but I can't imagine my Aunt Isabel voting for such a lefty, though my cousins probably did. It was the full lunar tide of the Youth Revolution, and 18-year-olds had just been given the vote. This was the first election of many Baby Boomers.

Warren Beatty arrived at Moira's house for a McGovern party. She told us that Beatty was beautiful, but dumb. My best friend Gary was an enthusiastic McGovern supporter, and while Muskie won the primary, McGovern's second-place finish was dubbed the true win, as Muskie -- from a neighboring state and thus a virtual favorite son -- did not win as decisively as had been forecasted.

The Bicentennial and Beyond

1976 was the biggest year, a highpoint that would never again be replicated (something I did not know then). It was the Bicentennial, which was a fun thing, with the arrival of the Freedom Train, a rolling museum of American knickknacks, including most impressively an actual Academy Award statuette and Paul Newman and Robert Redford's costumes from The Sting, which had run for over a year at the State Theater in downtown Manchester. (It's funny what you remember. I'm sure there were historical documents on that train. Like Ronald Reagan confronted with the revelations of Iran-Contra a decade later, I can't recall.) The Democrats were still riding high from the reaction against Watergate that had given them large majorities in Congress, and it was felt that the Democratic nominee likely would be the next president of the United States. The fabled "Solid South" was still Democratic: It had not yet defected en masse to the Republicans, as it would do under Ronald Reagan, who was then running against President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.

I was in high school, and political candidates visiting New Hampshire LOVE to visit high schools. We had assemblies for individual candidates, though I can only remember the Carter and Reagan speeches in the high school theater. There was a large bulletin board outside the theater with the names of all the West High School attendees who had gone to war, and the names of my father and Gary's father were on it. They had gone down the same day to join the Navy, and would die within two months of each other of the same disease, prostate cancer.

Since my father now lived in Atlanta, Georgia, I had an interest in Carter, although he was more conservative than I liked. He came and gave a speech in the school theater, and he was not really that impressive. He was small, I remember, smaller than he appeared on TV, and when he "jumped off the stage" rather than walk to the side and down the stairs -- there was a folding chair positioned in what would be the orchestra pit, and he stepped down on it, carefully, and down to the assembly room floor, I thought it was a staged stunt).

Ronald Reagan had charisma. He and his views were anathema to me, and even then he had signs of the senility that would plague his presidency. Moira asked him a question, and he came back with a canned response to what was essentially another question. He didn't even come close to addressing what she asked. I would have heckled the Gipper if I could, but I contented myself with making nasty comments to Gary and our rather conservative pal Ed. A guy in front of us, an upperclassman, turned around, looked me in the eye, and said, "For five cents, I'd punch you in the mouth." Ed -- with whom I constantly feuded with -- took out a nickel from his pocket, but it was too late. The upperclassman already had resumed listening to the man who would become known as The Great Communicator, for his acting prowess in delivering stump speeches. At the time, I could not imagine that anyone could believe in Ronald Reagan's cant.

After his speech, Jimmy Carter had exited the building, but Ronald Reagan stuck around and there was a reception line for students to meet the ex-movie star and former governor of California one-on-one. I got in line to shake Ronald Reagan's hand, someone I considered in my youthful zest for politics to be somewhat to the right of Satan. When it was my turn, he took my hand and looked into my eyes, and greeted me with a firm handshake, neither too soft, neither too hard, but just right.

At first, I was abashed by the reddish-brown dye-job that tinted his hair, and by his reddish-brown complexion which evoked a pair of expensive tooled-leather boots, but within milliseconds, a sense of his warmth came over me. At that moment, after the initial shock of seeing him so up close -- he was taller than I imagined, and had a real solid physical presence -- the aura of the man who was Ronald Reagan washed over me, this great sense of goodness and well-being, and when I shook it off a few seconds later, after disengaging, I said to Gary, "Why can't we Democrats have someone like that?" I had never had a grandfather, both having died before I was born. This man Reagan was like a grandfather, was the embodiment of a grandfather -- a loving, warm human presence as imagined by someone who had never known a granddad outside of the smiling visage on a bottle of Kentucky bourbon purchased, underage, at the state liquor store. (The drinking age had dropped along with the voting age and no one carded back then) .

Reagan had focused in on me in those seconds like one of the heat-guided missiles sold to Afghan rebels to its Soviet target. Yet, for all that charisma, I never thought he would be president. Then, or later in 1980. I would later see that charisma again, 16 years later, when Bill Clinton was on the stump in Boston.

Charisma, as an ingredient of electability, was emerging as something much more important than a political pedigree, or a demonstrated ability to function as a leader of a government. By the 2008 election cycle, with Barrack Obama -- a man all of three years of experience in the U.S. Senate, two if you discount the year he has spent campaigning for the presidency -- winning the Democratic caucuses in Iowa and a candidate as experienced as former Congressman, cabinet member and United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson, the two-term govenor of New Mexico, finishing a distant fourth, it seems to have replaced everythng. Being media-friendly and fitting in to media-friendly narratives is what pushes a candidate to the top.

My friend Gary and I volunteered for U.S. Senator Birch Bayh's campaign after our initial candidate, Terry Sanford, the former governor of North Carolina, dropped out. Mo Udall, the liberal Congressman from Arizona, was the early favorite. Jimmy Carter was the wild card, for he had troops on the ground, and we were dying to meet the rumored "Georgia Peaches" that were canvassing for the former Georgia governor. I thought they'd look like blonde goddesses. Election night was spent at the Bayh headquarters, and we were so disappointed to learn that Carter had pulled out a victory. Bayh came in third behind Mo Udall. The Iowa caucuses, which had first been scheduled before the New Hampshire primary in '72, was not covered much by the media in 1976. There seems to be a rewriting of history that Jimmy Carter got some kind of "bounce" out of Iowa that helped him win New Hampshire, but that is not the case. The only conservative, Carter was running in a field featuring four true liberals. The liberals split the progressive vote and Carter won. Jimmy Carter would use his win in the New Hampshire primary to capture the Democratic nomination, and the presidency.

Carter's four-year term was considered a debacle at the time, before his post-Presidential career burnished his reputation. One has to understand that in 1980, all the way up through October, the Establishment pundits and the people of the Northeastern states where I lived, was raised and attended university never believed Ronald Reagan could be elected president, but the incompetence of Carter domestically and in foreign policy engendered his election. I travelled north from Boston, where I was attending university, to vote in the 1980 New Hampshire primary, but I can't remember for whom. It was during the run-up to the 1980 Republican primary that Ronald Reagan had electrified audiences when he took command of a debate after the moderator tried to cut him off, declaring "I paid for this microphone!" During the malaise that was the twin hostage and energy crises that blighted Jimmy Carter's presidency, many voters took notice, and Reagan won the primary after having come in behind George H.W. Bush in the Iowa Republican caucus. Reagan was on his way with his appointment with History.

After graduating from university in 1982, I tended to wander, and spent most of the past 25 years away from the Granite State, in the Army and out in California. I am living in New Hampshire during the 2008 primary cycle, back home, but it is not the same. Perhaps I'm older and more cynical, but it doesn't seem as fun as it did. One thing that is irrefutable is that the primary season is not as leisurely.

The New Hampshire primary has been moved up from its traditional spot in the spring to the first week of January, creating a shorter election cycle dominated by the media in an unprecedented way. As late as the 1996 primary, when California Governor Pete Wilson tried to win with a campaign almost entirely based on TV-ads, as would behoove a California campaign, the state being so populous and geographically vast, media campaigning was a distinct also-ran to actually pressing the flesh as a way of garnering votes. It is not unusual to see two commercials in the same half-hour of TV viewing run by the same candidate, and it might even be the same commercial! Mitt Romney has spent millions on campaign coverage since he launched his campaign early last year. The primary has also lost its importance, as the media increasingly focuses on the Iowa caucuses as the true inauguration of the Presidential election cycle, despite the fact that the Iowa results are a poor bellwether of who will eventually win.

Things are just not the same.