Political Voyeurs in New Hampshire
By Todd Neff (MALD '00)
The five of us embarked in the wee hours of January's final morn for frigid New Hampshire. Our intent: to exercise our unalienable right, as American voters, to engage in shameless political voyeurism on the eve of the New Hampshire presidential primary.
As we motored north on I-93, our conversation focused on the stubborn cold in the Mazda 626 and our desire for a Dunkin' Donuts. But coffee and crullers were eaten in haste; our first appointment, with Steve Forbes at the appropriately pricey-sounding Chez Vachon, commenced shortly. We didn't want the $440 million dollar man to miss us.
We arrived late, at 8:30. Forbes' presence was confirmed by a NASCAR racer with inconspicuous "Forbes 2000" decals pasted amid massive "1-800-DIAL-GOD" emblems. The candidate had apparently been chauffeured at high speed to Chez Vachon by the Lord. Several tables in the wooden diner were still unoccupied, despite the crowd around Forbes. This was genuine New Hampshire grassroots lobbying: the candidate shares his views with jaded voters as TV crews, reporters and pushy gawkers like ourselves leer over him. Forbes smiled uncomfortably under the lights, and did not drink his coffee. We took requisite photos and exited.
Two camera teams were set up on the sidewalk waiting for Forbes to emerge. Lew, the high-tech consultant, stepped before the microphone with presidential confidence. "I just wanted to reiterate my stand on hermaphrodites in the military," he declared to viewers of Channel 5 in New Haven, Connecticut. "Hermaphrodites have absolutely no place in the military."
Forbes emerged a few moments later wearing a button-down shirt and a golf jacket, paying no heed to the incredible cold. I wondered momentarily whether Steve Forbes himself was God until his campaign bus arrived, Credence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" blaring as it carried him off.
A few minutes later, Bill Bradley had already begun his speech in the meeting room of the Manchester YWCA. The narrow staircase was crammed with TV crews, which blocked us at an antechamber. As tourists, we hadn't intended to actually listen to policy talks, and we split up, trying to position ourselves for a grand photo opportunity.
As we stood outside, a group of young women chanted, "Jump. . . for Brad-lee; Jump-jump. . . for Brad-lee," jump-jumping when appropriate. It was difficult to imagine this at a Forbes event. "The more liberal the candidate, the more off-the-wall the volunteers," offered Dana, the translator.
Lew reported that Bradley was working the crowd and added that he had followed the candidate to the bathroom and had reached under the stall to shake his hand. Bradley shook hands (not Lew's) and hugged children before finally moving on.
Our next stop was Wyndham Middle School, 20-odd miles away. John McCain had scheduled his 109th New Hampshire town hall meeting at noon; we arrived just early enough to snag the last few seats in the gymnasium. The "Straight Talk Express" was late. By the time he arrived, volunteers had blown up balloons and tossed them into the crowd in the hope that we were simple minded enough to be entertained. We were. Children ran through the aisles with McCain 2000 stickers stuck to their foreheads, photographers chasing them in vain. Music played. It grew hot.
One of the gentlemen to my left was Rhodes Cook, a political analyst with the Congressional Record and author of 10 books on the electoral process. I took the opportunity to find out the difference between a primary and a caucus; he offered a clear explanation that I promptly forgot. A voter behind us said, "Basically, I've made up my mind for Bush, but I wanted to take the opportunity to see both in person."
Politics soon overcame the well-practiced punch lines. But McCain held the crowd of several hundred people rapt throughout. We left early in the Q&A session, as McCain's schedule had made us late for our meeting with George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner.
I had called the Bush campaign the day before and been placed on a list for a Travis Tritt concert/Bush rally at 2:00 at the Hampshire Hills Country Club. This was our only official booking for the day. We were VIPs, so to speak. But by the time we arrived at 2:30, the fire marshal was allowing no one else in. We were stuck outside, our quest for face time with our final candidate blocked by local bureaucracy. Being "on the list" appeared to carry no particular weight. How could we gain entry?
Lew pulled a George W. Bush sign from a snowdrift and approached a police officer. "I must to get in," he explained. "This sign belongs to the governor and he might be missing it."
Kim, desperately in need of bathroom facilities, snuck past the police to explain her distress to a doorperson and was let through. She called via cell phone moment later: "It's not crowded at all in here, and there's hot chocolate." Encouraged, we dispatched Carol to present the "bladder emergency" plea; this time, it failed.
Effectively banished, we waited at the front for Kim, who was inside, listening to country music and drinking lots of cocoa. Moments later, a bus pulled in, and out stepped W. himself. He shook hands with the crowd, and as he passed, I felt his grip, soft for better speed. "Best of luck," I said, squinting up into a sun that gave the man a sort of halo. He paused for the briefest of moments and focused. "Thank you," he said, and moved on to the big show.
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