The Observer sends a reluctant Vermont native into the wilds of New Hampshire at primary time.
New Hampshire, mid January
National journalists inevitably describe New Hampshire as a quaint and quirky state full of independent-minded nonconformists. In fact, the host to the first presidential primary combines the pursed-lipped uptightness of all New England with right-wing sentiments that would be right at home in Midland.
Which makes the state a natural for the George W. Bush presidential campaign. Virtually the only thing his New Hampshire supporters seem to care or talk about is that “he cut taxes twice in Texas.” From their epoxy-like attachment to the tax issue, you’d think New Hampshire residents were woefully overburdened by the high cost of social services. Actually, the Granite State coddles the rich and caters to the comfortable. As the state website boasts in bold: “Workers take home more of their pay here than in any other state in the Union. There is no general personal income tax nor general sales nor use tax.”
And unlike the rest of New England, New Hampshire is a tediously conservative, cranky, me-first state, filled with rock-stolid Live-Free-or-Die, gun-supporting, libertarian-style, right-wing Republicans. Its Congressional delegation–Senators Bob Smith and Judd Gregg, Representatives John E. Sununu (yup, one of eight children of that Sununu) and Charles Bass–are granite-ribbed conservatives. The largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, makes the Dallas Morning News look like Workers’ World. Kay Bailey Hutchison blooms positively pink beside New Hampshire’s stunningly dumb Bob Smith, who briefly abandoned the GOP as too far left, until somebody told him the move would cost him his committee chairs. New Hampshire is also one of the few states with substantially more registered Republicans (36 percent) than Democrats (27 percent)–among its massive four-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Some 74 percent of New Hampshire’s 285,500 registered Republicans voted in the 1996 primary while only 44 percent of the 209,300 Democrats mustered enough enthusiasm to pull the handle. (In all, that came to fifty-six percent of the state’s 890,000 voting-age citizens.)
But with its Lone Star perspective that everything north of the Red River is a Yankee hellhole anyway, the Observer figured that since I live in Vermont, I must know New Hampshire–which is kind of like saying if you live in Austin, you must know Beaumont. But my Green Mountain State (unlike New Hampshire) nicely lives up to every good Texan’s worst stereotype about liberal Yankees. The People’s Republic of Vermont is home to the country’s only socialist Congressman, hands out condoms in prisons, has state-backed health and dental insurance for almost every kid, has no death penalty, and its Supreme Court has just ordered its Legislature to ensure that gay partners have rights fully equal to those of married heterosexuals. Our state flower is Ben and Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch.
To enter temporary exile among New Hampshire’s craggy mountains, I drive two hours east, across Vermont’s mix of open pasture and forested hills. On either side of the Connecticut River, the cold brown bones of the land lie exposed by a snowless winter. Another hour and I approach Durham, site of the state university and tonight’s Republican stage show. The roadsides are dotted with indigo bouquets of campaign signs. The Alan Keyes placards have been carefully positioned to obscure the deeper blue Bush logos.
Getting directions from a young couple, I ask if they will attend the event.
“Nope,” says the young woman, screwdriver in hand, beside her stalled, rusty sedan. “We don’t have enough money.”
“Does it cost to get in?” I ask, surprised.
“Not really,” she answers, “but most of the seats went to supporters who made big donations, and the few places left over were put in a lottery. We didn’t bother.”
Clearly, these two were nobody’s soundbite posterchildren for the primary system. In my mind, I brought them with me, as I waded through the mire of dreary enthusiasm and pseudo-reality that soaks the campaign like so much used crankcase oil.
The first clue to the extent of campaign artifice is the press center itself, where a few hundred journalists watch the event on two giant TV screens at either end of the large, featureless hall. Sequestered a quarter-mile from the candidates, we will have no better idea of the reaction of the audience or off-camera candidates than people sitting comfortably at home with a beer. The room is lined with six long banks of tables, twenty-five or so seats along each side. Phones, modem hookups, and outlets wait like table settings at some weird techno-banquet. The assembled reporters–impeccably dressed network stars and their only slightly scruffier flunkies–appear to take it all very seriously, despite having heard it before: dozens of repetitions, slogan for soundbite for buzzword for improbable promise. By the end of the evening, we will have to pry some titillating tidbit of “news” from an utterly banal and predictable exercise in political legerdemain. The event itself, of course, will be no more a debate than the National Enquirer is literature.
The actual debate hall is at the other end of a dark wooded path, across one of the small ravines that cut through the U.N.H. campus. In front of the auditorium, a few dozen supporters wave official signs and hoot their candidate’s name like sports fans cheering the home team. Bored camera crews catch a two-second clip for background color. A few demonstrators with handwritten signs excoriate Bush’s lack of focus on the environment.
I ask people what policies drew them to their favorite. For those supporting Bush, the answer is unanimous: he will cut taxes. When pressed, a few mention “leadership,” mimicking Bush’s insistence that one-and-a-quarter lackluster terms as a Governor qualify him for the presidency. There is also a leitmotif on the character issue: sexual fidelity is a touchstone. To Bush’s supporters at least, a career devoted to endless self-promotion, pandering, pollwatching, and sweetheart deals barely within the law, is apparently business as usual.
Hoping for a relief from the honking, I stop to interview a teenager incessantly blowing a horn. “My name’s Steve Forbes,” he volunteers with a grin, waiting for a reaction. “That’s my father’s name, too,” he adds hopefully. “And guess who we support.” It is as good a reason as any I will hear all night to vote for one of the exemplars of money, militarism, and mediocrity who will soon line the New Hampshire stage.
The cops inform me that without the requisite ticket I can’t even peek in the auditorium, so I head back to the media center for an evening of TV. And me without a remote control.
The road show of campaign reporters is its own self-contained subculture, with some uncanny resemblance to a cult. Often sleep-deprived, many of the journalists live cramped and clustered on buses and planes, stay at the same hotels, keep the same externally imposed schedule, associate with people much like themselves, and obediently follow an unspoken pecking order and a tight set of rules.
Within this proscribed world, they must distinguish themselves from the few hundred other acolytes of the democratic process, as they dissect banal, endlessly repetitive events. Like oracles picking through chicken bones, they will discover signs and omens that shed meaning and–prize of prizes–a one-day headline exposing a political pimple on the gangrenous rump of a wholly corrupt body politic. The process leaves them, as it does the candidates themselves, little opportunity to engage the majority of New Hampshire residents, who enjoy the primary carnival as a nice break in the mid-winter gloom but understand it’s all an overblown exercise in money and spin.
After the main event, I tag along to a high school cafeteria where George W. and the silent, ever-smiling Laura mount a stage to thank a hundred or so supporters. One eager young man tells me how great it is to have access to the candidate.
When the media buses return to Portsmouth, I head for a motel twenty miles down the road, in Rochester. Flopping on the bed with a pack of peanutbutter crackers and a beer, I turn on the TV to see what the pundits have decreed. I am instantly distracted from my reportorial responsibilities by an HBO-Special World Tour of TV pornography. The highlight, hands down, is a commercial featuring a singing penis.
The next morning, after some lively dreams integrating the day’s TV images, and before heading to Cabletron Systems, Inc. (a high-tech facility where Bush is scheduled to meet with employees and, of course, the media), I have breakfast at Rochester’s Daybreak Caf?. My breakfast companions span the political spectrum from right-wing extremist to brown-shirt bigot. They serve baked beans with the eggs instead of grits–other than that, Bubba would feel right at home.
“The true minority,” a neighbor informs me when I identify myself as a journalist, “is straight white men.”
“You mean literally?” I ask, taken aback. (Even if men still think like this in Vermont, they just don’t say it out loud, especially to a woman.) “Like in terms of numbers?”
“Damn straight,” he answers.
This phrase seems to trigger a synapse in the man on the next stool, who volunteers, “Queers make me sick and shouldn’t be in the military at all. I wouldn’t want one in a foxhole with me” (…where, no doubt, the gay G.I. would use the handy distraction of a mortar attack to steal a kiss).
After this opening, my fellow breakfast clubbers outdo each other, with a litany of “welfare cheats,” “feminazis,” “lazy blacks who might be polite to your face but you’d better be careful hiring one because after hours they do those black power things.” “But I’m not a racist,” says the guy to my right, who works for a large oil company. “I’ve never hired one, but I know some,” and adds: “You have to be careful how you turn them down.”
“That’s what I love about New Hampshire,” says his neighbor, in what is apparently not a non-sequitur. The cholesterol special is congealing nicely, as I take notes and focus on keeping my face bland and my food down. I ask which politician comes closest to their ideas. “Buchanan,” says one. “None of them,” agree the rest. “Those politicians say we can’t carry guns, but women can kill their babies.” “Yeah, and Clinton, he sold the country out to the Chinese,” says a fellow diner. On the blackboard above the counter, the January dinner special proclaims, “Chop Suey, demi-salad and garlic bread.” The ghostly thwump thwump of black helicopters hums through the air.
I arrive at the Cabletron facility just as the Bush campaign and accompanying press buses disgorge their bleary-eyed reporters and preternaturally alert campaign hacks. Laura Bush is still smiling. Inside, after the press pool accompanies Bush on a quickie tour, Cabletron founder Craig Benson introduces the candidate to the well-dressed employees who fill the front row seats. Most of the large room is chock-a-block with media. The only non-whites are a few African-American journalists and a Japanese TV crew. New Hampshire’s trademark White Mountains symbolize more its than snowcapped hills; the state is 98.8 percent Caucasian.
Benson notes that Cabletron is a model for private sector volunteerism–the kind both parties tout as an alternative to big government “handouts.” Cabletron, he boasts, donates “about $20,000 per employee” for educational programs. “We put our money where our mouth is.” Then he introduces “thenextpresidentoftheUnitedStatesGeorgeWBush.” The Governor dishes out, bland and stale as day-old pudding, the phrases and themes bulleted on his website. (Also available there is the Bush product line, including the pitch, “Buy George W. Bush bottled water [and] prepare to experience a watershed moment in American history… $1.50 a 16 oz. bottle.” Among the Governor’s web-listed positions is the bracing news that he “supports automatic detention for kids who commit crimes with guns.”)
Bush preens and bubbles: “The fearful build walls. The confident tear them down.” “Positive.” “Hopeful.” My teeth are aching. “Optimistic.” “Fresh start.” Laura, his “fabulous wife” and “great mother” stands at his side smiling relentlessly. “Bold.” “Bold.” “Contest of ideas.” “Look to our better angels, not our darker impulses.” Huh?
I begin to fixate on the candidate’s impenetrable smugness. He has this habit of bobbing up and down just a little, like a plastic dashboard doggy: scrunching his eyes, condensing his eyebrows, pouching his lips into something between a grin and a sneer, and huffing a barely audible, “Heh, heh, heh, heh,” in time to the bobbing.
“Entrepreneurship is what makes our country unique.” Come again? “Second Chance maternity homes.” Programs for “wayward teens.” Which? The ones who’ve gotten automatic detention for gun crimes? Occasionally, belying the mind-numbingly enthusiastic delivery, George W. appears to disengage brain from mouth and go on autopilot. He promises to help kids “crapped in tramp schools” and pledges to impose free trade and get rid of the scourge of “terriers and barriffs.” More parsley garnish trips off his tongue. “We shouldn’t be the peacekeepers, we should be the peacemakers.” (Or was it vice versa?) “Trust me”–bob-bob, smirk, scrunchy eyes, heh-heh-heh-heh. “We want to redefine how wars are fought.”
Along with the all-important list of campaign contributors, Bush seems to have inherited his father’s little problem with the vision thing. His campaign slogan is “Prosperity with a Purpose,” but as far as anyone can tell, the only purpose of the prosperity is–more prosperity. “The role of government” in that noble project, “is to make an environment where entrepreneurship can flourish.” One can hear the ghost of Tom Paine retching in the corner of the room. But at least the Governor has finally mentioned the environment.
As the press corps returns to the buses, I notice a knot of workers to the side of the Cabletron facility. Dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, they are snatching a cigarette break. I ask why they didn’t go to the event. “The little peons weren’t invited,” says a middle-aged woman with limp grey hair and exhausted eyes. “Only one person from the floor was allowed to attend.”
The woman is a floor supervisor. In the dozen years she’s worked for Cabletron, the company’s worth has soared from under $100 million to $1.5 billion. She earns about twelve dollars an hour, $25,000 a year. The other workers tell me they earn less. To make ends meet, almost everyone has a working spouse or a second job. No, the company has no day care. I mention the $20,000 “per employee” that the company says it donates to educational programs, and am met with a derisive snort.
“So, what did you think of Bush’s visit? “I ask. “Another politician, another liar,” says heavyset man over his shoulder as he grinds out his cigarette and heads back to work.
The only sound in the deserted parking lot is the fading roar of buses ferrying the press corps and candidate team, heading to South Carolina to do it all again.
Terry J. Allen is a Vermont journalist who has reported for the Boston Globe, Vermont’s Times Argus-Rutland Herald, and In These Times. In the Globe, she recently broke the story of the University of Vermont training program for the Indonesian military. In response to the unfavorable publicity, the University ended the program.