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In New Hampshire: Deeper Snow and Darker Horses

7 minute read
John Skow

Two or three New Hampshire primaries ago, an acquaintance of mine who worked as an advanceman for one of the television news programs called up to say that the more he advanced, the more the natives retreated. Could I…

“Locals. What we aah is locals,” I said, laying on a touch of New Hampshire accent.

“Ayuh, ayuh. Listen, you moved here four years ago from Central Park West, so forget the rustic impersonations. What I need is, you know somebody we could use for an interview? Typical local, not too smooth, not too dumb?”

Even then it was hard to find an authentic New Hampshire accent, because the state was populated almost exclusively by sturdy real estate salesmen and bluff, honest motel owners, most of whom had emigrated recently from New Jersey. I suggested that the advanceman look up my friend the town clerk, who pumped gas and sold dog licenses and could, in theory, write out a permit that would allow you to bury a body on your land. The town clerk was a good, brisk talker, and although no gossip, he was the preferred source of reliable information on town affairs. He was also a good, brisk businessman, a state legislator, a considerable landowner, and the president of the bank that stood across the road from his gas pumps, conveniently situated to make a nice, punchy shot for the cameraman to use as he wrapped up the interview.

The town clerk was, in fact, typical of New Hampshiremen to precisely the extent that David Rockefeller is a typical New Yorker. But he knew what was required, and he gave a good, understated interpretation of his role as an upright rural citizen somewhat bewildered by the attention that he and his state were getting. The network’s No. 2 talker did the show, and congratulated himself for extracting a snappy interview from the town clerk.

That was some time ago. Many seasons and some worms have turned, and the New Hampshire primary is once again spreading uneasiness among journalists and politicians. Properly speaking, it is The Primary, since it comes first and all other such exercises come later and therefore are not primary but secondary, tertiary and so on. To the New Hampshireman such nicety of nomenclature does not matter, however, since he pays no attention to the subsequent and lesser political disturbances that precede the election. He makes his mind up early, and he is a hard judge. In 1964, for instance, it was not Senator Barry Goldwater’s warlike remarks about Cuba that cooked his goose in New Hampshire. It was his existential dismay one night in Littleton, as he was drawn through the town in a cart pulled by a Shetland pony. The Senator not only looked like a man imprudent enough to let himself be talked into sitting in a pony cart; he looked as if the pony were in control of the situation.

On the other hand, in November of 1967 the Greater Laconia-Weirs Beach Chamber of Commerce had as its guest speaker the former Vice President, Richard Nixon, a loser in the 1962 California gubernatorial election and more recently a Wall Street lawyer. Nixon was aware of his reduced station. He seemed properly humble as he sat at the head table, listening appreciatively to the reading of the minutes of the last meeting. He even grinned at the jokes told by the chairman of the organizing committee for a forthcoming dinner dance, who went into some detail about preparations, and told his listeners joshingly that they had better admit defeat and buy tickets, because their wives knew all about it, and there was no escape. After an hour and a quarter, Nixon was permitted to give his speech, which counseled a policy of unceasing hostility toward Red China. I have wondered since then whether the severe strain of this evening may have been responsible for much of the President’s behavior after he came to power.

It might be thought by any observer from that region of the country known as “Away” that the Chamber had rudely refused to curtail its customary order of business because its members figured Nixon’s hopes were only slightly more realistic than Harold Stassen’s. My guess, however, is that these New Hampshire Republicans knew he was going to win. They did not approve of anyone, even a member of their own party, who wanted to associate himself with the Federal Government, and they intended to show their feelings while they had the chance.

“Do you mean to say, sir, that the New Hampshire primary is essentially an expression of hostility?”

“Ayuh.” (I am now, though only in fantasy, being interviewed by the network’s No. 2 talker. My friend the town clerk is so beset by journalists in search of the average New Hampshireman that he speaks only to Theodore White and James Reston, and I am the likeliest interview subject that the No. 2 talker could come up with. We are standing in my wood lot, surrounded by beechwood slash and camera cables. Since this is a carefully produced fantasy, I am wearing a DeKalb Seed Corn baseball cap, a green-and-black checked wool shirt, Ralph Lauren gum boots, and bib overalls with an alligator on the pocket.) “I see. Can you tell me, then, what you New Hampshire locals look for in a presidential candidate?”


“Excuse me?”

“If he jogs, he’s out. Otherwise, anything goes.”

“Carter jogs, and the New Hampshire Democrats went for Carter last time.”

“He fooled us, I admit it. He must have run in place in his motel room.”

“It’s clear that you don’t take presidential hopefuls seriously.”

“When they take us seriously, we’ll take them seriously. Would you like to have this year’s bunch hanging around your factory gates? What’s-His-Name sounds as if he should be selling snow tires on TV, and Thingummy keeps stepping on his own necktie.”

“The other states get the same candidates.”

They don’t have the same responsibilities. We’re expected to learn our lines, get the reporters steadied down, train the campaign managers and press secretaries, put up with the fellow who shows up with the sandwich sign and the Uncle Sam suit, remember which one is Evans and which one is Novak, explain why we tolerate William Loeb’s tarnal foolishness in the Manchester Union Leader, and then put on DeKalb Seed Corn caps and decide which of a dozen self-swollen hot-air balloons is least likely to lead the nation to shame and ruin.”

“So New Hampshire is doing the rest of the country a great service, at considerable sacrifice to its own peace of mind.”

“Durn tootin’.”

“By the way, why do you tolerate William Loeb?”

“He’s our Ayatullah, and we treasure him.”

“What local problems should the candidates be aware of?”

“Getting the tourists to stay home and mail in their money.”

“I don’t understand. If everyone in New Hampshire sells real estate and comes from New Jersey, why all of this crusty-farmer nonsense?”

“It’s expected. Would you want to have real estate salesmen choose the nation’s presidential front runners?”

“I can see your point. Tell me, is it really true that the town clerk can write a permit that allows you to bury a body on your own land?”

“Ayuh. And he knows where the bodies are buried.”

“Finally, sir, as primaries go, how does this one look?”

“Sonny, every time the fool thing comes around, the snow gets deeper and the horses get darker.”

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