PAPER CUTS: Turkey Season In New Hampshire
My recent upgrade to city living has proven to be a garden of earthly delights: Lebanese takeout, pizza delivery, and reliable flush toilets. In fact, the only nostalgia I feel for the backwoods of rural New Hampshire is that I am missing out on the fervent camaraderie and full throttled debate that accompanies the hallowed quadrennial event, that sacred institution, the first-in-the-nation primary.Once again, as they do every four years, battalions of presidential candidates, in L.L. Bean outfits fresh out of the box, descend upon the rutted backroads and ice slicked highways of the Granite State, to try to sell their snake oil to the bemused electorate. Steve Forbes may have contributed more than $1.5 million in advertising revenue to the lone local television station, but a significant segment of the population doesn't even receive its paltry signal, and couldn't care less.George W. may not have figured it out yet, but most citizens in the Granite State will not vote for a candidate unwilling to make eye contact with them. Disbelief may be suspended for the possibility of alien spacecraft landings, but not for politicians. Unlike the puppet show in Iowa they call a straw poll, New Hampshire is the only early indicator of presidential preferences where a vote cannot be bought. It remains the last bastion of politics as a contact sport.New Hampshire is also the one place in America where a visit to the General Store for a quart of milk and some chewing tobacco can turn into a spot on Good Morning America. Where any trip to the dump offers the reasonable possibility of shaking hands, however dirt stained, with the next president of the United States. And the voters take those encounters very seriously indeed. While the rest of the country is concerned with such monumental decisions as paper or plastic, selecting the most diversified mutual fund, and choosing a long distance carrier, Granite Staters take an immense pride in influencing the course of history. They believe that the outcome of a presidential election matters.Which may begin to explain why the Sunday morning pundits, the print journalists, and the spin doctors, so persistently misread the mood of the New Hampshire electorate. These voters are not bellwethers of the national mood, because the national mood is one of total indifference to electoral politics. Folks in the "Live Free Or Die" state take their politics as seriously as the siting of their septic tanks, and in the same spirit of hardnosed pragmatism. According to the Secretary of State's office, over 68% of eligible voters cast ballots in the last presidential election, well above the national average of 45%. Nearly one-third of voters were registered as independents in the last presidential primary, most of them motivated by the desire to muddy the waters, surprise the prognosticators and confound expectation.New Hampshire voters do not remotely ressemble a cross-section of the American population. A careful examination will reveal them to be anachronisms, throwbacks to the fellows who threw the tea in Boston Harbor. These citizens are not leading economic indicators, but simply people to whom a living wage, universal healthcare, a patients' bill of rights mean more than all of the dot com stocks and overhyped Internet IPO's put together. This is the constituency our Chief Executive left behind, seven years ago, when he confused the fiscal health of the nation with the Dow Jones average. The collective voices that Mr. Clinton has quite recently reawakened to, since he began to fret about his presidential legacy.These are people who still believe, all evidence to the contrary, that politics and statesmanship are not mutually exclusive, and that leaders should act, not in the interests of their campaign contributors, but in the interest of the greater good.It may be instructive to remember that in New Hampshire, nobody roots for the Yankees. Not a one of them is impressed by the best team money can buy. They are Red Sox fans, down to the last man, woman, and child, afficionados of the nail biting finale, the struggle of the the underdog, the triumph of heart and will over million dollar bonus babies. Which goes a long way toward explaining why they choose the irrepressible optimist over the slick salesman, the holy fool over the fast talker, a Buchanan over a Bush, a Bradley over a Gore. They are students, not of the statistics of wins and losses, but of the more arcane art of how one plays out the game. In New Hampshire, nobody, not even a guy with a $57 million campaign chest, is going to get a free base on balls.