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Smokin' Down the
NH Campaign Trail

Tracking the candidates through
40 years of hoopla and handshakes

Smokey the Bear Here comes that political spotlight again. The news media has been flicking it on and off lately like a baby with the bedroom wall switch. In New Hampshire that means next year must be divisible by four. The first in the nation presidential marathon has officially begun again.

There was a decent-sized crowd clustered around Steve Forbes in Market Square the other day as he played with some miniature coffin, symbolizing the death of some type of tax, I forget which. Visuals and name recognition are everything when you're vying for presidential consideration in New Hampshire, even if no one gets the point. So what if the election is a year and a half away? Al Gore was in Dover the other day. Elizabeth Dole spoke to her local supporters. Then there was the George W. Bush world debut this week.

People who still think New York and Washington DC are political hotbeds should hang around the Seacoast for a few days. The very morning young Mr. Bush appeared on the cover of Newsweek as the Republican frontrunner, we were tripping over the real McCoy over at Great Island Common in New Castle. Apparently, if you're looking for small town America -- we're it. New Castle has less than a thousand residents. The political "rising son" said he was just stopping by to visit his former-president-dad in nearby Kennebunkport. We've heard it all before. Back when Abraham Lincoln was campaigning, he always said he was just stopping by Phillips Exeter Academy to see his son Robert. Garnering votes was the last thing on his mind too.

New Hampshire's sons and daughters measure their lives against the quadrennial return of the migrating candidates. There's an "I Like Ike" lapel button in my childhood souvenir box, but no memory of how it got there. I trace my political awakening to sometime in 1960 when NH Governor Walter Peterson was stumping with a presidential hopeful at our rural grammar school. They brought along a towering Smokey the Bear, which I assume was some suffocating park ranger in a bear suit. At the time, however, I was thunderstruck by the presence of such a famous figure.

I remember we sat on hard wooden benches and rose to the music teacher's baton and sang the state song for them. ("Oh New Hampshire, Oh New Hampshire! Oh, New Hampshire grand and great!"). Then we sang for Smokey. ("He can spot a fire, before it starts to flame. That's why they call him Smokey; that is how he got his name.") As to the person running for president, I draw a blank.

In 1964 my father helped set up the complex telephone relay systems for he NH Primary newscasters. We were Republican children, so we only caught a glimpse of Lyndon Johnson as he paraded through town. Barry Goldwater definitely had the best stuff anyway. I read my way dutifully through his campaign biography, "A Choice, Not an Echo." But we kids had our eyes glued on the free bumper stickers and cases of gold-colored soda cans dad got from the Republican headquarters. Emblazoned on the front was the formula AU-H2O, and we savored the fizzy golden ginger ale as if it were champagne. Goldwater could bomb all our enemies for all we kids cared, as long as he kept the free soda coming.

The next tumultuous decade of presidential hopefuls flowed in and out of the Granite State like wounded geese. They came to our high school, locked hands at the University of New Hampshire. I'm pretty sure I shook hands with McCarthy, McCloskey, Muskie and McGovern. Bobby Kennedy flashes in my memory, but it might have been TV. We were, every one of us, traumatized back then, and memories mix with media. The New Hampshire spotlight only made us wince in the Protest Era, We were, after all, against politics in general, and yet it was all around us. A friend of mine used to joke that if you wanted your car washed or your driveway sealed in New Hampshire -- just wait a few years and have a candidate do it. They were a nickel a dozen back then.

Two embarrassing incidents stand out. My high school friend Elmer wanted to meet black activist Dick Gregory, who was running a protest campaign for President. Just about the only black student in our high school, Elmer wanted a souvenir photo with the famous man. I had an ancient camera with explosive giant flash bulbs and when the two shook hands, I snapped the picture for the yearbook. The result was two of the whitest African Americans ever photographed, and a forgettable ethnic keepsake.

In college, still without any photographic skills, I somehow got myself hired to take pictures of candidate Ed Muskie just weeks before the infamous "Canuck" letter destroyed his presidential dreams. This time I left the offending flash attachment behind and was ushered into the back room of a Seacoast Italian restaurant. The scene was right out of the Godfather, and to my dismay, intimately lit by a pale row of candles. I clicked away nervously at the slowest possible shutter speed, praying that the dim light would leave even the faintest image. It did, barely. I delivered the grainy touched-up pictures without a bill or phone number. I think I even took the license plates off the car -- and sped away before the package was unwrapped.

Flash ahead another decade. The candidate population continued to rise and fall rhythmically, hands thrusting out from every street corner. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer, Ronald I-Paid-for-this-Microphone Reagan, George Bush the Elder, Gary Hart-ache, Astronaut John Glenn, the Reverand Jesse Jackson, the funny Pat Paulsen and the not-so-funny Pat Robertson, Mike Dukakis riding the bus. Suddenly I was teaching school and assigned eleven students to cover Ted Kennedy's visit to Exeter High. The kids only wanted to know about Chappaquiddick. Kennedy brushed the thing aside. In Dover, years later, Bill Clinton managed to do the same with Gennifer Flowers.

Despite their inscrutable presence, I have never much wanted to meet the candidates. I never see the point. That seems, to me, no more desirable than going backstage at the theater. I enjoy the show, the illusion. These are only men, and finally women, after all. I'm opposed to the American habit of deifying our candidates and then destroying our leaders. We force the humanity out of them by peering too hard backstage. When the spotlight hits New Hampshire, I sometimes avert my eyes.

In all these years of hand shaking and picture taking, I've only spoken to one candidate. It was at a lawn party near a pool in Rye. I was wandering along the buffet table with guest speaker Alan Cranston just ahead of me. He seemed tired, vulnerable and nicely human. He turned and spoke.

During our short conversation, we both held small soggy plates full of items all but impossible to eat in public. Suddenly the candidate popped an extra large cherry tomato into his mouth, realizing too late, that he had a presidential crisis in the making. It could not be removed discreetly. It could not be bitten in half safely, for fear of squirting tomato juice. It could not be tucked into a cheek for fear of press photographers all around. What to do?

Smokey the Bear The candidate, in what I thought was a brilliant move, managed to gnaw the giant ball down in a series of discreet grinding bits, without ever losing a beat in the conversation. That, I thought, is a man who deserves to be president! That is the kind of up-close judgement the NH Primary gives us here.

But alas, Alan Cranston had no hook -- no red flannel shirt, no famous father, no martyred brothers. He hadn't travelled to the moon or been a B-movie star. Heck, he didn't even know Smokey the Bear. He just came like the rest of them, full of hope, full of air and ready to stand under the glare of the New Hampshire spotlight.

I've been watching up close for forty years now and I don't have a clue how the system works, or whether it works at all. I have, however, gotten a lot of neat stuff free.

Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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