This is my tenth Granite State presidential primary, and this time, I am reporting for the Washington Monthly. In 1992, I started a family tradition of bringing one of our children along for the big final weekend of cold and snowy campaigning.
First came my son, Michael, then Thomas in 1996. In 2000, it was time for Caroline, our youngest, to make the weekend.
Like her brothers, Caroline traveled with me from one speech to another, listening to Democratic candidates and Republicans, telling us why each should be the country’s leader.
Just 10 years old, Caroline, at one point, made an observation that floored me. She saw something in two of the candidates I had missed. It was how two candidates used their storytelling to get a point across.
The first was Bill Bradley, a celebrity even when he played basketball for Princeton and, of course, later when he was “Dollar Bill” with the New York Knicks. Later, he’d, of course, be a Democratic senator from New Jersey.
In New Hampshire in 2000, Bradley was making a long-shot bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination from the heavy favorite, Vice President Al Gore. Bradley, who’d been raised south of St. Louis, Missouri, recounted how his team had been denied seating at a restaurant in the state’s southern bootheel because several teammates were African-American. The message was about racial prejudice and how it affected the young ballplayer. His story was real and unaffected.
Bradley also told the story of a young boy who told him how he had to apologize to his uninsured mother for her having to write a check for a doctor’s visit. Bradley said that no young American kid should ever have to apologize to his mom or dad for getting sick.
The other speaker that Caroline and I saw that Sunday afternoon was Texas Governor George W. Bush. Anyone who had caught “W” on the stump knows the easy charm of the second President Bush and his ability—even as the Andover-Yale-Harvard heir to a political dynasty—to connect with everyday people. Unlike many other candidates, he radiates a genuine feel for people and their families. But Bush’s stories, full of folksiness, contained no real message.
And this is what our ten-year-old daughter saw: the difference in their storytelling. “One candidate had something to say,” she said. “the other one didn’t.”
Hearing Bradley and Bush speak on that same snowy afternoon offered a crystalline picture of their campaigns. For Bradley, it is explaining his thinking on matters of social and economic justice. For W., it was a way of introducing himself as the salt of the earth.
This is the great advantage of New Hampshire’s primary: its intimacy. Part of it is owing to its relatively compact geography. New Hampshire is over 9,000 square miles, with the population centers in the south. By contrast, Iowa, home of the first caucuses, is over 50,000 square miles and with population centers spread more widely. Book your hotel room in Manchester, New Hampshire, and in a couple of days, you can easily witness the candidates in action and get to every event by car. The same is true for a citizen of New Hampshire who wants to see all the candidates. You can do it in Iowa, but it’s much harder.
When I started this kind of rental car following of the candidates with our son Michael in 1992, hitting Democratic presidential campaign events for Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Kerrey, and former California Governor Jerry Brown, I didn’t know I’d be witnessing one of the great pivots in political history. Clinton, through raw grit and an emotional connection with the people of New Hampshire, became the “Comeback Kid,” throwing off the weight of charges of an extramarital affair and a letter thanking an ROTC officer for “saving me from the draft.”
And I remember our Thomas in 1996 sitting high up on my shoulders when Bob Dole approached and asked me how he would do that Tuesday. I didn’t have the heart to say Patrick Buchanan looked like he was about to beat him.
But it was Caroline who truly showed her stuff up there. In 2000, watching Gore, Bush, and their competitors, she could see the various candidates’ hearts and minds.
It turned out that neither Bradley nor Bush won that New Hampshire primary. One was too wonky, the other too hail-fellow-well-met. Ultimately, Vice President Al Gore won the 2000 New Hampshire primary. So did Arizona Senator John McCain, who crushed Bush and came through as a man of true character.
New Hampshire voters retain an uncanny ability to see candidates for what they are. Living close together, starkly aware of the seasons, and recognizing that they’ve been entrusted by the rest of the nation of 330 million to winnow the field or be the grand jury—pick your metaphor—they take their job seriously and have a knack for picking apart characters and an understandable impatience for candidates who parachute in and out. This remains the greatness of the Granite State primary. I understand why the Democrats have scrapped it as their first primary state—its lack of racial diversity and the insistent lobbying of South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, to whom President Joe Biden owes his presidency. But South Carolina already picked the Democratic winner in 2008, 2016, and 2020 because of its large African American population, reflective of the significant dependency the party’s presidential candidates have on Black voters. The Palmetto State will likely choose the nominee again, and that’s great. But picking the winner and being first are not the same things. New Hampshire, at one-third the physical size of South Carolina, is a better first primary for America. For the Matthews clan and New Hampshirites, it’s a family affair.
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