Anyone who has ever been to New Hampshire for a presidential primary knows what a thrill it is, one of the finer reinforcing and up close example of campaigns and elections in our imperfectly noble representative democracy.
Somerset County GOP Chairman Al Gaburo once expressed it to InsiderNJ as follows: “In New Jersey, a wife and husband decide on where they’re going to dinner or the movies. In New Hampshire, they decide which presidential candidate they’re going to go and meet.”
It’s an intimate process, and that’s what for me continues each time to make the biggest impression. In our pursuit to select the man or woman we hope will be the leader of the free world, we insist on close quarters and highly personal encounters with the candidates. What emerges is a true sense of community in one small and vital corner of our vast and expansive experience as Americans. If you ever feel gloomy about our country and our system of government, you ought to go to New Hampshire the next time you can, the next time a presidential contest occurs, and experience the Live Free or Die way of politics. It may just restore your faith in our political system.
I’ve seen Michelle Obama in New Hampshire, and Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and others. All the events – and people – made an impression, probably those organized by Sanders more than most of the others, because New Hampshire last year proved something I wouldn’t have known without having been there, namely that the Vermont Senator led a significant political movement, one that would not be easily vanquished.
But one event stands out more than all of the others after all these years, and I think it bears remembrance now as Senator John McCain combats brain cancer. McCain and New Hampshire always had a good relationship, and the relationship makes sense when you consider their foundational qualities. I still feel lucky to have been able to go to a 2008 McCain campaign forum organized in part by New Jersey GOP operative Joe Coletti. The event epitomized both McCain’s own gravelly, tough and yet finally friendly and approachable style and New Hampshire’s similarly flinty insistence on hard questions answered nose to nose.
The outcome of the 2008 Republican Primary for President duplicated the 2000 Prez Primary in one significant regard: McCain won New Hampshire. In the first contest, George W. Bush defeated McCain in the Midwest, then lost ground when the Arizona war hero beat him badly in New Hampshire, then allowed his campaign to resort to underhanded tricks in the south to stop McCain. Coming out of Iowa in 2008, McCain looked very wobbly. He looked DOA, in fact. But he would again turn it around in New Hampshire, beating former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney 38-32% in a big field of contenders. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who had won Iowa, came in a distant third, his momentum halted in the snows of the Granite State.
Post New Hampshire, McCain had a comeback story in hand as he prepared to do battle in the south; and of course, the 2008 GOP Primary would also differ from 2000 in one very significant regard.
I saw the senator in NH just before the momentum swung in his direction and looking back on it now it’s easy to see how it shifted in his favor. At the Coletti-organized event, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling joined the presidential candidate onstage in a very intimate setting. It was a little theater, I can’t remember where or what town, probably Manchester. McCain was so relaxed. He stood on one side of the small stage, and Schilling stood on the other. The senator explained the format. He wanted audience members to feel comfortable asking any questions about either baseball or politics. He didn’t limit himself to politics, though, or Schilling to baseball. Either one of them could shag any of the questions, it just depended on who was more comfortable at any given time with his expertise on the particular subject. Usually that meant McCain handled foreign and domestic policy and Schilling took those questions concerning his own exploits on the pitcher’s mound. But at times, McCain offered his views and opinions on baseball, then listened respectfully as Schilling expounded on a political matter.
I remember the event went on for a long time, and it felt by the end that everyone in the room had asked a question or several questions. I felt that I saw McCain as I never glimpsed him on TV or anywhere else. I felt that I had spent time with an older guy, a weathered father figure, of the kind in my own family who had fought in either World War II or Vietnam, and now relaxed with others at a family party, talking about politics and sports.
I hope the retelling of this episode does not seem maudlin in any way, because that was not the way it felt at the time. On the contrary, there was a hard American toughness to the event, an appreciation for contest, and understated celebration of our belief in competition as a way to settle up fairly, and respect for those disciplines, whether politics or baseball, that added up say something important about the country and its priorities.
But then McCain was always tough, and that quality will no doubt serve him well again as he fights brain cancer, and it did back then in New Hampshire when the former fighter pilot and Vietnam War POW one more time proved his mettle, that time in politics, by fighting out of a tough inning when he was down runs and looked out of the game, only to go on out of those living rooms and little theaters of close quarters combat in New Hampshire and win the Republican nomination for president.
Thanks for the small but important American memory, Senator John McCain, and please get well soon. Flawed as all of us are, the manly quality you always have had in public life continues to transmit a special and mature measure of vitality, the fiber of which you wrote about in your book, Faith of My Fathers, when you reflected on your captivity in Vietnam: “Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles. No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it. This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to… It was my father and grandfather’s faith. A filthy, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”