GRASS ROOTS One Year in the Life of the New Hampshire Presidential Primary By Dayton Duncan Viking. 436 pp. $22.95
ONE OF the many oddities of the period through which this country is now passing is that although the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary is almost exactly one year away, precious little evidence of preliminary activity has worked its way into the gossip mills of political Washington. Though many among us may find this silence merciful, it is in marked contrast to the pattern of recent years -- in particular, we are reminded by Grass Roots, to that of the 1988 campaign, which seemed to get under way almost as soon as the 1984 race was over and threatened at times to run on into the next century.
It was just about as dull and dispiriting as a campaign can get, or at least so it seemed to those of us viewing it from the outside. But to the professional strategists and amateur activists on the inside, it had all the standard-issue ingredients that make politics so powerfully attractive to the likes of a lively young woman named Andi Johnson, a worker at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in New Hampshire and, by her own confession, "a diehard political junkie."
Andi Johnson is one of the central figures in Grass Roots, Dayton Duncan's worm's-eye view of the 1988 New Hampshire primary. Although the more notable personages of that contest are of course to be found herein -- among those appearing often are George Bush, Jack Kemp, Bruce Babbitt and Richard Gephardt -- they are essentially in the background. The people who interest Duncan are those residents of New Hampshire who offered themselves up as front-line troops in the 1988 campaign; Grass Roots is about the foot-soldiers of politics, the men and women who participate with little or no hope of personal advantage but whose services are essential to the effective operation of any political undertaking.
Duncan spent a year in New Hampshire, staying with the race from the time it began to take shape in the winter of 1987 until it ended a year later with the victories -- decisive, as it turned out, in their campaigns for the Republican and Democratic nominations -- of George Bush and Michael Dukakis. He kept a close eye on Andi Johnson, who had the rockiest ride of the year; she started with Gary Hart, was bumped to Joe Biden, got bumped again to Paul Simon, and ended up working for Dukakis in the general election. He also hung around with Dan Burnham, a semi-retired journalist who became a loyal Babbitt partisan; Kendall Lane, an old-money Republican who worked for George Bush; Al Rubega, a gun-rights activist and Jack Kemp promoter; Doug Kidd, a born-again Christian who worked for Pat Robertson; and several others who found their way into other campaigns.
All of these people are residents of Cheshire County, in New Hampshire's southwest corner, a place "just small enough to be outside the main target of attention, just big enough to avoid being an afterthought in political calculations," which is to say "just about as average a county as you could find." Its population at the time was slightly under 70,000 -- minuscule in national terms, yet substantial in a primary where 55,000 votes assure not merely victory but, history tells us, a presidential nomination and thus, perhaps, the presidency itself.
In the mathematics of 1988, Cheshire County was for a few months an important part of the equation. Candidates descended upon it in unlikely numbers, each encumbered with an entourage of Washington operators and media types and, far to the rear, local people who for one reason or another had attached themselves to his train. These reasons ranged from ideological conviction to a taste for adventure, but all of the amateurs had in common a conviction that their participation in the primary was important. As one of them said, "We in New Hampshire take the primary seriously. We look at these characters belly button to belly button on behalf of the 250 million Americans before the 'media wars' begin."
That might be described as the Official Version of the New Hampshire primary, the version that emphasizes how these famous men come to this little state and are forced to meet the people on their own terms in a campaign that is grassroots democracy at its best. It's a mythology to which Duncan is sympathetic, but he's scarcely bought it whole. He takes note of "a sense that more than a few people in New Hampshire had begun to consider their unique role in American politics not as a privilege, but as a right to be flaunted"; he points out that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, "the great preponderance of New Hampshire's voters never meet a candidate for president." He also makes a good case that the "mythic ritual" of this door-to-door campaign is enacted not for the voters of New Hampshire but for the television cameras that film it for national exposure.
To this extent, then, Grass Roots is engaged in debunking, and to useful effect; the New Hampshire primary isn't a picture out of Norman Rockwell, and we do well to bear that in mind. But on the other hand it really is what its apologists advertise: an exercise in democracy in which "participation reaches levels unattained anywhere else in the nation." As Duncan writes:
"Something different happens in New Hampshire, something best understood in human terms rather than statistics. It's not that New Hampshire citizens are dramatically more civic-minded, nor is there anything in the cold well water or the clear air of the Granite State that breeds a higher percentage of voters. The difference is that more people believe that their vote counts for something, that they, individually as citizens, have a say in the course of the country. All the attention they receive -- from the candidates, the campaign organizations, the media -- leads them inevitably to that conclusion. America seems to be waiting to hear their judgment on the men who seek to lead the nation, and being human, and American, they are ready to register their opinion if it's asked."
Their story, as Duncan tells it, deserves to be read with particular attention here in Washington, where fixations on politics are exceeded only by cynicism about it. Grass Roots is, for political Washington, a cautionary and instructive tale; it is a reminder that ordinary Americans are people of conviction and integrity, not mere numbers to be manipulated. It also is a reminder that no faction in the unending ideological and political struggles has cornered the market on rectitude or decency; all of the people whose portraits Duncan draws are likeable, intelligent and honorable, indeed considerably more so than many of the men who sought their votes.