Joseph McQuaid, the curmudgeonly publisher of the Manchester Union Leader, doesn't think much of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates, as he made clear in his office Wednesday afternoon.
George W. Bush? "Empty suit," he barks. John McCain? "The most liberal guy on the Republican side." Gary Bauer? "He'd make a nice secretary of education if he'd abolish the place."
And Steve Forbes? "About as inspiring as my little Groucho here," McQuaid says, slapping the Groucho Marx figurine on his desk and launching a dead-on imitation of the cigar-chomping one.
Twenty-four hours later, though, McQuaid decided the time had come for the famously conservative Union Leader to make its endorsement in the Republican primary. Soon after meeting with Forbes, he wrote an editorial for today's paper backing the millionaire publisher, even while allowing that Forbes is something of a "geek."
Asked for an explanation, McQuaid says simply: "He's the best of the lot."
McQuaid, 50, is the first person not named Loeb to control the paper's coveted endorsement in half a century. He's long been a journalistic force here, having become editor in chief of the state's largest newspaper--a job previously held by his father--back in 1982. But it was only last spring that McQuaid ascended to the publisher's office, succeeding Nackey Loeb, who succeeded her late husband William Loeb and still owns the joint.
The Loebs were famous for excoriating their enemies in front-page editorials, assailing Nelson Rockefeller as a "wife swapper," calling Gerald Ford "Jerry the Jerk" and deriding future president George Bush as a "wimp."
But McQuaid has moved the editorials inside the paper--except on rare occasions like today--and is toning down some of the Union Leader's eccentricities.
"Joe McQuaid is really trying to take it in a somewhat different direction," says Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor. "He respected Bill Loeb, but I think he's trying to make it his own paper. They certainly haven't had as high a profile in this particular race. It's much softer and much less likely to use epithets."
Steve Duprey, the state GOP chairman, offers a similar assessment of the 63,000-circulation paper under McQuaid.
"Usually they pick a candidate early and either promote that candidate heavily or beat the stuffing out of the candidates they don't like," says Duprey. "This year they've been more restrained. They've been taking some pokes at Bush, but nothing like what they did to his father."
McQuaid, for his part, insists the Union Leader is still devoted to "raising a little hell." Indeed, what other newspaper would dare suggest that Elizabeth Dole brought nothing "besides an X chromosome" to the presidential race? As for the Democrats, the Union Leader says Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley are going "after our wallets and guns."
McQuaid also boasts that he runs every letter to the editor from readers, as long as they limit their fulminations to once every two weeks.
A lean man with a dry sense of humor, McQuaid delights in tweaking friends and adversaries. "Joe is a riot," says Bernadette Malone Connolly, who recently became editorial page editor after working for columnist Robert Novak. "I never know when he's teasing me and when he's serious, and the candidates have trouble with that, too. He keeps everyone off guard all the time."
Politics, journalism and history are inextricably entwined in this close-knit community. In his office on William Loeb Drive, McQuaid keeps a picture of Teddy Roosevelt, whose chief of staff was Loeb's father. McQuaid also keeps a picture of his grandfather, who covered the Spanish-American War for what was then called the Manchester Union.
When McQuaid was in high school, he served as his dad's office boy, sometimes hustling to Western Union to pick up telegrams from correspondents. He's been at the paper ever since, working first under William Loeb, who died in 1981, and then under Nackey Loeb, 75, whom he still consults.
All the candidates felt compelled to court McQuaid. Bush and his wife, Laura, had dinner last summer with McQuaid and his wife, Signe, who worked for Pat Buchanan in the last two campaigns. But McQuaid finds the Texas governor "programmed" and lacking "any great passion for conservative beliefs." The paper refers to him sneeringly as "Junior Bush."
The Union Leader has lots more competition these days--from WMUR-TV, cable, the Internet and smaller newspapers that have launched Sunday editions--but McQuaid says it hasn't lost its hold on rank-and-file Republicans.
Still, it's a far cry from the days when the Union Leader's attacks on Ed Muskie's wife prompted the Democratic candidate to denounce William Loeb outside the paper's office. It was snowing, Muskie appeared to be crying and his campaign soon melted away.
In the last two campaigns the paper endorsed Buchanan, who wounded President Bush here in 1992 (brandishing the Union Leader in his victory photo) and upset Bob Dole to win the primary in 1996.
The Union Leader also backed Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, with the latter endorsement helping boost the Gipper on his way to the presidency, and Barry Goldwater in 1964, who went on to capture the nomination.
"The Union Leader's style is we don't just endorse once," McQuaid says. "We endorse every damn day. We started endorsing Reagan in 1975 and never stopped."
But he admits the paper has served up some turkeys, from John Ashcroft in 1972 to Pete du Pont in 1988. Both became political asterisks.
McQuaid makes no grandiose claim that his backing of Forbes as "one tough, smart customer" will galvanize a candidate languishing at around 8 percent in the New Hampshire polls. But he says he'd rather "go with a long shot who has the same ideology than a sure shot who has no ideology, or what's the point?"
By releasing the endorsement while hundreds of reporters were here for Thursday's presidential debate, McQuaid gave Forbes a chance to strut into the pressroom with the front-page headline and get the picture on television.
Was that a factor in McQuaid's last-minute decision?
"Duh," he says.