It has gone unreported until now, but an event here last fall may be a metaphor for the fall and rise of Al Gore's presidential quest.
It was an October day, and the vice president had joined 75 firefighters to do some neighborhood canvassing. Gore and Mark Oulette, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, were invited into one home to talk. Unbeknown to Gore, the family dog sidled up to the vice president as he spoke, Oulette recalls, and treated the candidate as if he were a hydrant.
After Muffy's indiscretion was pointed out, Gore took it in stride. "I've been in politics for a long time," he said. "I've had to walk through a lot worse than this for a vote."
The firefighters promptly took the vice president, soiled pant leg and all, over to the Lake Street fire station, where they bestowed on him the endorsement of the New Hampshire firefighters union. It was the sort of rescue they have performed often for their candidate.
When hecklers disrupted Gore's presidential announcement in Manchester last June, a group of firefighters in the audience tore down the protest banner and moved to rough up the hecklers, before the Secret Service intervened. When Bill Bradley was pulling ahead in the New Hampshire polls, the Manchester firefighters soothed him by cooking a spaghetti dinner for more than 300 in his honor. And when Gore seemed outclassed by a nimbler George W. Bush, the firefighters handed him a PR coup: After Bush canceled a school visit in Rhode Island to attend a fund-raiser, the firefighters quickly scheduled an event for Gore at the school.
Now a resurgent Gore, fresh from a triumph in Iowa, again leads in the New Hampshire polls, and the firefighters are leading his parade. Before Wednesday night's debate in Manchester, a band of 100 firefighters, some wearing kilts and playing bagpipes and drums, stood for an hour in freezing temperatures, waiting to walk Gore into the studio.
It is fitting that, for a campaign that spent much of last year putting out proverbial fires, its most ardent supporters have been real-life firefighters. Their zeal beats the rap that still haunts the vice president: that he's a nice but blah fellow who doesn't inspire passion in his followers. The firemen, at least, are fired up.
When one thinks of political powerhouses, teachers, teamsters and auto workers come to mind before the International Association of Fire Fighters. In New Hampshire, the union has only 1,200 members and 700 retirees. But when an Atlanta firefighter dangled from a helicopter to rescue a man from a crane last year, the hero, interviewed on the "Today" show, plugged Gore. When several firefighters were killed in Worcester, Mass., union leaders insisted the vice president attend the memorial. The IAFF was the first union to endorse Gore last spring, at a time when labor's support looked shaky.
Here in New Hampshire, the 35 firefighters locals help with most Gore events. "The firefighters are the most active organization in the city of Manchester," says Bill Cashen, a longtime alderman. It's the same throughout the state. A couple hundred firefighters do regular volunteer work for Gore: stuffing mailings, placing phone calls, putting up yard signs, using their trucks to hang lights and signs. Some attend Gore town hall meetings and ask softball questions.
All this for Al Bore?
Harold Schaitberger, a national IAFF official who flew to Manchester for the debate this week, says the relationship dates to the mid-'80s, when there was a fire in the Gore home in Arlington. "Our guys did a helluva job," Schaitberger says.
Since then, Gore has done a helluva job for the firefighters. He championed OSHA's "two in, two out rule" on the number of firefighters required inside and outside a building fire to improve safety. He backed a federal investigation into all on-duty deaths by firefighters. At the union's request, he met with child burn victims at the White House. He supported national collective bargaining for firefighters and better pay for firefighters on military bases.
At Engine Company 2 in southwest Manchester, four of the "Twos" on duty one afternoon this week proclaimed their fealty to Gore (the fifth, a Republican, likes John McCain). "If you stick with us, we stick with you," said Mike Bouchard. "He's been there for us--we're used to politicians who only want to meet when it's crunch time," says Bill Clayton. The men are awed by their proximity to Gore. "If you haven't met Gore twice, you just haven't been out of your house," Clayton says.
But the firefighters' passion seems to go beyond constituent service. "I was thinking about this last night at the firehouse," David Lang begins. "We're the nation's first response. We see the ravages of a poor economy, of poor health care, of lower-income areas. We really get to see America at 2 a.m., and most people don't."
What Lang sees now is a booming economy, lower crime, fewer needy kids at charity drives. And the problems he still sees--children without health coverage, or old folks in cold homes--happen to be part of Gore's campaign agenda.
Whatever the cause of the firefighters' ardor, there's no denying it here in New Hampshire. At Raphael's, a blue-collar drinking club across the river from downtown Manchester, about 100 firefighters gather a couple of hours before Wednesday's Democratic presidential debate for beer and pizza.
One of the organizers is Walter J. "Skip" Hebert Jr., a 20-year veteran of the Manchester force. He volunteers 20 hours a week for Gore, making hundreds of calls on his lunch break, driving Gore surrogates such as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend around the state, even furnishing Gore headquarters with chairs, tables and temporary walls. "I'm missing my son's hockey game tonight," he says, but his son, who shuttled luggage for Gore on a trip to Boston, won't mind.
Nearby, Dan Breton from the Salem, N.H., fire department, is sipping a Bud Light. A Gore staffer has been living in his house since September. This week, several volunteers will sleep on his floor, and others will come just to take showers.
But while Breton has worked for other Democrats, "I'm more fired up this time," he says. "I hear people talk about how he's wooden and this kind of thing, and he's completely the opposite of what people say."
It's time for the parade to begin, and Schaitberger, from the IAFF, rallies the crowd, now all in Firefighters for Gore T-shirts. Hebert has put on a kilt and picked up a snare drum, and he and the other musicians lead the group across the river to the debate site. But there is no Gore, and the men are freezing. Complaints rise with condensation from the firefighters' breath. "Where the hell is the bus? . . . Come on, Al. . . . The boys are getting cold. . . . Jesus, I hope he doesn't keep 'em out all night." The police make the men clear the street and wait in a snowbank. For an hour they stand in the freezing wind--and not a single firefighter leaves.
Finally, the Gore bus arrives. "Pipes up! Make way!" come the orders. The firefighters chant "Stay and Fight!" as the icicle-covered bus pulls in. Gore hops out and greets the men one by one. "Oh, man, I love it," he shouts, and then rallies his troops with a wave toward the studio. "Okay, let's go guys." And, with that, the firefighters are on the march for Gore once again.
CAPTION: Smokin': In Manchester, N.H., Al Gore cheers with the firefighters who've often come to his political rescue.
CAPTION: Union firefighters at a Manchester, N.H., station proclaim their fealty to Gore.