Over many years of covering campaigns in New Hampshire, I've lost track of the number of times I've attended political events in the basement meeting room of the Manchester public library, which makes itself available to all candidates and parties. Never have I been to a quieter rally than the one I happened upon Monday afternoon.
Former senator Max Cleland of Georgia, the man who nominated John Kerry for president in Boston this summer, played host to three young people concerned about the Iraq war -- two veterans of the fighting and the wife of a soldier currently deployed -- along with perhaps 50 middle-aged and elderly voters and seven TV cameras. For most of the hour, you could have heard a pin drop.
Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam veteran, commands enormous respect from audiences, but the severity of his wounds and -- for Democrats -- the lingering bitterness over the campaign that cost him reelection in 2002 quash any impulse to whoop and holler. But it was the three young people who silenced the crowd.
Nothing suggests they are typical of their generation; they were on stage with Cleland at the invitation of the Kerry campaign. But the contrast between their quiet comments and the loud, brazen debate we have been having about Kerry's and President Bush's records during Vietnam was striking to everyone.
On the way up here Sunday night, I'd had a sampling of one side of that debate. Boarding the shuttle bus to the jet at Ronald Reagan National Airport, we were joined by a man in a Navy cap who carried a large sign he'd brought back from an afternoon rally of Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry. He delivered his message to the whole bus in stentorian tones: "Do you know there's a museum in Ho Chi Minh City with a photograph of Kerry and a message praising his contribution to their victory? Do you know that [the rally of disenchanted Vietnam vets Kerry attended in 1971] actually advocated assassination of United States senators?
"He should be tried for treason, not running for president." The ride ended before the harangue was over.
By contrast, the three speakers here were still trying to sort their feelings. Martha Jo McCarthy, whose husband is on National Guard duty in Iraq, was the first. "Everyone supports the troops," she said, "and I know they're doing a phenomenal job over there, not only fighting but building schools and digging wells. But supporting the troops has to mean something more than putting yellow-ribbon magnets on your car and praying they come home safely."
"I read the casualty Web site every day and ask myself, 'Do I feel safer here?' No. I don't think we can win this war through arrogance. Arrogance is different from strength. Strength requires wisdom, and I think we need to change from arrogance to solid strength."
Scott Lewis, an Army Reserve sergeant home after 15 months in Iraq, spoke just a few words. "We need some new ideas in Iraq," he said. "People criticize John Kerry for changing his mind about Iraq, but I think that's actually a strength. And I'm a Republican."
Doug Madory, a recently discharged Air Force captain, was the last. He spent four months in Iraq, but most of his deployment was spent in Italy. He spoke of the way Italians embraced American servicemen in brotherhood after Sept. 11 and said, "President Bush squandered a good deal of that support all through Europe by rushing headlong into Iraq. George Bush should be held accountable. . . . People around the world are with us, but are not with George Bush."
That was it. I have no idea what it means in the larger scheme of things, but Cleland said he has been struck by the slow trickle of Iraq war vets now volunteering to speak out. "It is hard for them to do this in public," he said. "Americans obey their commander in chief and do their duty. But then they speak their minds -- just like John Kerry did 35 years ago."
The serious mood was broken by Sam Poulton, who rose in the second row, wearing a VFW cap, to poke fun at himself. He turned to face the audience and cameras. "I want you to look at this face," he said. "I'm 56 years old, a proud reservist. I was ordered back to Iraq. It's something when my son and I are both deployed. I went to war for George W. Bush; I came home to vote for John Kerry."