A summer storm, quick and violent, was sweeping over John Sherburne's clapboard farmhouse with its hand-hewn beams and wide plank floors dating from the 1750s. In the background, amid sounds of thunder and the drumbeat of rain, you could hear the crackling of limbs off in the woods. Washington, and all its momentary concerns, seemed wonderfully far away.
Sherburne was talking about Ronald Reagan, and in so doing brought up the subject that has preoccupied the capital this summer.
"I'd like to see him run again, and if he weathers the new crisis in the White House with the manuscripts and the documents, I guess he will," he said. "I hope he handles it better than another Republican president. But, here again, I wonder if sometimes the press doesn't take things out of perspective. I'm not so concerned about briefing books as I am about some of these other things we've been talking about. You take these things that affect the very existence of our society and relegate them to the back page and you put the briefing books on the front page."
The case of the purloined papers does not play in New Hampshire. That doesn't mean people are unaware of it, that they think it to be without interest or that they would not assign it greater weight if later news developments warrant. But for John Sherburne, as for nearly everyone else interviewed during a week-long political pulse-taking swing in New Hampshire, the subject simply is not seen as significant now.
And people can tell you precisely why. As Sherburne says, it strikes them as another made-in-Washington story, one more example of the press ignoring matters of greater concern to them.
In Sherburne's case, that concern involves the environment. Others cite different questions they believe more important. But they are not following the briefing books controversy any more than they are paying attention to another preoccupation of the Washington press corps: who's leading the pack in the Democratic horse race that will dominate the news a few months away as New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary approaches.
It matters not whether New Hampshire's primary deserves the attention it receives each four years from the press and politicians. It will get the attention, and therefore will assume a significance out of all proportion to this state's size and voting composition. Even now the candidates are all over the place. When they are physically absent, their permanent staffs are hard at work each day on their behalf.
Although citizens are not focusing on the prospective presidential nominees now, some general impressions about the candidates have begun to form. The most striking involve the two-best known Democrats, Walter F. Mondale and John Glenn.
Mondale has a problem in New Hampshire. Many people around the state think of him as a loser. That attitude exists among those who believe him to be the best-qualified Democrat, and also among some who are publicly listed as being his supporters.
The principal reason for this impression appears to be the way Mondale is associated in many people's minds with the past, and particularly with Jimmy Carter, who seems to be more unpopular here today than he was in 1980.
Emile D. Beaulieu, the Democratic mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire's largest city, said bluntly of Mondale: "He's front-runner right now, but he's not going to be able to do it." When asked why he thought that, the mayor replied: "Well, he's lost. At one point, as vice president, he was associated with the Carter administration. He still has that stigma. People will say he's a loser."
The point is not that Mondale will be unable to change that sort of impression when voters get down to the serious business of really focusing on the respective candidates. The point is that the impression exists. It comes up instantaneously in conversations all over the state. So, correspondingly, does Glenn benefit at this point from a simple but widely expressed feeling. Again, the mayor: "I think Glenn's going to come out ahead because of being an American hero like Eisenhower."
That impression, too, can change as voters begin examining the candidates' positions and the way they respond to hard questions on the issues. But at this early stage Glenn clearly benefits from a personal feeling that people express about him without a moment's thought: he's the hero and hometown boy, and, like Ike, that's that.
The real value in taking the preliminary pulse of New Hampshire now before the great lumbering political caravan forms at the Massachusetts border has nothing to do with surface impressions about political personalities. It involves the broader concerns of citizens and what they would like to see the candidates addressing as they swing through New Hampshire. Like John Sherburne, a Republican and Reagan voter last time, they want to hear serious discussion about those concerns.
This reporter was struck by how many people seemed receptive to different political viewpoints. Present polls notwithstanding, that includes Reagan voters in this ardently pro-Reagan state.
Up in the White Mountains, Dick Hamilton, a New Hampshire tourism promoter, registered Republican and Reagan voter last time, put it this way:
"I could vote for somebody other than Reagan. I'm open. Of course we have a unique situation in that you get a chance to see them all here in New Hampshire. In very few other areas of the country does the ordinary citizen have a chance to walk up to John Glenn and say, 'How do you feel about acid rain?' Or walk right up to Walter Mondale and say, 'What are you going to do about the environment? What are you going to do about taxes?'
"There are very few places in this country where that can happen. That's the unique value of New Hampshire. We can do that. And I really think for the most part the New Hampshire citizen takes that responsibility seriously."
If he and Sherburne are in any way typical of this state's voters, the 1984 New Hampshire ballots could prove to be far more interesting than usual. That is, if the candidates give them something more substantive to chew on than stale briefing books from the last campaign.