The New Hampshire presidential primary reminds me of an elderly and beloved high school history teacher my beautiful and talented daughter once had. This gentleman, years before, had taught Vice President Richard Nixon's daughter Julie.
Over lunch one day, I asked the history teacher (whose own politics were almost the polar opposite of Nixon's) what Richard Nixon was really like. He told me that in high school, Julie had played on the field hockey team. This, of course, was long before Title IX and before any real coverage of women's sports. The history teacher told me that Nixon had faithfully attended nearly all of his daughter's field hockey games and driven the car-pool to school, and that he and Mrs. Nixon had been frequent chaperons at school dances.
"Stop," I interrupted. This was obviously not what I had wanted to hear. My daughter's teacher was shattering all my preconceived biases against Nixon. But I did understand a little better why Julie Nixon Eisenhower had been, throughout Watergate, her father's most loyal and appealing defender.
What's he really like? That's the question the New Hampshire primary and this state's voters ask every four years -- and answer -- about the candidates for president. Here, in the gym of the Veterans Memorial Hall in Derry, Vice President Al Gore held a two-hour town meeting with 400 voters described as "undecided."
Paul Needham, 39, a Derry town counselor, was quite definite about what he wanted Gore to be like: "He has to be straightforward, down-to-earth -- no `controlling legal authority' tonight" (referring to the terminally ridiculous rhetorical smoke screen the vice president had used to rationalize political fund-raising calls from a government phone).
When family nurse practitioner Wendy Wright, 33, spoke, she was eloquent. "I'm exhausted emotionally. I'm exhausted physically [because] HMOs are demanding that nurse practitioners see 35 to 40 patients a day [and] that we conduct an examination and make an assessment in just 10 minutes." The vice president listened to Wright and praised the Patients' Bill of Rights legislation backed by congressional Democrats. At the end of the evening, with characteristic New Hampshire understatement, Wright revealed approvingly that Gore "met my expectations."
Craig Gustafson, 36, a teacher from Salem, was more effusive: "I think he [Gore] was wonderful." But Gustafson was "still undecided." Needham gave a thumbs up. "Overall, he has improved a lot."
This is New Hampshire, where presidential candidates, no matter how lofty their poll numbers or their official positions, must campaign "retail" in a brand of person-to-person politics that requires would-be presidents to answer real questions, some of them silly, from voters. There is something wonderfully democratic about a presidential candidate standing at a factory gate pleading his case to a blue-collar American who packs a lunch and punches a clock. In that exchange, the candidates, and maybe the country, are beneficiaries.
Because of its size, New Hampshire provides the underdog with a real chance. Here, an underfinanced and undercover long shot, through time, stamina and the appeal of ideas and words, can retail the primary electorate. Here, the underdog has been able to compete with the front-runners, their big media buys and bulging campaign treasuries.
Of course, an argument can be made for any small state and for rotating the first national primary among the smallest states. But New Hampshire has it now and shows no sign of wanting to share that honor with anybody else. To their credit, the people of New Hampshire take their responsibility seriously. In 1996, 74 percent of registered Republicans voted in the primary. That same year, with Bill Clinton running unopposed in his party's primary, nearly half of registered Democrats voted in the primary.
Perhaps the most persuasive case against the New Hampshire primary is that it has been an employment opportunity for the state's Republican governors who backed primary winners and later became White House chiefs of staff -- Sherman Adams for Ike, and John Sununu for George Bush.
Once again, New Hampshire will be where the presidential contest officially begins, and where for many, it ends.