Walter Shapiro

Wendy Wasserstein used to say that one of the joys of having a play on Broadway was knowing that you always had someplace you could go in the evening (and Wednesday and Saturday matinees). For a political reporter in New Hampshire who has been locked in his room writing all day, the favored alternative to a bleak and solitary evening is going to see a candidate make his pitch. So, after finishing my newspaper column Thursday, animated far more by interest in human connection than in compassionate conservatism, I headed off to nearby Londonderry to hear Dubya give a dinner address to the Rockingham County Republican Party.

Given my spotty record with nighttime driving, there should have been scant surprise when I missed the Executive Courtyard Conference Center and had to backtrack five miles–and that turnabout came only after suffering the ultimate male indignity of having to ask directions. But when I belatedly arrived at the right place, I was confronted with a baffling new mystery: the stunning absence of a satellite uplink truck and, for that matter, Republicans. I thought Bush had seemed a little shaky in Wednesday night’s debate, but this was ridiculous. Finally, a lone security guard played Holmes to my befuddled Dr. Watson and explained that the Bush dinner was Friday night. In skimming my political e-mail, I had read the wrong day’s schedule.

Feeling unlucky but still plucky, I headed off to watch the State of the Union at the storied Wayfarer Inn, the political equivalent of a bar stool at Cheers. As I strolled confidently into the bar shortly after 8 p.m., the projection TV was obligingly tuned to CNN, but aside from a few CBS techies discussing union work rules, the rest of the crowd consisted of apolitical locals and airline crews.

Downcast and defeated, I headed back to my convenient, but decidedly unchic, hotel in Manchester. This was the moment when I finally understood how Cal Ripken felt when he had to sit out a baseball game because of back spasms. My streak was over–I had to dine alone.

(Memo to Bill Clinton: If this is truly the best of all possible times to be an American, as you so modestly claimed Thursday night, then why was Citizen Shapiro reduced to eating oversauced and undercooked roast chicken at something called the Nuthatch Ale House?)

The morning papers all but place a funeral wreath around Bill Bradley–and the polls giving Gore a double-digit edge were taken before even what I, as a card-carrying Clinton critic, acknowledge was the president’s bravura State of the Union performance. If Bradley loses New Hampshire, there will be a chorus of party hacks calling on him to withdraw from the race. Their argument: Don’t let the other 48 states vote, since Iowa and New Hampshire, which represent less than 2 percent of the Democratic electorate, are always infallible.

Now for today’s political quiz question: Since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa caucuses on the map in 1976, has anyone been elected president after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire? (I will reveal the answer in a minute.)

Once this final installment of the “Diary” is completed, my next print deadline (for my Monday column) will be nearly 60 hours away. At the pace I’ve been going, that’s like being told that you can take a year off to write a novel. Normally, I would dart home for a day and return Saturday morning for my final pre-primary reporting. Instead my wife, Meryl, will be joining me this afternoon in my palatial corner room at the Sheraton Four Points with its Ozzie and Harriet twin beds. (Monday, on her birthday, we will decamp to Boston for 24 hours at the God-do-I-need-a-little-luxury-in-my-life Four Seasons.)

The reason I’m tarrying in New Hampshire today is my moonlighting second career. While other pundits revel in their green-room life as TV talking heads, I have, for the last four years, taken the less-traveled route of regularly performing stand-up comedy. And tonight, in what will be the capstone of my show-business career, I will be playing the legendary Crystal Room at the Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn in Manchester. Eat your heart out, Jerry Seinfeld.

Adrenaline junkie that I am, I will be spending my first day off since the Muskie campaign mentally concocting political jokes and rehearsing them with a tape recorder. (An odd thing about stand-up: If I write out my material, instead of creating it organically on tape, it ends up sounding like I’m leavening a few jokes into a prepared speech.) Having taken a two-month hiatus from my First Annual North American Farewell Tour to cover the campaign, I am confronted with the dismal reality that my standard routine is so long in the tooth that I was still telling Naomi Wolf gags. So, I’ve been running through my mind possible joke topics a little more cutting-edge than Alan Keyes and the mosh pit. There’s something inherently funny, I figure, in the revelation by Frank Bruni in the New York Times that Bush carries his beloved feather pillow with him on the road. (What would Gore bring? Or Gary Bauer? I’ll take suggestions.) Also, can I create a riff off Clinton’s subconscious need to sabotage Gore as reflected in Thursday night’s “liberal, I mean, livable communities”?

As I prepare to move off this stage for a real one, we have only one piece of unfinished business: the answer to the quiz question. In 1992, Bill Clinton (the self-proclaimed “Comeback Kid”) lost Iowa to favorite son Tom Harkin and New Hampshire to Paul Tsongas.