Savoring American Democracy on Skis

State Sen. Burt Cohen on skis

I’m in New Hampshire this week combining two of my favorite pastimes: cross-country skiing and politics. I don’t know of anywhere else you can engage in these activities simultaneously, and even here the opportunity comes just once every four years. But for one magical week, spanning the first-in-the-nation caucus in Iowa and the first-in-the-nation primary, the energetic political tourist can spend his mornings glissading through silent New England forests and his evenings savoring American democracy in an antique frame.

Iowa, you can keep your barren expanses, your hormone-bloated T-bones, your ethanol pandering, and your incomprehensible caucus rules. I’ll take New Hampshire with its church steeples, tax phobia, and the pumpkin glow of warm colonial houses on snowy evenings. Here, the candidates move without benefit of aircraft among the clapboard meeting halls, exposing themselves to the citizenry not merely for pictures that will be broadcast to the rest of the country but actually to campaign for disproportionately valuable votes. Soon, the survivors of Iowa and New Hampshire will disperse around the country, following their separate scenarios for victory. But for the coming week, they’ll all be on view in a compact orbit, as they ricochet around the relatively populous southern part of the state.

I’ve skied here surreptitiously during the past two election cycles, getting in an early morning workout here and there before chasing candidates. This time, with others doing the serious coverage for Slate, I’m mixing skiing and politics openly—partly in the spirit of multitasking and partly just to see if anything interesting happens when you bring these two unrelated activities into juxtaposition. In that spirit, I’ve asked a few guests to hit the trails with me. Al Sharpton has yet to respond to my invitation. But Burt Cohen, a Democratic state senator who is running a long-shot campaign for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Judd Gregg was happy to oblige me with a Nordic interview Sunday morning.

Odiorne Point State Park

Burt represents the southeast coastal area that includes Portsmouth, and he wanted us to ski in his district. He directed me to meet him at a place called Odiorne Point State Park on the Atlantic coast just north of the town of Rye, where sprawling Victorian piles belonging to tax exiles from Massachusetts overlook a Winslow Homer seascape. The park commemorates the place where English settlers first landed in New Hampshire in 1623 and made a fort to keep the cattle in and the Indians out. There’s no touring center here, so you have to bring your own gear. But one of the great things about cross-country skiing is that when you find a picturesque spot, you can lock into your bindings and just go. This relatively flat park was not challenging skiing, but on a mild day like Sunday, it was entirely pleasant. Though the snow along the coast tends to be sketchy, we had just enough.

As we glided along the rocky coastline, Burt told me he endorsed John Kerry a year ago because he thinks he can win; he longs to see Kerry make mincemeat of George W. Bush in a debate. Another factor was that Kerry came to his house and asked for his endorsement; local politicians like Burt get VIP treatment during primary season. As a Senate candidate, it also made sense for Cohen to support a potential future colleague.

Citizens of Newport await Gen. Wesley Clark

Burt has stuck with Kerry, despite Kerry’s failure to bond much with New Hampshire voters, at least thus far. But in truth, he sounded far more excited about Wesley Clark, who by virtue of his decision to skip Iowa has been the dominant presence here in the past week. As he pointed out as we passed the grand 19th-century Wentworth Hotel (which Burt helped to save from demolition), “an endorsement in New Hampshire means one vote—at most.”

The second part of Sunday’s itinerary involved a long haul across Mount Sunapee to the town of Newport, where Wesley Clark was holding one of what he calls “conversations” with voters. The town was a classic; outside the elementary school where the event was being held, a few families night-skated on the iced-over village green. Inside the school gymnasium, three or four hundred serious-minded Newporters watched a biographical film while waiting for the general to arrive.

I had only seen Clark in person once before—a couple of months ago, when his inexperience was still his most notable attribute as a public performer. He buried his head in his text and didn’t do much to capture his audience. He has improved drastically since then, polishing his presentation and boning up on the issues. Tonight he was passionate, funny when he tried to be, and surprisingly substantive on a series of domestic policy questions.

Getting to know the general

Dressed in the hunter green sweater he bought with Chris Suellentrop, Clark began with an attack on Bush that yielded nothing to Howard Dean. “He took us into war without a plan for what happens next,” Clark thundered. “We’re in a mess in Iraq. That’s not patriotism—it’s bad leadership, and I intend to hold George Bush accountable.” After this rabble-rousing, Clark cooled down and gave a comic rendition of his evolution as a religious mongrel (Jewish father, Methodist mother, now a practicing Baptist). He also explained why he chose the Democratic Party over the Republican (“I’m pro-choice, pro-labor, and pro-environment; I would have been the loneliest Republican in the country”). In answering questions, he tried to draw a personal connection to this issue wherever possible, without making his connections sound contrived the way professional politicians often do.

The Wesley Clark I saw tonight is no longer running just on the theoretical advantage of a military man’s “electability” in a race against Bush. His time in New Hampshire has made him into something he was not a couple of months ago: a candidate who looks and sounds as if he really could get elected.