John Kerry is coming to our firehouse again on Sunday. He’s always at our firehouse.
I saw him the last time he came. That’s when I finally understood why it’s so great to be a New Hampshire primary voter. It was late November. My wife Hanna, our two children, and I had recently arrived in Hampton, N.H., for a three-month stay. Hanna was covering the Democratic primary campaign for the Washington Post. I was taking a leave from Slate to write a book about a sperm bank. I had planned to hole up in our rented beach house, pound out a draft, and ignore the primary. But a couple of weeks after we got there, she persuaded me to join her at a Kerry “Firehouse Chili Feed.” The firehouse is just around the corner, and I figured that at least the kids and I could cadge a free dinner.
Kerry does a Firehouse Chili Feed almost every night he’s in New Hampshire. (This is a strategy that may win him voters, but can’t win him friends in the campaign van. It may also explain why his wife says she has spent only six nights with him in the past three months. Beano, Senator?) About 100 people are in the firehouse when we arrive. Probably a quarter of them are journalists. I am wearing a stained sweatshirt and three days of beard. I am carrying my 6-month-old son in a front pack and holding my 3-year-old daughter’s hand. I notice reporters checking me out while Kerry talks. It isn’t hard to figure out what they’re thinking: I’m the only person there under 50 who is neither a campaign aide nor a working journalist. Plus, I have kids! As soon as Kerry finishes, I am set upon. A Boston TV reporter points a camera at me and asks what a “New Hampshire voter like you” thinks of the senator. I demur, pointing out that I am a journalist’s spouse and a Washingtonian. I brush off a Concord Monitor reporter with the same excuse. A Kerry aide hands me a clipboard and tries to sign me up on a mailing list. Another Kerry aide thrusts a bumper sticker at me, and offers to paste it on my car, since my hands are full. Finally, a sleek young woman accosts me. “I work with Gwen Ifill at the NewsHour.” She points across the room, where Gwen Ifill is indeed standing. “Gwen really wants to interview you about Kerry. Gwen saw you and said, ‘Get me the dad.’ ”
I turn Gwen down, but “Get Me the Dad” becomes my slogan. I decide to spend the remaining weeks of the campaign as an uncommitted voter. I will be one of those insufferable New Hampshirites. I will be so “flinty” that you could chip arrowheads off my elbows. I will Live Free or Die. The plan improves when I discover I don’t even have to fake it. Astonishingly, we are eligible to vote in New Hampshire, thanks to our long-standing residence of six weeks. I change my registration from D.C. to New Hampshire. Hanna, with admirable ethical restraint, doesn’t switch hers. I’m giddy. I’m a genuine uncommitted voter. I have been immersed in politics since I was a baby, yet because I have always lived in Democratic D.C., I have never cast a vote that mattered. I have never been pandered to. All this is about to change.
The populated part of New Hampshire is about the size of my living room. With nine candidates careening around it like pool balls, it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting struck by one. In November and December, the candidates make themselves alarmingly accessible. When I see Wes Clark speak in late November, I can’t avoid getting my hand shaken. I slouch in the corner, yet still he hunts me down. (Now I know how Slobodan Milosevic must have felt.) I am accustomed to seeing politicians in their Washington captivity, cordoned off by aides and hustled into waiting Town Cars. It’s thrilling to see them here in the state of nature. New Hampshire really does force candidates to behave almost like regular people.
For a while, that’s a great spectator sport. But what first seems like refreshingly direct, grass-roots politics eventually irritates the hell out of me. We New Hampshirites pride ourselves on our honesty, which means we think it’s our obligation to be surly and entitled. After a few events, this no longer seems charming. It’s just rude. To the guy at the nursing home outside Manchester: Do you think you could at least stop chewing while Gen. Clark talks to you? Yes, it’s lunchtime, but the man is a four-star general and quite possibly the next president of the United States. Does he really need to see your spittle?
And firehouse man: I know that it’s very important for Sen. Kerry to understand the concerns of average New Hampshirites like us, but do you think he really needs a five-minute tête-à-tête with you about your higher property taxes? You want to know what he’s going to do about your tax hikes? How about … nothing? He’s running for president, not town supervisor.
Still, I’ll take the inconsiderate, self-important voters any day over the Deaniacs, with their rhythmic clapping and gape-mouthed awe. Until the Dean collapse started a couple of weeks ago, these people seemed to be everywhere, like Hare Krishnas in the ‘70s. Any time I went to Portsmouth, it felt like I might be engulfed in a spontaneous Dean be-in. As with any cult, the Dean phenomenon was more interesting for its disciples than its leader. I saw Dean once in November and once in January, and he made very little impression on me: He talked fast and seemed cocky, that’s about all I remember. But the audiences! I felt like I was visiting the People’s Republic of Deanistan, a North Korea for Yankees. The Dear Leader’s followers cheered when he hadn’t said anything worth applauding. They laughed riotously even when, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t said anything funny.
The Dean cult already feels like a distant, bad dream. The Deaniacs are decathecting rapidly. Yesterday I talked to my New Hampshire Deaniac friend. Three weeks ago, he had that glassy look in his eyes. Last night, he told me he would probably vote for Clark. It’s as though Dean’s Iowa loss—or rather, his demented Iowa concession speech—kicked them in the head. The deprogramming is in full swing. Wait, maybe I don’t need to give the Dear Leader my life savings, $77 at a time. Maybe I can go to a movie instead of another damn Meetup. Maybe I can stop blogging.
After a couple of months as an uncommitted New Hampshire Democrat, I have learned a ton about the candidates, which is great. But the buzz of living the primary has worn off. I’ve seen too many commercials, been asked to sign too many clipboards. After three months of pandering, after “Cups of Joe with Joe” and “Conversations with Clark,” I can’t wait to leave. In November, it was exciting to see the general bumble his way through a Q & A with high-school students. But when Clark campaigned at my gym last week, I thought, enough already. He did wrist curls and buttonholed the one other guy who was working out. Is nowhere safe from the pols, not even the weight room?
Of course you don’t have to pay attention. Every New Hampshirite is liable to stumble across a candidate now and then—”Can you spot me on the bench press, General?”—but most don’t seek out candidates. It’s a small posse who drive the process. There are 1.3 million people in New Hampshire, but only 10 percent of them will vote in the Democratic primary, and only a tiny fraction of them are actively participating. The same people attend event after event. I have started to recognize them, or at least the types: the Medicare crank, the corn subsidies bore, the property taxes man …
The most surprising fact about my time here is that not a single New Hampshirite I have met outside a political event has ever started a conversation about politics. They talk about the Hampton sewage moratorium, the Patriots, the wind chill. It’s possible to live in New Hampshire and not care about the Democratic primary. It’s even possible to live in New Hampshire and not see Joe Lieberman for several days in a row.
In November, the good citizens of New Hampshire announced their indifference. The owners of Manchester’s new minor league baseball team declared they were naming it the New Hampshire Primaries. There was outrage; there was dissent. Team owners bowed to the popular will, and put the team name to a vote. On Dec. 3, the results were announced. The team will be called the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. The New Hampshire Primaries finished fifth and last in the vote, behind such dogs as the Manchester Millers and the New Hampshire Granite. The New Hampshire Primaries got 627 votes. That’s Dennis Kucinich territory. Even in New Hampshire, even in primary season, enough is enough.