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Martin O'Neill © 2000

 

 
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A New Hampshire Diary

The New Hampshire Primary passed for me in an impressionistic blur of drinks, strip malls, handshakes and utter sleeplessness. What follows is an attempt to set down some of what happened ...

 

Dramatis Personae

The Democrats

Al Gore, Jr., Vice-President, inventor of the internet, one-time eco-warrior, alleged subject of the film Love Story, ultra-Washington insider masquerading as an independently-minded grandfather from Tennessee.

Bill Bradley, former Senator from New Jersey, basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Princeton intellectual and Oxford Rhodes scholar, Very Tall (6' 5"), allegedly professorial, deep-voiced, fleshy-necked, married to Ernestine -- a German Studies academic in the State University of New York system, serious, liberal and, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, the hoped for Good President, not seen (not really) since FDR.

The Republicans

George W. Bush, son of the father, imbecilic ignoramus, Governor of Texas, anointed successor, good ol' boy, habitué of the fabled Bob Jones University, Yale Brahmin, frat boy, backed by money beyond the dreams of simony. A disgrace.

John McCain, Senator from Arizona, "maverick", "outsider", long-time P.O.W. with a glint in his eye. A man who has spent more time confined to a tiger-cage in a Hanoi prison than George W. has spent as Governor of Texas. Of this man, much more later

The Three-Ringed, Ultra-Right-Wing Travelling Circus, a race to the very bottom of the deepest depths of fiscal and social conservatism, conducted by the unsightly trio of Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. Of these men, we will be hearing more very soon...

 

Psychogeography

Contrary to popular beliefs about white picket fences, small farms, wooded hillsides, and white-steepled churches, the New Hampshire primary is an affair conducted in an environment of uncharming little towns, de-industrialised cities and interminable strip malls. Whilst the state can boast the ecotopia of the White Mountains National Forest in its North, the "Southern tier", in which the vast majority of the state's people live, is mundane and unlovely. The four-yearly frenzy of democratic excess -- surely the strangest little electoral ritual in all of the liberal West, and the equivalent, perhaps, of the Labour and Conservative Party leaders being chosen by the voters of Norwich South -- takes place in a narrow corridor of generic Americana, bounded by Highway 3 and Interstate 93, and constituted by the towns of Nashua, Merrimack, Manchester, and Concord. If an English reader wants to get a feel for the terrain, they should try to envisage the London North Circular Road, severed at Neasden, and then re-arranged as an isosceles triangle.

This part of the state is populated by surprising numbers of French-Canadian-Americans, and by Boston commuters. It is distinguished, however, only by its curious level of political power -- notable only for the fact that it acts as gatekeeper for the politically aspirant, and must be courted and re-courted by those who wish to seize the reins of the Presidency. Correspondingly, it takes its politics seriously, and revels in its ability to set the national tone -- with the result that the state has developed an almost over-conscious political awareness, an almost modernist concern with their own concern. Coupled with this is a showy independence of outlook: license plates are emblazoned with the legend "Live Free or Die!" (the French Canadians, short on real power, seem destined to displace their contrary bellicosity into the most obvious semiotic vessels -- the license plates in Quebec chillingly informing the Anglophone that "Je me souviens"), and the Nouvelle Hampshirites are expert purveyors of a proud and independent Frontiersman-spirit-by-numbers. During primary week, an air of unreality hangs heavy in the air, as the narrow southern tier is repeatedly criss-crossed by seven men and their entourages, selling promises and expounding visions to an almost-too-interested audience.

It was into this surreal little scene that I found myself thrown, together with Comrades Dom Sandbrook and Joe Guinan, and our loyal driver and Passpartout, Don Conklin III, in the hectic final days of the Primary campaign (for Donald Conklin's own account of our New Hampshire trip, you can visit the rather excellent mired.com, and look at "Keyes to Victory" [10th Feb 2000], and "Latebreaking: Libby Speaks!" [17th Feb 2000]). We were there under a hybrid dispensation: partly as participants in the process -- as campaign workers for Bill Bradley -- and partly as the Observers for the Turtle. Throughout our stay, we would slip in and out of these roles: determined both to do our bit to aid Senator Bradley's campaign, and also occasionally to take our leave of our fellow activists, and strike out, incognito, into the camps of their enemies.

 

The Boys' and Girls' Club

Having departed from the auspicious starting point of Cambridge, Massachusetts' very own Irish Republican bar, The Plough and Stars, we arrived at the Nashua Boys' and Girls' Club in the early evening of the Saturday before the election. This gargantuan sports hall was to be our home, and that of many of the other out-of-state Bradley volunteers, until the end of the primary. In the manner of Kosovar refugees, we were to be billeted on the floor of a large gymnasium, in the company of four or five hundred others.

A sense of confusion and disorganization abounds. We are met by two gargantuan women from Georgia, just up for two days to work for Bradley, who inform us that all the other volunteers are out canvassing in Nashua town centre, and they have been left to hold the fort. One can only surmise that this is due to the belief among the Bradley campaign that their appearance -- i.e. that of two of the more outlandish guests on a particularly unpleasant episode of Rikki Lake -- would be such as to frighten the voters away from our candidate. We repair to Nashua, a small hub of New England smothered by the clogged arteries of its attendant suburban sprawl. We find the Bradley activists -- far outnumbering any of their competitors -- and join them in their guileless sign-waving ebullience. Bradley's volunteers are, uniformly, eighteen or nineteen years old, very well scrubbed and turned out, and are from either Georgetown or Rutgers, or places similar. There is a palpable sense of enthusiasm and hopefulness -- generated no doubt by the fact that many of them are taking part in their first political campaigns -- but there is little going on. This clearly not being where the action is, we hit the bars, and watch, I regret to report, the truly execrable Tyson-Francis fight. Back to the Boys & Girls Club, whisky, sleep, rise at 6 a.m. (in this little Sparta-on-Merrimack, the troops are kept on their toes by being shouted awake at dawn), cold showers (indeed), and then we escape (excusing ourselves any campaigning duties that morning), for we have a truly important appointment to keep: Mass with Alan Keyes...

 

A Load of Baloney:
The Beaming Demagogue and the Catholic Ultras

The French-Canadian church of Ste. Marie, Manchester NH, 9 a.m. A congregation looking like a cross between an advertisement for American apple pie wholesomeness, and something from the Stepford Wives. Catholicism à la David Lynch. Identical, clean-cut, attractive thirtysomething couples, with sprogs like steps of stairs -- anything from three to four to six or seven of them. As someone who has attended thousands of Catholic masses, I'd never seen anything like this in my life -- all these conformist, grinning, wholesome muppets. Nothing like an Irish parish in West London, I can promise you. Of course, in America, everything is like you might imagine it just could be, but more so. The priest is a Falstaffian oaf, seemingly beloved of his parishioners, who -- unfazed by the Keyes-attending TV cameras -- delivers a remarkably demotic homily, which includes the advice that Jesus wants us to "stop screwing up", and that we often lose track of our Christian mission by paying attention to things which are, ultimately, he claims, just "a load of baloney". Keyes is keeping a low profile, sitting near the back (following Jesus' own advice, no doubt), grinning like an E'ed up eejit, radiating positivity. He is handsome, well-dressed and carefully bearded. After Mass, we retire to a church hall for coffee and donuts. The parishioners of St. Marie's are most kind to the strange, interloping Englishmen, and furnish us with drinks and snacks. Everyone smiles a lot. Keyes -- a man who would outlaw abortion entirely as the first act of his Presidency -- is repeatedly commended for bringing "moral issues" (although not, presumably, those moral issues connected with poverty or healthcare or guns) to the "heart of the political process". We shake hands with him -- "Good luck, Ambassador" -- "Thank you, thankyouverymuch" -- and then escape.

What was going on there? Not that much. My guess is that this stop has done Keyes very little good. People are polite and soothingly deferent to him, but would be just as nice if it were Comrade Joe Guinan running for the Presidency on an anarcho-Leninist ticket. Most people in that church would be voting for Gore or McCain. They were Catholics of a stripe I'd not seen before, clearly much more aware of themselves as a religious and cultural minority than their London counterparts. Quebecois enthusiasts (French classes, masses in French, visits to Quebec, pictures of Monsignor Hevéy, and so on) surveying Manchester, NH from their little kingdom (church, school, sports hall, medical centre, shop, credit union) on top of the city's Western hill. But not out of touch with reality, and certainly not politically barmy in the way of a Keyes supporter. They were glad that Keyes had come, but were not sad that he would go, and that he would not be returning as their President. As for the man himself, his supercharged religious indignation could only look forced and buffoonish in the context of the easy-going and kind-hearted piety of these men and women.

I am now the proud owner, by the way, of a very strange political artefact -- the Ste. Marie church bulletin (Notre Dame Avenue, no less --last week's offertory collection $13,044.58 -- with an advertisement for the forthcoming Parish visit to the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec) signed by Alan Keyes. I will treasure it.

 

"How Many Angels on the Head of a Pin, Mr Bauer?"

One hour later. The Crowne Plaza Hotel, Nashua. The Republican Party committee of New Hampshire is playing host to all the candidates at a "campaign brunch". We have absolutely no right to be there whatsoever, but swagger in and are presumably assumed to be men from the press. Keyes -- a fast mover -- has already high-tailed it from Mass, said his bit, and headed off to the next venue. We arrive in time to see Gary Bauer and then Steve Forbes. The big-hitters have sent emissaries in their stead -- Elizabeth Dole on behalf of George W. Bush, some grizzled Vietnam POW on behalf of John McCain. So: a strange event -- a festival of the also-rans, the nutters: Bauer, Keyes and Forbes, those who would abolish tax, ban abortion, sever links with China, withdraw from the U.N., and build a multi-trillion dollar SDI ballistic missile defence shield over the continental U.S. (although how this was to be paid for was never quite made clear).

Gary Bauer is almost unbelievably small. Probably about 4' 10" or 4' 11", looking less like the man you saw on television, and more like a bubble-eyed Hobbit. Whilst Keyes was ritzy and excessive, Bauer is heart-breakingly sincere -- every word is careful and measured, and sounds genuinely meant. (It is amusing, though unfortunate, that Bauer's voice has much of the timbre and inflection of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, as in Dr. Evil's pronunciation of "laser" with the stress much-too-much on the first syllable -- Bauer's pronunciation of "Reagan" has exactly the same intonation). Of course, Bauer's opinions are dangerous and worrying. He would remake America as a socially antediluvian Theocracy, with a withered government presiding over runaway poverty and destitution, all backed up by a bankrupt mantra of family, "morality" and personal responsibility. But he's clearly devoted to what he thinks is right, his malodorous beliefs the product, one would like to think, of cognitive frailty rather than genuine malevolence. One has the impression that, were one to visit the Bauer house, one would be made welcome and would be well-looked-after, albeit that one would be made to say grace. At any rate, we say hello. He's pleased to meet us. After us, immediately, comes a local TV crew, and Bauer is asked the most bizarre and shocking question I'd ever heard raised in a political context. The exchange is as follows:

Interviewer: "Mr. Bauer, Alan Keyes has today gone on record as saying that life does not begin at the moment of conception, but is merely announced at that point. God has already created all the souls that will ever exist, and so life is eternal, but it is at the moment of conception that life -- which has no beginning -- has its entry to the world announced. How do you react to this?"

Mr. Bauer: 'I have made my opposition to abortion clear. My record blah . Evil of abortion, blah, et cetera.'

Interviewer: [Interrupting] "Yes, Mr Bauer. But does life begin at conception, or is it announced at conception? Please answer my question..."

To be honest, I have no idea which answer the interviewer took to be the correct one to this theologico-philosophical puzzler. But it was clear that Bauer was being tested -- was the form of words which he was going to use about abortion exactly the right one? If not, then he would be denounced not only as a pseudo-conservative, but as "soft on abortion". (Keyes, famously, described flat-taxer Forbes as "soft on the IRS", despite the fact that Forbes's campaign literature pledges to "crush" the Internal Revenue Service. Keyes would go further and abolish the income tax, to be replaced by a system of "tariffs and tolls"). That a candidate for the office of the Presidency, in a supposedly secular liberal democracy, in the early days of the twenty-first century, could be asked a question of this kind -- could be asked to state his exact position on a bizarre and esoteric metaphysical question, and thereby so he would reveal the exact and precise nature of his theological stripes, is striking, disturbing and sad. American politics is strange, and it involves disputes and issues which have been kept out of the political mainstream in Europe since the Wars of Religion. One can only be grateful that the minutiae of the views on creation, annunciation and coming-into-being of Frank Dobson or Glenda Jackson, or of Rhodri Morgan or Alun Michael, are not -- and thankfully will never be -- a matter of public record, let alone public concern, and certainly (with relief) are not a matter of press obsession. If one loses sight of the weird and uncanny nature of American politics, think of Bauer attempting to avoid heresy, and be reminded.

 

"Don't Let Those Critters Eat The Honey!"

Steve Forbes is a man of such utterly meagre talents that to imagine his candidacy encountering any success in the absence of his self-bankrolling billions is utterly impossible. He has, it would seem, one speech. Its central conceit is to suggest that the "political insiders" (who they?) in Washington are akin to "a bunch of bears", and that your Federal tax dollars are a "pot of honey", that "the bears" cannot avoid eating. His solution? Take away the honey. "Don't Give the Bears any More Honey!" As elegant as it is powerful, this is his one argument. It is political discourse on the level of a rubbish and uncompelling fairy-story. The only thing worse than the content of Forbes's one speech is the manner of its delivery. He is wooden, with a bizarre even inflection that suggests that he is barking a series of shopping-lists rather than delivering recognizable human speech. His stupid body also contorts in a rather unappealing way during his delivery -- his arms, bent at the elbow, arhythmically gesticulating up and down as he forces the words out of his mouth. Moreover, the speech has but one joke -- a deliberate mispronunciation of the "Infernal -- sorry -- Internal Revenue Service" -- which he fluffs utterly in a way that only the genuinely humourless could manage. A brief consultation of C-SPAN's video archives will reveal that this one speech -- replete with "honey pots" and "those darn Washington critters" has been delivered, verbatim, with the "joke" more-or-less fluffed each time, on dozens of occasions. Given that he was delivering that speech to a mixture of press and the local Republican Party hierarchy, one could guarantee that everyone in the room had heard that speech before. Given this, one can only admire the level of forbearance which allowed them to desist from storming the stage and murdering Forbes.

If seeing Gary Bauer quizzed about theological niceties highlights the pre-modern nature of American politics, then watching the hapless Steve Forbes in absurd mid-rant highlights its frequent lack of any genuine quality. Both, in their own way, are unknowingly hilarious, but with rather frightening undercurrents.

 

If Bob Dole With It, So Can You

Libby Dole -- wife of Bob (GOP loser to Clinton in 1996), past director of the American Red Cross, ex-candidate, friend of George W., shamelessly angling to be running-mate on the Bush ticket -- delivers a saccharine and contentless address. Of course, she is an old professional -- a veteran of the cabinets of Reagan and daddy Bush --, and so is a much more engaging performer than the pint-sized Bauer or the maniacally-inept Forbes, but it is easy to tell that her heart isn't really in it. Her speech is notable only for one image. She claims that, at home, she always leaves Bob to make the bed, she herself being a "strong and independent woman, y'all". Now, Bob Dole lost the use of one arm in World War II. (Strange physical disability being as common among Presidential candidates as among the roles which win Best Actor Oscars -- McCain cannot raise his arms above his shoulders and is in constant physical pain; Dole has one good arm; Bob Kerrey of Nebraska just one functioning leg. There is a strange masochism among the American electorate, coupled with a reification of suffering contracted in a martial context, which seems to promote those who have lost a limb to the Nazis or the Vietcong. Still, Lord Halifax had only one arm, and his was nothing to do with a grenade blast, or being shot down over Normandy, or being tortured at the Hanoi Hilton -- he was simply so inbred that, like Toulouse-Lautrec, he was born like that). At any rate, Elizabeth Dole tells us that Bob always makes the bed, and we imagine poor old septuagenarian, lop-sided Bob Dole battling manfully with a king-sized duvet, and suppress a giggle. But Bob wouldn't mind, he's a tough cookie. Bob Dole with it.

 

More O'Neill in New Hampshire soon!

In Part Two we'll have... Superbowl à la Bradley; the Bearded Campaigner, the British Embassy and the B.U. Teen; Tired & Emotional: Face Down in the Snow Many Miles from Home; John McCain: Small Hands, Big Man, Big Prospects; The Man Who Never Was; Vermin Supreme: Pinochet for President!; Brother West, Brother Bradley; The Good President: Nye Bevan at New Hampshire College; and Start Me Up -- You Make a Grown Man Cry: Mick and Keef Predict a Noble Failure...

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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