Cook On Concord: Memories of New Hampshire primaries past

A radio commercial urging people to record their recollections of the New Hampshire primary on a Web site prompted me to think of my own memories.

I should say that the first overt political act I remember taking was wearing an Eisenhower re-election button to school in 1956 when I was 8. The second was posting a Nixon/Lodge poster on the front of my house on election night, 1960.

Here are some others:

A few weeks before the March primary in 1968, then-Gov. George Romney of Michigan, the moderate Republican hope to derail Richard Nixon’s bandwagon, withdrew from the New Hampshire primary after having admitted frankly to having been “brainwashed” by the generals in Vietnam. While honest, the use of that word was used to reflect badly on Romney’s intelligence and he withdrew. That prompted a number of New Hampshire citizens to start a write-in campaign for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Professor John Beckett of the University of New Hampshire started the bandwagon rolling and with a small band of volunteers worked on the campaign for two or three weeks. I was one of the young student participants in this effort and it was exciting.

At one point, demonstrating in Plaistow before the Town Hall, a reporter of short stature but quick wit came off the bus. I did not catch his name, and he began interviewing me. Thirty seconds or so later it occurred to me what he had said his name was, and I said, “Wait a minute, did you say Teddy White, as in ‘The Making of the President?’” He said “Yes, now back to Rockefeller’s divorce…”

In 1972, the aforementioned Nixon was up for re-election. In the long tradition of not supporting the winner, I helped those who again were opposed to Nixon and supported Congressman Paul McCloskey of California who was running a shoestring effort. The McCloskey staff was so thin that they sent me to Concord as a “press aide” to brief such notables as Barbara Walters and David Brinkley. Returning to Durham on primary night, I had the opportunity to see Paul Newman with McCloskey as they toured the university prior to going to election headquarters at the old Highway Hotel in Concord. Nixon won the primary and election overwhelmingly, although the victory would be short-lived as Watergate loomed.

President Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, fought a hard battle against California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976, barely winning the New Hampshire primary, and then going on to win the nomination but lose the election in a close vote to former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. I remember Carter staying down the street and thinking, “That guy must be smoking something.” Another good prediction! That election probably was the last one in which moderate Republicans had much sway, future elections being between various candidates of the conservative, more conservative and most conservative variety, at least in the Republican primaries in which I was a participant. It also demonstrated Reagan’s charisma, since even in defeat the room seemed to rotate around him. I think it was in this primary that I took my wife and went to the bar at the Sheraton Wayfarer and saw most of the national press in one place.

In 1980, there were so many Republican candidates you could hardly select among them. For various reasons, I initially worked for former Texas Gov. John Connally who was going no place fast. On election day, I remember voting for Howard Baker of Tennessee, only to see him drop out the next day. Reagan won the primary and the general election and turned out to be much more of a president than those who had not worked for him in the primary had predicted.

It was in that primary election when Reagan uttered those famous words, “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green (sic).” On primary election night, I remember seeing William Casey, chair of the campaign and later head of the CIA, brief the press at the Holiday Inn at the Amoskeag Circle in Manchester.

In 1992, Patrick Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush in the primary and weakened him. Most organization Republicans worked for Bush, but the Union Leader and Buchanan chipped away at his stature and position, partially causing his defeat in November to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, one of the few Democrats gutsy enough to take on the incumbent. Ross Perot made the difference that year. It was a frustrating and nasty campaign without much of the fun of prior races.

In 2000, George W. Bush was the candidate to beat, and John McCain the challenger. It was thrilling to work for the insurgent candidate, and even more thrilling to be at the Nashua hotel on election night when McCain’s significant victory over Bush upset all predictions. Of course, Bush got his act back together in South Carolina and won the ultimate victory. Whether McCain can regain the spirit is one of the great questions this year.

My apologies to Democrats, who should record their own memories, since the New Hampshire primary as we have known it may be the subject of history books at some point. That would be a shame for our state and our country, which has been the ultimate beneficiary of the study New Hampshire people have done of those who would lead us all.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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