Q&A with Journalist John Milne

John Milne, former reporter for United Press International and The Boston Globe and former editor of the defunct weekly newspaper New Hampshire Times (and a current contributor to thelobbynh.com) is editor of “Crosscurrents of Change: Concord, NH in the 20th Century,” a history of the capital city that was recently published by the Concord Historical Society.

Milne came to Concord to cover the 1972 primary and returned to edit the New Hampshire Times in 1980. He’s been there since.

Q. Were you always interested in history?

A. To understand the politics of New Hampshire, you have to understand the context that came before it, and that was [Styles] Bridges and the whole tension between progressive Republicans and conservative Republicans. The [Walter] Peterson election and [Meldrim] Thomson elections crystallized that tension. The way Thomson and [Union Leader publisher William] Loeb defined conservatism, the great Republican progressive tradition shrivels and shrivels, and by the time [John] Sununu becomes governor, it’s just gone. The best way to understand that is to understand the tension of the two sides of the party in the early part of the century.

Q. How did you get involved in this project?

A. A lot of kind of senior folks in the community decided that Concord needed a separate historical society. They put together a board and decided the first thing they wanted to do was to write a history book. I took the job on to give back something to the community.

We started about four years ago to actually write it. The board made the strategic decision to raise money [$125,000] for the production of the book, so any earnings would go in endowment for the society. The art director was Geoff Forester, who had been photo editor at the Monitor and the Globe. He collected a lot of the pictures.

Q. How is the society marketing the book?

A. It’s available at Gibson’s Books, at the New Hampshire Historical Society museum, the State House bookstore, the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. We are trying to figure out if people can buy the book through the website. We’ve sold several books at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings. We are probably going to make a really big push at the end of the summer to set up an opportunity for people to buy the book for Christmas.

Q. What were the biggest changes that affected Concord’s development?

A. Concord moved from a railroad hub to an increasingly service-dominated economy, aside from state government. At one point in the late 1980s, the insurance business had many more employees than the railroad. It was a wonderful contribution to the community — a white-collar business that didn’t pollute and made a lot of money. Now what you see in Concord is that the largest employer is the hospital.

The big discovery for me was the way the progressive impulse led to a traditional public service, the lawyers and bankers. The same people are everywhere. [Former Chubb Life President] John Swope’s characterization of it was, “The Notables.” It was both people doing well by doing good, with a degree of peer pressure to be charitable.

One of “The Notables” was Jim Langley, publisher of the Monitor, who made Concord a planned community years before any other community in the state. The Notables believed that their decisions were best for the community. As you got into the late ’50s and late ’60s, there were an increasing number of people who were cut out of the participation in public affairs.

And that’s where Herbert Quinn comes along. He believes that this management by the Notables was corrupt. He gets elected mayor and seeks to shake things up. The existing establishment fights him tooth and nail, and when Quinn tries to get Langley picked up for drunken driving, they impeach him and remove him from office. I think there was a positive outcome. The city realized that more people had to participate.

Q. Talk about the tension between development and conservation in Concord.

A. If you have a community almost entirely dependent on the property tax, the conservation impulses of the 1970s become luxuries by the time you get to the 1990s. You find the limits on growth produce growing costs on your property tax. That’s where [Mayor William] Veroneau comes along, who wanted an increase in the tax base. That’s when guys like [developer Steve] Duprey take advantage of all the public finance opportunity to produce a more significant change. I actually think it’s good to have tension between conservation and growth. I think what we have now is a reasonable consensus.