Say it ain’t so, Joe

December 5, 2022 5:31 am

Joe Biden greets people at the State House in Concord after filing for the New Hampshire primary at the Secretary of State’s Office on Nov. 8, 2019. (Geoff Forester | Concord Monitor)

One afternoon soon after I came to Concord to run the Monitor newsroom in 1978, Tom Gerber, the affable editorial page editor, stopped by my office to ask if I wanted to meet John Glenn. Who would say no to that?

On the way to the Holiday Inn, Tom told me that Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and now a U.S. senator, might run for president one day. If he did, Tom said, he needed to get to know the editors at the Monitor.

This was the beginning of an amazing journey. For the next three decades, I would lead the Monitor’s coverage of eight first-in-the-nation primaries, meeting every president and interviewing nearly every major candidate. In the last one, in 2008, I had the pleasure of covering the campaign as a reporter and columnist.

Now President Joe Biden wants to strip New Hampshire of its distinction as the first place where Democratic candidates face a direct vote for the nomination. It is no surprise that Biden is the bearer of this message. His own primary experience here is long and agonizing.

I was in a gathering crowd at Representatives Hall in 1987 when Biden, then a spry 44-year-old senator, was scheduled to make a big step in his primary run. He never showed up. He had quoted a speech from a British politician without attribution and was soon forced out of the race for appearing to have plagiarized it.

In December 2007, I went to a Concord nursing home to cover a Biden town meeting. When only half a dozen residents showed up, Biden’s assistants cleared away three dozen empty folding chairs. Biden came in smiling, pulled up a chair, and announced that he would hold a roundtable discussion rather than a town meeting. He launched into a spellbinding talk about the car crash that had killed his wife and daughter and his determined effort afterward to be a good father to his sons. Biden received 638 votes in that year’s primary.

In 2020’s crowded field, he finished fifth with 8 percent of the vote.

That said, Biden’s effort to move South Carolina to the first primary spot is not a vendetta. He is not that kind of man. But he has no personal reason to defend the New Hampshire tradition and every reason to favor South Carolina. He smoked the field there 17 days after the 2020 primary here and later won the nomination. At a time when Black voters matter more than ever to Democratic fortunes, South Carolina is also a far more diverse state than New Hampshire. 

Not surprisingly, this state’s politicians are fighting for the primary’s place at the head of the nominating process. On their side is a state law requiring that New Hampshire hold its primary at least seven days before any “similar event.” 

As we await the outcome of this debate, this crisis seems like a good moment to examine how much the primary campaign has changed, mostly for the worse.

This was once a state of small newspapers that covered the primary campaign with vigor. In 2008, my last year at the Monitor, all 15 of our reporters took part in the effort. The editorial board interviewed every major candidate and endorsed in both races. Other dailies and even some weeklies made similar efforts. By 2020, no paper had enough journalists to provide such coverage. Nor do the small staffs of online news startups in the state.

Without in-depth stories and interview transcripts, where can the state’s voters turn for information? Increasingly, as we just witnessed in the midterm election, the answer is sound bites on the evening news, televised debates, snippets on the radio, and a deluge of hateful television ads from shady political interest groups.

Yes, there are still opportunities to see the candidates in person, but only a small percentage of voters takes advantage of this. And what do they get out of it? 

I lived elsewhere during the 2016 campaign, but I went to a dozen candidate events during the 2020 campaign. One aspect of them was truly dismaying.

Before I identify it, let me say that my favorite candidate of all time was the late John McCain. I went to many of his events in both 2000 and 2008, rode his campaign bus, and interviewed him several times. 

McCain had a habit of turning his campaign forums into long give-and-takes with the audience. At a forum in the Newport Opera House, he paced the crowded floor and often gazed up to call on people in the balcony. The first was a young man who loathed the GOP’s stance on the environment. McCain let him speak for some time before thanking him and giving a polite response. With the spotlight on the candidate and the crowd brimming with questions, I felt like I was in a Jimmy Stewart movie.

By contrast, at nearly every event I attended in 2020, the Q&A session was cut short so that those in attendance could line up to have their picture taken with the candidate. I succumbed to this temptation two or three times, but I always left these events yearning for the days when the stump speech was just a warm-up to the more important segment.

During my newspaper days, I asked many top national reporters for their opinions about our primary. The two answers I remember best (because I wrote them down) came from Theodore White, author of “The Making of the President” series beginning in 1960, and David Broder, who covered every presidential campaign from 1956 through 2008 for the Washington Post.

White’s response was terse and grouchy: “Get rid of the goddamn thing.” Broder’s was lyrical and biblical. “The New Hampshire primary will never die,” he said. “It’s in the Bible – the book of Revelation: ‘And New Hampshire shall lead them.’ ”

White and Broder are gone now, but within the next few months, we’ll see which of their sentiments prevails. I’m rooting for Broder’s, but either way, our primary will never play the role it once did.

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Mike Pride
Mike Pride

Mike Pride, a retired newspaper editor, is a writer and historian. His latest book is No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War.