Fierce Defender: Bill Gardner

Photo by P.T. Sullivan

Every four years Bill Gardner becomes the center of the political universe. As Secretary of State, he has the sole power to set the date of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary. And because by law the primary must be at least a week ahead of any similar contest, setting the date can be dicey.

It's become especially so in recent years as states have tried to leapfrog in front of New Hampshire so they can grab the glory (oodles of attention and campaign money) that has been ours. But it's never too dicey for Gardner, who has been Secretary of State for 35 years. He has managed to defend the primary against every challenge. He does it even if he has to move the primary to an impossibly-early date in December, which he said he would do this year if he must. The leapfroggers caved, of course, and the Clark-Kentish Gardner had again done some leaping himself - over another tall building, the usual January date in hand.

How many governors have you worked with or served under? I have known or worked with 14 governors, every one since Sherman Adams, who was first elected in 1948. I have served under nine governors.

What's the biggest thing that's changed, primary-wise, over the years? The way it's covered by the media. Until the 1980s we had the three major networks, CBS, NBC and ABC. Now we have access to hundreds of channels and unlimited forms of electronic communication. Today, the reporting of news is instant.

Would you really have moved the primary to early December to keep it first? Yes.

Why is it so important to preserve the tradition? Keeping the dream alive that anyone can run for president without regard to fame or fortune.

You seem to be the center of the political universe for a time every four years. How does feel? It's certainly a change of pace but my preference would be to do without it.

Has Iowa stolen some of our thunder? I wouldn't say they stole it. We let them.

Forty candidates usually sign up - what's the most ever? Sixty-one candidates for president in 1992.

Did a gorilla really run once? A chimpanzee in a white tuxedo came to file on behalf of a gorilla. The 475-pound gorilla was not allowed in the Statehouse. The chimp got a bit rambunctious and ended up hanging from a light fixture attached to the ceiling. The chimp was the gorilla's campaign manager.

Other than the gorilla, what's the funniest thing to happen in your office? A candidate brought some hula dancers one day who performed in my office. The candidate then asked that if I liked their show would I be willing to waive the filing fee. Of course, I could not waive the filing fee, but they put on a good show.

Most interesting? Paul Fisher, who ran in the primary against John F. Kennedy in 1960 and again in 1992. He invented the Fisher pen that was used in outer space.

What will you remember most from dealing with the primary? Getting to know so many colorful characters who have filed over the years.

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