Defining NH Politicians With One Phrase

The "Between the Commas" Identifiers That Sum Up Politicians



Illustration by Peter Noonan

The moment President Barack Obama was sworn into office no accomplishment or failure from that point on would change how the first line of his obituary will read. That line can already be submitted to the newspaper copy editor:

President Barack Obama, the first black American president, died today.

That is what some refer to as a “between the commas” identifier. What is placed in between the commas after a name is probably the most important words in any story about any person in any walk of life. It could be a rock star defined by a hit song, a record-breaking athlete or person best known for devotion to family.

As a journalist who covers politics blow by blow for my day job, it is often easier to pay attention to who won the political battle of the day or the campaign of the year, but the battle to change the words between the commas is often more fascinating to watch play out. While millions can be spent and hours can be devoted to winning a campaign, what is said between the commas about a person not only can take a lifetime to craft, but endures as a legacy much longer than any type of campaign.

"What is said between the commas about a person not only can take a lifetime to craft, but endures as a legacy much longer than any type of campaign."

John H. Sununu, for example, is known as former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff. John Lynch, between the commas, is often referred to as the longest-serving New Hampshire governor in the modern era. Ray Burton, of Bath, has two between-the-commas monikers: the longest-serving executive councilor in state history and, more affectionately, the mayor of New Hampshire’s North Country.

Some, like Governor Maggie Hassan, are still developing what will be written between their commas.

Those few words really matter for political candidates in the heat of a campaign. During last year’s campaign there were many accurate ways a candidate could be described. For example, should then-Democratic Congressional candidate Annie Kuster be described as an attorney or as a lobbyist? Was Republican candidate for governor Kevin Smith written up between the commas as a conservative activist or a former state representative? During the campaign Smith’s opponent, Ovide Lamontagne, was referred to, between the commas, as either a former US Senate candidate, a former Republican nominee for governor and as someone who has never won an election.

Watch this dynamic play out this year in the early stages of the presidential primary — still three years away. Potential presidential candidates that 99 percent of New Hampshire residents have never heard of will be visiting the state in droves. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, is one of them. (See what I did there?)

Even Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady/New York Senator/New Hampshire Primary winner/and former Secretary of State, will re-introduce herself to help determine what is said between the commas.

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