The Less You Know

Presidential candidates look much better from a distance
Illustration by peter noonan

Hillary Clinton knows her way around New Hampshire and its presidential primaries. She knows the ropes, as the saying goes. She showed that in the way she roped off reporters and photographers from intruding on her parade in Gorham on the Fourth of July. It was her parade, wasn’t it? I mean, we all know that when Mrs. Clinton, the anointed front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and the pre-season favorite to be the next (and first female) President of the United States, marches in a parade, she is the main attraction and that makes it her parade.

Other presidential hopefuls are busy seeking out media attention in their multiple visits to New Hampshire. Visiting New Hampshire, the state with the quadrennial first-in-the nation primaries, is important for presidential candidates. Or is it? A brief look at the history of the New Hampshire primaries suggests that, as the old sayings have it, distance sometimes lends enchantment, while familiarity may breed contempt.

In Barry Goldwater’s epic battle with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for that early victory in New Hampshire in 1964, each man did such a thorough job of discrediting the other that they managed to convince Granite Staters that neither one was a whole lot better than a snake in the grass — or in the snow either. Henry Cabot Lodge, half a world away as the Ambassador to South Vietnam, won that primary as the beneficiary of a write-in campaign.

Come to think of it, General Eisenhower didn’t come here when he won the New Hampshire primary in 1952. Richard Nixon didn’t spend much time here in 1968 and as a candidate for reelection in 1972, Nixon went about as far from New Hampshire as he could get. He went to China, and the major media went with him. Sen. Vance Hartke of Indiana, one of eight or so Democrats running here, tried hard to impress the voters with his love for our state. “Vance Hartke loves New Hampshire!” he declared in a front-page ad in the Union Leader.  “Vance Hartke wouldn’t trade a square inch of New Hampshire soil for the whole damn wall of China!” And few New Hampshirites would trade their votes for Vance Hartke.

To be sure, Jimmy Carter practically lived in New Hampshire in 1976. But in 1980, when the Iran hostage crisis held him captive in the White House, Carter defeated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy here, despite the fact that Kennedy lived barely an hour away and could visit New Hampshire nearly as often as he wished. In 1992, good neighbor Paul Tsongas, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, won the New Hampshire primary, but it did him little good in the rest of the country. The same was true of Pat Buchanan, who won the GOP primary here in 1996. Bob Dole practically lived here through three or four election cycles, but second place was as close as he came.

Maybe Ike and Lodge had the right idea. Stay away and don’t give voters the chance to form negative impressions about you. As the late Don Madden, a former publisher of NH Business Review, was fond of saying, “The closer they get, the smaller they look.” Years earlier, Teddy Roosevelt’s rapier-tongued daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, said much the same about two-time Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey. “You have to know Dewey really well,” she said, “to dislike him thoroughly.” Maybe the candidates shouldn’t give us that opportunity. 

Categories: Humor