Northern Exposures:

Clinton Does the Democratic Primaries

 February 18, 1992


Sixteen and time to pay off i get this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe. forty hours thirty-six dollars a week but it's a paycheck, jack. -Patti Smith

Up close, Bill Clinton looks like he's covered in fresh fetal tissue. His skin is virtually poreless. The high, ample hair (a premium commodity in this race of semi-skinheads), the trim, pneumatic body, the tasteful but not unduly elegant suit, everything has been processed into movie star perfection. He could be a retired sports figure like Bruce Jenner, endorsing a home treadmill. Something in the grooming suggests one of those miniature species bred to win show ribbons, a Shetland pony or toy terrier.

Here amid the authentic wood-grain paneling of the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2 on Maple Street, in Manchester, a large and not unduly elegant crowd of Clinton people has wedged itself between the floor-level microphone and the cash bar. Someone, I'm not sure who, introduces Legion Post Commander Tom Murphy, "who is gonna do the pleasure of introducing Governor Clinton."

The locutions are pure Main Street New Hampshire. Regarding the candidate, Murphy says, "I have read much of what he stands for and espouses to." "It's my distinguished pleasure to honor and introduce to you"—and perhaps he really does say—"the next president of the United States," though the ante here is simply getting the numbers back to where they were before Gennifer Flowers. The will to believe is palpable in the room, if hardly overwhelming. There's a certain mild electric tension skimming off the synthetic fabrics and plastic cocktail glasses, roughly the voltage of the joy buzzer.

This is a grown-up crowd. There are infants and small kids and grandmothered swaddled in bright ski parkas and knitted beanies, but the main energy emits from men and women of a certain age who buy their clothes out of state and are no strangers to the cash bar of Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2. I mean that, as Nixon would say, in the best sense of cash bar. Here you have your conservative machine Democrats (what used to be called savings and loan Democrats), mingling with plumbing contractors and Goodyear franchise managers and district assemby-persons, the types that strike all sorts of sweet little deals in places like this on a normal weekday, many 100 per cent behind the candidate but ready to switch horses if the numbers today and tomorrow and next week don't play out as expected.

Clinton doesn't wait on too much fanfare. This is an earnest, flesh-pressing, I'm-not-there-yet-and-I-need-each-and-every-one-of-you speech. The point of the exercise is to find a credible way of projecting "concern" that these people are "hurting" Bush's euphemism for broke. What's Clinton's campaign all about? Three words: "fairness, responsibilitiy, and unity." Where do Republicans make their mistake? Well, for one thing, "most poor people get up in the morning and work" and therefore deserve government help. But let's not slip into socialism. This guy wants "to make more millionaires than Reagan and Bush, but the old-fashioned way." Empower those local governments. Crack down on corporations moving jobs out of the country. And let's have boot camps, military style, for some of our less hardened, first-time-felony criminals. While we're at it, let's enforce child support.

The platitudinous verbal droppings, more like noises one makes to stimular horses than actual thoughts, also resemble bromides from a soothing commercial for Preparation H: the proctologist, on close examination, has ruled against radical surgery in favor of something smooth and greasy and easy to dissolve in the collective rectum. In case anybody thought he was some woolly-haired tax-and-spend liberal, Funny Mister Bill throws in enough hard talk about welfare recipients and crime to make you forget he's a Democrat. For this particular crowd, he's already demonstrated his Americanism by letting a lobotomized Death Row inmate go to his end by lethal injection—one of the three hideously bungled, "painless" executions the same week in America. And if a fair number of conservatives, even New Hampshire conservatives, wince at the stark realtities of capital punishment, quite a few think it ought to be as painful as possible.

If Clinton cares jackshit about anything besides getting elected, it doesn't show on that eerily symmetrical face, a visage of pure incipience: soon-to-be-jowly and exophthalmic, a fraction past really sexy, but warmingly cocky, clear-eyed, with an honorary, twinkling pinch of humility. The accent has just enough grain, enough slow roll in it for people to recognize Good Old Boy with decent values and bootstraps pulled all the way up. His ideas are so lacking in genuine nuance or arresting detail that he might very well pass, if not now then later, as the statistically ideal mediocrity New Hampshire often favors, when it isn't workshipping some pathologically unpleasant, penny-ante fixer like John Sununu. Apart from bland-as-buckwheat officials with no fixed opinions on anything, the Granite State likes pissy, preening patently empty wastebaskets a' la Sununu to push its citizens around from time to time, exploiting them in sadistically unprofitable ways.

There is real social masochism in New Hampshire among the blue-collar immigrant stock of the southland. ("Southland" is my own term for south of Concord, east of Keane, not a New Hampshire term.) Those for whom "Live Free or Die" havs traditionally meant dropping out of 10 th grade and heading straight for Klev Bros. and Jody shoe shops, Raytheon, or the mills, feel such depths of cultural inferiority that truly abusive public figures often resonate more winningly with them than reformers and do-gooders. And that's the target constituency, despite today's preponderance of the class three notches above trash. New Hamshirites respect cunning over noble intentions. The Bavarians of New England have never cottoned to obligatory self-improvement or any too-reachy sense of community, since these concepts involve sales tax and the dreaded welfare, which would bring hordes of shiftless coloreds swarming over the border from Massachusetts. New Hampshire makes its money on state liquor stores and highway tolls. Not coincidentally, the state has ranked, for decades, 50th in the nation in support of higher education.

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