February 18, 1992
FUNNY MR. BILL
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.
Aside from the daily dose of social Darwinism provided by the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s only statewide daily newspaper, the paradigm of Ignorance in defense of intolerance is no vice has been held in place for decades by the Catholic Church, though the south is full of Catholics who stopped attending mass after Vatican II, when the transubstantial rites of cannibalism switched from Latin to English. (One woman in Derry told me the secularization of the mass was an egregious example of “coddling the young,” like the local Rock the Vote registration drive, which unsuccessfully tried to force the Supervisor of the Checklist to register students at the local high school instead of at the town hall. When the Democratic candidates moan about “the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents,” they’re waving a blank rhetorical flag. Among working-class parents in this neck of the woods, what was good enough for them is good enough for their brats, and if their brats do a little worse, boo hoo.)
Resentment is running high at the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2. One woman in a beige parka steps up to the microphone to denounce the State of the Union address, specifically the Marie Antoinette capital gains passage about Puritans lying awake at night, obsessed with the idea that somebody somewhere might be having a good time. (Our Halcion-sedated chief executive should’ve recognized Peggy Noonan’s winsome hen tracks as relics of the good old days, when people without trust funds didn’t realize they were “hurting.”)
It takes a member of the press corps, the
Voice‘s Alisa Solomon, to mention the A-word: for this bunch, apparently, “health care” doesn’t necessarily extend to the politically charged issue of AIDS. Or perhaps it does, but they’d really rather not discuss it. Clinton exudes a pat, uninterested answer about more money for research et cetera, adding that “President Bush has only mentioned the word AIDS about three times since he’s been president,” Alisa later notes that this is the first time Clinton has mentioned it at all.
She’s real Catholic, see. she fingers her cross and says there’s one reason…you do it my way or I push your face in. We knee you in the john if you don’t get off your mustang, sally. – Patti Smith
The Buchanan crowd is something else again. The palace Theatre, a porn movie house throughout my teens and later boarded up like most Manchester businesses off Elm Street, has reopened as a legitimate theater. And a grand-looking place it is, with raked seats and ormulu sconces and delicate chandeliers, like a vintage Keith Circuit vaudeville hall.
There is one black man in the cream white audience, wearing a tight black suit, applauding feverishly, a true believer who will gladly salt himself when they throw him into the stew pot, as long as he can be the last one in. Onstage, former Manchester mayor Bob Shaw lectures us about “a little tea party we threw down in Boston a few years ago,: flanked by another local hack, the city chairman of Buchanan for President. While the candidate speaks, these two mavens perch on folding chairs nearby, in badly tailored gray suits, one porcine gangling, and rabid looking, the other scrunched up like some demented antique dealer with dreams of world domination, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, cackling and stomping their feet. A tableau of jolly idiocy. Potent ecstasy from the audience of functional dipsomaniacs and blue rinse jobs with ropes of synthetic pearls and minks women circa 1970. LaRouche defectors, Chamber of Commerce ghouls, and assorted bits of space debris. An extremely fat man with inflamed pimples rocks in his seat behind me, muttering “Right on!” every time Pat scores some soaring polemical eureka.
The thrust of The Speech is that America has to be Number One. Not simply Number One in standard of living and capitalization and investments and technology and aircraft construction and care sales, but Number One in unbridled odiousness. The tautological form of the Speech presents a self-evident case that the U.S. is not simply part of the world, but superior to everything in it. Like anyone else from Rockinghand and Hillsborough counties, I am able to instantly translate The Speech from its slightly euphemistic idioms into plain English:
We must show these sordid fuckers, the Japs, that we are better than they are because, goddam it, we’re Americans, We’re white, we’re the greatest nation the world has ever known, and we invented everything. Flat screens and chips and VCRs and semiconductors and the Waring blender. And it’s all being taken away from us by a bunch of satanic Nips and totalitarian wetbacks who’ve titled the playing field by Christ a level playing isn’t the point anyway, we’ve got to win!
The Europeans—whose gene stock, granted, is the only one worth preserving, are evilly attempting to wrest Boeing and Burger King from America’s grasp. Race filth from Taiwan is gobbling up McDonnell Douglas. My god, the bastards will be seizing control of Disneyland unless this belligerent turd at the podium with his socks falling down isn’t listened to, and then the residents of Manchester, New Hampshire can kiss the eternal glory of being an American goodbye. Poor little Mickey Mouse is gonna wind up a squalid, syphilitic frog, or a sex-crazed wop, or a stinking guinea, or a bloody wog, or, god help the little rodent, a flaming African jigaboo.
“I’ve heard about parts of New Hampshire emptying out, the way you used to read about it in the Dust Bowl…eight years of Reagan, whatever good things he did have been wiped out in these three years…the World Bank in the last three years has given $3.5 billion dollars to communist China…at zero interest…those loans are guaranteed by you…the Export Import Bank is helping American businesses locate a new paper mill in Mexico…has anybody been up to the James River Paper Mill in Berlin? I was up there yesterday…they’re holding on…they don’t know what’s going to happen…they’re responsible for 20 per cent of the economy of the North Country…what are we doing financing paper mills in Mexico when paper mills in New Hampshire are teetering on the brink of going under? [Thunderous applause.] We were the world’s leaders in textiles. Number one in steel. These industries are going, going, some of them are gone…I’ve been up in the North Country of your home state…Mr. Bush just had a new guest visiting him, Lee Pong I think is how you pronounce his name…he’s the fellow who ordered the tanks in Tiananmen Square…that Chinese communist regime is right now selling missile technology…to our enemies in Tehran…they dumped all their sweater products in the United States and killed Pandora Mills….”
Never mind that most of New Hampshire has always been thinly populated. Never mind that the former Brown Co. Mills have been in decline for 30 years—in steeper decline since their purchase, in 1980, by the Virginia-based James River Corporation, which failed to refurbish the industrial plant when the capital was there. That the population of Berlin has been dropping steadily since 1960—precipitously so since the departure of the Converse Shoe Company in 1979. Or that absolutely nobody in New Hampshire refers to Coos County as the wasteland near the Canadian border as “the North Country.”
As if happens, Pandora Mills was not ruined by Chinese sweaters being dumped on the American Market. Pandora Mills was ruined by a leveraged buyout of its clothing division following the company’s 1983 acquisition by Gulf + Western, as the former president of Pandora Knitwear, May Gruber, informs me after the Palace Theatre loathe-in has dispersed into the gelid evening, trailing acrid vapors of Nissan and Honda exhaust. Admit nothing, blame everybody, be bitter—this could easily be Pat Buchanan’s campaign slogan, as well as the state motto.
Perhaps the sorriest aspect of Buchanan’s campaign is the obligation most mainstream journalists feel to declare this raging boor “interesting,” mainly because customarily feeds at the same trough they do. Yes, he will get 30 per cent of New Hampshire Republican vote, and so would Adolph Hitler or General Franco. I’m from here, and I’ve seen this movie before. Buchanan is scary, yes, but so is the more congenial, saner fringe candidate, Charles Woods, an air crash survivor whose reconstructed face at least confronts us with the useful paradox that appearances, which all philosophy since Plato shows us to be false, absolutely dictate the selection ruler sin a televised “democracy.” By contrast, Buchanan is, tediously, exactly what he looks like: a bigoted mick whose pathology runs to fag-bashing and other symptoms of sexual hysteria.
And what of these bullying, cowardly people, stewing in the bilious sweats of their own zeal, bursting into rapturous applause—the heartiest applause of the evening—when Buchanan sneers that AIDS is “still a disease of homosexuals and drug addicts,” or vows to rid the NEA of every piece of “scandalous, filthy or antireligious art”? What about these jumped-up hillbillies, frothing at the dentures to beat up on people with AIDS, single mothers on public assistance, the homeless, anybody weaker than they? Who regard themselves as the only true victims of history, as “hurting,” just because the world is larger than they are, more complex than the country they live in, and not, for the most part, white?
It’s standard among the Buchanan set to begrudge any minority the status of victim, to bewail “reverse discrimination” in any attempt at social reparation, so it’s no surprise that the Union Leader, Buchanan’s principal endorser in the state, has taken up several of Pat’s pet peeves. In a January 30 editorial, staffer Leonard Larsen attacks “the annual guilt trip over Hiroshima” and complains that “the popular media history…will probably define World War II in just two events.” And guess what the other one is.
“…So that wasn’t a war we were in. There was the Holocaust and everything else was incidental. The revisionists would make it a fact.”
I should stress that the Union Leader is perfectly capable of going much further than this, of denying that the Holocaust even happened one week, and using the same fictional Holocaust the next week to attack Louis Farrakhan or some other anti-Semite of color, depending on which minority its editrix, Mrs. Nacky Scripps Gallowhur Loeb, widow of the odious William, feels like bashing when she staggers out of bed in the morning.
On the other matters, too, the paper has the mercurial temper of a pit viper. It detests Jimmy Hoffa until Jimmy Hoffa became the enemy of Robert Kennedy, and then ran a decade of editorials lauding Hoffa as the savior of organized labor. (The paper threatened to withhold its endorsement of Richard Nixon in ’72 unless Tricky Dick sprung Hoffa from the federal penitentiary; Nixon grudgingly obliged.) It devoted eight years of deifying editorials to then governor John Sununu and his albatross reactor in Seabrook, yet currently refers to him as Bush’s “pimp,” because Sununu refuses to endorse Buchanan. Like the Stalinist-era Pravda, the Union Leader never simply changes its mind; it “discovers” a pattern of ideological error or flawed character in its former allies, admits to having been “duped,” and busily retracts every positive thing it’s printed about the latest charlatan. In all of this the paper represents itself as a virgin schoolmarm violated and betrayed by her most trusted pupil, an act so long in the tooth that even its subscribers can’t read the Union Leader with a straight face.
Back to Buchanan. During Q&A, only two people, May Gruber—who does not raise the issue of Pandora Mills but instead suggests that Jesse Helms’s interference with the NEA amounts to governmental censorship—and a young woman from Merrimack, who describes Buchanan’s position on AIDS as ignorant, challenge the candidate on any of his obvious whoppers. Given the general altitude of Pat’s fans, this takes more guts and conviction than the windbag on stage ever possessed in his life. I’d like to think that these two intelligent, humane voices insert just enough dissonance to sully an orgy of ugly feelings, or at least plant a few suspicions that the Wizard of Oz cannot really give the Scarecrow a functioning brain.
On the way out of the theater, an obsessed, elderly, goofily dressed John Bircher strikes up a monologue aimed at the Voice photographer, who happens to be African American. The man carries a bundle of literature charting a vast, ongoing conspiracy by the Trilateral Commission and David Rockefeller: “I’ve had this crap up to here. This country’s gonna go right down the goddam tubes. Someday you’re gonna have United Nations troops in here. George Wallace got 10 million votes, he said we’re fed up with this crap, what happened? Boom. John Kennedy tried to buck these guys, what happened? Boom. Robert Kennedy, right? Martin Luther King was so exposed he was no longer any use to these people, what happened? Bang!” Like flies to a steaming pile of ordure, the weird creatures of eternal night drew close to the flame that is Pat Buchanan. Meanwhile, some workers roll out the set, a temple0like construction of plastic milk crates, for the Palace Theatre’s current production, The Tempest.
FADE TO BROWN
I look down at sweet Theresa’s convent, all those nurses, all those nuns…to me you know they look pretty damn free down there– Patti Smith
In a large auditorium with level seats, pale olive walls, dark neo-Georgian olive trim, festooned with many portraits in gilded frames of men who resemble Alastair Cooke, a number of dewlapped, earnest preppies and environmentally conscious residents of Exeter and nearby towns have gathered at Phillips Exeter Academy to experience Jerry Brown.
Our in the hall, volunteers are stacking Jerry’s videotape and piles of Jerry’s literature. As I write this, I keep hearing Sandra Bernhard’s dialogue from The King of Comedy echoing through my head. Jerry.
Jerry Brown has enough sense of humor to joke about the space cadet rap he’s getting in the press. Just enough. Perhaps infected by the sober and enlightened atmosphere of this great hall, where countless maiden blowjobs began as humid, hungering glances across rows of brilliantined schoolboy hairdos, Jerry strikes a serious yet scrappily boyish note. He reminds us that he is the only candidate with a classical education, schooled in Greek and Latin. For three years he toiled and thought and really examined himself and who he really was in the silence of a Jesuit seminary. He traveled to Japan and knows the Japanese, knows the culture and what makes it tick. After that, Jerry spent three months in Calcutta, working with Mother Teresa in her Home for the Dying, eager to see what human caring, human compassion, even in the absence of a mutual language, could do amid so much suffering and dying.
And that isn’t all. If I were to write down everything Jerry Brown has done, or even just about everything Jerry Brown says he’s done, you would still be reading this next Tuesday. Jerry’s introduction of renewable energy technologies in California alone would cover many pages, as would his hands-on approach with the state legislature in Sacramento, where he moved in to a small apartment right across from the statehouse instead of taking residence in the ugly expensive mansion built for the Reagans. Did I tell you what Jerry did about the dead-end warfare system in California? How Jerry actually lessened crime? The magnificent windmills and other devices that have made PG&E, thanks to Jerry, the most cost-effective and profitable gas and electric utility in the U.S. of A.? No? Sandra, would you please sing “Come Rain or Come Shine” just one more time?
As I listen to Jerry, something keeps irritating me. At first I believe it is the memory of a large crow I once saw bisected by one of Jerry’s power-generating windmills outside San Luis Obispo while driving from L.A. to San Francisco. Then I realized it is a small child in a pink padded windbreaker seated beside me who is playing with a Nintendo Game Boy as Jerry speaks.
Just behind me, several young men who had been discussing, avidly, the various clues on Beatles albums pointing to the death of Paul McCartney (for example, on the Sgt. Pepper lyric sheet, John Lennon’s finger seems to rest against the line, “…at five o’clock as the day begins…” –possibly the exact time of Paul’s demise) have stopped talking about that and are listening to Jerry with what seems, when I look at them, like respectful skepticism. Good day sunshine.
Jerry wants to take the system back form the politicians and the corporations and put it in the hands of the people, and that’s why he isn’t accepted more than $100 from each individual to run his campaign. We can cleanse this system of corruption and provide health care for every American and cure the rot of our inner cities with a few simple techniques. All right, I’m sorry, I don’t remember what they are, but Jerry knows them, and if you elect Jerry, he’ll tell you himself. Or at least you should take a copy of his videotape. But if you do, be prepared to pass it on to five other people. This is how a grassroots movement gets started.
Jerry is wearing a white turtleneck and a blue denim jacket with brown leather strips on the collar and baggy black corduroy trousers. Jerry has a large bald spot and strangely mottled skin, red in the wrong places, and just between you and me, there is something a little delusional about Jerry, even though I know he really was the governor of California at one time.
In all fairness to the candidate, he only sounds this way because America has evolved so far from the notion of direct rule that even people who agree with Jerry understand he has no chance of being elected. One thinks of direct rule in connection with local rather than national politics. Brown does have a constituency in New Hampshire, as would any ecology-minded consumer advocate, because local communities have seen what can be accomplished by write-in drives, petitions, and town meetings. This I, paradoxically, partly thanks the William Loeb and the politicians he supported over the years.
Loeb, by the way, never resided in New Hampshire. For decades he occupied an 80-acre high-security compound in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, furtively darting back and forth across the border, it is said, in order to avoid subpoenas. In league with a succession of vacuous New Hampshire governors, Loeb sponsored uncountable schemes to wreck the environment in the interest of various contractors, developers, and high-tech corporations. Sununu’s Seabrook nuclear reactor was only the most recent venture to mobilize conservation groups throughout the state.
Before Seabrook, there was Durham Point. In 1973, Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. (now an occasional columnist for the Union Leader) announced his vision that New Hampshire needed an oil refinery. No one had perceived this need before, but because of his campaign pledge of no new taxes, Thomson had to find money somewhere for deteriorating state services. At the same time, employees of Aristotle Onassis’s Olympic Oil Co., posing as real estate agents, began buying options on 3000 acres of shorefront in Portsmouth, Rye, and Durham, under various guises: the establishment of bird sanctuaries and hunting preserves, retirement homes, etc. The biggest chunk of optioned land was at Durham Point. Onassis also optioned parts of the Isles of Shoals, a little archipelago 10 miles off the coast.
In November 1973, Thomson announced the Olympic Oil would install a $600 million refinery at Durham Point. Supertankers would offload at the Isles of Shoals, where the oil would be pumped into Portsmouth via underwater pipe, then shunted to Durham Point through another pipeline. Onassis himself would visit the state on December 19. Loeb’s front-page editorial announced, “WELCOME To the Two Big O’s—Oil and Onassis!”
Appalled property owners in the quiet university town of Durham quickly joined forces with environmentalists to block Durham Point, as the Union Leader devoted reams of fawning newsprint to Onassis, whom it characterized as “Santa Claus.” According to Loeb biographer Kevin Cash, the Durham Point project would have been “the largest single-unit oil refinery ever built.” It also would have transformed the countryside around the University of New Hampshire into a moonscape.
The project met its toxic avenger in the form of Mrs. Thomas Dudley, the town of Durham’s representative to the state’s General Court. (Mrs. Dudley, therefore Dudley Dudley. She was a descendent of Joseph Dudley, who was governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire between 1723 and 1728.) A Mrs. Nancy Sandberg, also of Durham, organized Save Our Shores, which opposed Olympic Oil with legal services to optioned property owners, a speakers’ bureau, bumper stickers, et cetera.
Mrs. Dudley cast the Durham Point issue in terms of home rule. This had immense popular appeal. Town meetings throughout the Seacoast area rezoned the target properties to exclude the refinery, while House Bill 34, intended to override the local ordinances, wnet down to defeat 109 to 233. Onassis returned to Skorpios and Maria Callas. Cash speculates that Loeb never fully recovered from the rejection of Durham Point by New Hampshire voters.
Now it seems, some kind of attitude shift is taking its gradual course in the state—very gradual, if you compare with the mall and condo boom of the Reagan years, when developers and retail chains could contrive, swept through southern New Hampshire like shit through a cane brake, transforming a landscape of harsh, bucolic beauty into one of unparalleled hideousness. Steady migrations of “Massachusetts people into the southland have brought with them, unexpectedly, a burgeoning circulation of the liberal Boston Globe. This, combined with a generous cable range, has eroded the Loeb information monopoly. Even if people generally don’t like black and gays and other menacing elements, now they hear about them all the time.
When I was young, the hotel cocktail lounge beside the bus station was the only place you could go for a little company, and the truck drivers from Laconia and a similar-looking woman with a crewcut. There is an ACT UP chapter in Manchester now, a network of out gays if not a whole community.
There is still no alternative statewide paper in which to rebut insane accusations and slander that appear in the Union Leader, but the influx of new s from CNN and other sources has miniaturized the paper’s impact. Simply to say marginally competitive with the Maine cable channels and the Globe, the Union Leader and WMUR-Manchester have to report the unpleasant minority news that used to suppress, even if the paper’s editorials—mainly crayoned by geriatric Loeb protégé James J. Finnegan—continue to sound like bulletins from a psychiatric ward.
But the era when William Loeb’s campaigns against local college presidents could hound them out of the state—for allowing gay organizations on campus, or sponsoring “Communist” lectures, as happened with Loeb’s untiring persecution of Thomas Bonner at UNH from 1971-1974—is over.
NOWHERE TO RUN, NOWHERE TO HIDE
I drive to Keene one bleary morning with a Martha and the Vandellas tape blasting in the car, up Route 3 to Pinardville, down 101 to Milford, Milford to Peterborough. Just before Dublin the Tsongas signs start appearing on the trees and fence posts and mailboxes, I wake up feeling sorry I met you, and hoping soon, that I’ll forget you, when I look in the mirror to comb my hair—
Well Tsongas has very thinning hair, but this is the least of his problems. In a tiny conference room at
The Keene Sentinel, surrounded by a restrained crowd of at least 10 people, the candidate is defending his record in Massachusetts, not that anyone is attacking it, and expounding a fairly conservative philosophy of government, conservative but compassionate, and I know he can’t help his face but it’s full of little moues and funny tics and because I arrive late I am practically sitting in a large potted plant just outside the conference room hoping he will raise his voice above a steady drone. Paul Tsongas looks like somebody who could do a fairly credible Lamont Cranston imitation if he really let his hair down, such as it is, but this morning he’s stuck on a tone of infinite reasonableness and gentle self-mockery.
“Look,” he says after a half hour, “I’m a Greek from Massachusetts who’s had cancer, so I’ve got to either be really serious about what I’m doing or else I’m crazy.”
This is followed by an unfortunate moment of silence. Note to press corps: if you find yourself in Keene next week, Lindy’s Diner has terrific oyster stew.
A LA RECHERCHE DU DEBRA WINGER
Floor bass slides up to me and says hey, sister…you’re screwing up the quota, you’re doing your piece work too fast, now you get off your mustang, Sally, you aint going nowhere – Patti Smith
There was bound to come a nadir, a point below which the tedium of the campaign trail could not dip without degenerating into chaos. I am a student of chaos, absurdity, and life’s little ironies. Moved to tears one morning by a CNN report on unemployed factory workers in West Virginia, I then bring my cousin Kathy some lunch my mother’s prepared; Kathy has just opened a tax accounting service in town, having left her job at a law firm that lost its major corporate client. Kathy is one of the least neurotic, most industrious people I have ever known. I tell her all about these poor laid-off steelworkers.
“Well,” she says, “remember when we were kids in the ’60s? And all we wanted was to do something in life where we wouldn’t have to work in a factory?”
Of course she’s right. It’s possible to listen to these visiting politicians jaw on about restoring New Hampshire’s industrial base without remembering the sheer meaningless misery most of our relatives endured, day in, day out, some for twenty or thirty years, gluing on shoe soles or soldering circuit boards, an unending pointlessness for which no amount of quarterly raises and benefits packages could ever compensate. The idea that 40 to 60 hours a week of monotony was good enough for us, for our class of people, was sufficiently appalling to propel us both into college and out of town.
But we came from that factory world, a little more directly than most of the people we know, which is why Kathy and I , in our different styles, have nothing but contempt for New Hampshire yuppies. And why, I suppose, the Conservation Center in Concord, a perfectly benign, tree-rescuing operation in a solar-heated, light and airy facility of dressed knotty pine, activates my class hatred in a way that Phillips Exeter Academy doesn’t. I know I’m as smart as any given graduate of Phillips Exeter, but I will never be rich enough to spend all day worrying about acid rain and printing brochures about it on recycled paper.
The gorgeous assistant press officer wants to know if I think they should move the podium for Senator Kerrey into the solarium from the observation deck. It is 17 degrees on the observation deck and everyone coming into the solarium shudders when they get a look at it, why on earth do we have to stand outside to hear him? Well, because of the photo op. on the observation deck you’ve got your panoramic view of a gazillion pine trees and the Route 93 access over the frozen Merrimack River and the dome of the statehouse like a little burnished bubble of junk jewelry, whereas inside you’ve just got all this knotty pine and several cases of brochures of the culture of Christmas trees and timber management areas and some wall diagrams of the facility and the membership desk. Plus this long knotty pint table where I’m writing this.
“If you get any wind it’s going to blow right into the microphone and you don’t hear a thing,” I tell the gorgeous assistant press officer, who doesn’t believe me.
“We’ve tested it,” he says. “You’ve got the good audibility everywhere except in that corner over there.”
I am about to say that Senator Kerrey is already low enough in the polls without making the press corps stand around in 17 degree weather when the press comes pouring into the solarium, and there’s actual excitement in the air, strange considering the candidate, a definite buzz, something’s up, something’s happened, SOMETHING HAS FINALLY HAPPENED, what can it be?
“The write-in Cuomo campaign has opened an office in Concord,”
Voice photographer Brian Palmer explains.
On the tail of this news, Kerrey’s arrival is indeed an anticlimax, his little speech on the observation deck a nonevent of numbing proportions, one of his aides tells me Kerrey’s numbers have climbed from 6 to 12. Wavering numbers, but the money’s coming in, he’s planning to hang in until Super Tuesday. Personally I would ditch the undertaker’s overcoat, change the tie, do a nice even rinse on the hair and try to get him to stop doing that thing with his mouth where he looks like he’s sucking a Fisherman’s Friend. I now see the wisdom of keeping the podium outside, since most of us would fall asleep if it were anywhere else. At least he doesn’t mention The Leg.
“He’s gotten more mileage out of that leg,” my aunt Beatrice complained when Kerrey’s commercial came on a few nights earlier. “And he can walk better than I can.”
RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE
En route to Berlin, I detour onto Route 140, a hardscrabble two-lane of disintegrating asphalt for a look at Gilmanton Iron works. As a child, my role models were Grace Metalious, Emma Peel, and Oscar Levant. Poor tragic Grace ripped the lid of Gilmanton Iron Works in her immortal Peyton Place, made a fortune on that and subsequent The Tight White Collar and
Return to Peyton Place, then drank herself into an early grave. It’s a New Hampshire kind of fate.
What I’ve forgotten is that Gilmanton Iron Works doesn’t have much lid to rip off, consisting as it does of a Corner Store and a Post Office. And no one in the Corner Store or the Post Office knows who Grace Metalious was. No one in the Corner Store or the Post Office has decided who to vote for in the primary, either.
“Are there still Iron Works, anyway?” I ask the woman at the Corner Store deli counter.
“There never were any Iron Works,” she says, “Not buildings. They used to take iron ore out of Crystal Lake and ship it off.”
Every afternoon like the last one, every afternoon like a rerun…yeah we may look the same, both sweating…but I got something to hid here called desire…and I will get out of here…and I will never return, no never return to burn out in this piss factory – Patti Smith
Berlin, late afternoon. Big, bruisy skies with long, gray clouds rolling through them. Shops on Main Street all offering clearance sales, 20 per cent off, 50 per cent off, going, going, gone. The only places to get a cup of coffee are the Woolworth’s lunch counter and the local pizza joint. It’s 11 degrees.
This is an incredibly bleak town, not really a city anymore. Snow piled everywhere, ice crunching underfoot, the streets almost empty. The Berlin Reporter, which has just gone from weekly to daily, reports an increase in headlice at local schools. “AIDS victim speaks to Berlin high students,” reads one headline. “Study finds shortness of breath among older mill workers.”
In LaVerdiere’s Super Drug Store, amid a pile of Waylon Jennings and Lawrence Welk tapes, I find an Ink Spots compendium I can play on the long drive home.
We always knew of the paper mills in what Pat Buchanan calls the North Country and we always called “up there”: grim clusters of silos and smokestacks, the Cascade Plant at Cascade Flats, the Burgess Plant a quarter mile up the Androscoggin River. The chemicals spreading out through the water, poisoning the Adroscoggin River, Tinker Brook, Pea Brook, Dead River, Peabody River, the dead trout, the cancer-riddled horned pout, the stillborn perch and smelts, the perpetual sulfur-and-boiled-cabbage stench wafted on the mountain winds, covering Gorham, blowing down to Randolph, on a clear day you could smell it all the way to Shelburne, a smell that stank like nothing else on earth, a smell like something crawled up inside you an died, filling everything, like water rising in a sinking ship.
In Harkin headquarters on Pleasant Street, a buxom volunteer in a harlequin sweater set tells a middle-aged man sitting against the wall: “You know he’s gotten over 50 awards from different disabled groups? Including Veterans with Disabilities? Because he wrote the Americans with Disabilities Act, you know. Which we’re all gonna need some day. With arthritis and so on.”
The man regards her coolly. He’s my age, he resents this. “Well, I hope not.”
By and large, an early middle age, late-ish thirtysomething, hyperthyroidal gathering. Working people, lots of beards, lots of mustaches, a number of Alan Alda types, turquoise down jackets, no pretensions in this place, everything ready-to-wear, maybe a certain Cambridge influence, the snack table covered with potato chips, ginger ale, pretzels, Ritz crackers, a jar of Cheez Whiz. Ratty green carpet. Looks like a furniture showroom.
Waiting and waiting and waiting for Harkin. I stand against the wall behind the chairs reserved for seniors and the disabled, with a clear view of the speaking area. It occurs to me not for the first time, that I could easily have assassinated any of the major candidates. But they seem to be doing a good job of it themselves. A camera crew glides through the place, interviewing people just out of work and people who are “just hanging on by a shoestring.” Times are tough. The James River Corporation hasn’t hired anyone in two years. Harkin’s almost here. Some aides are holding open the door. No, not yet, they’re still parking the car. Suddenly…something in the air…quite unpleasant…one of these senior citizens has farted…I move away from the chairs…the smell follows me…it’s even over here in the middle of the room…a thick, rich, bean supper fart…wait though, it’s everywhere…my god, it’s the James River Plant!
Yes, folks, just leave a door open on Pleasant Street and these factories that everybody wants to ram back into high gear have practically stunk out Harkin headquarters. Once the candidate’s inside, the door closes and the fart smell gradually dissipates, like a minor motif in a symphony of hot air. A distinguished-looking man, like your favorite high school civics teacher, carefully raked gray hair, a cracker-barrel face that belongs on a dollar bill, light blue shirt, burgundy V-necked sweater, olive gray slacks, a navy blazer—remember Jean Arthur playing a congresswoman in A Foreign Affair, swinging from the ceiling pipe in a Berlin (Germany) speakeasy, singing “Ioway, Ioway”? Harkin has that same wholesome, rolled-up-shirtsleeves quality, and his rap has the plainspoken, blocky style of Harry S. Truman, on whom Harkin’s modeled himself. Trailing just about everybody in the polls? Big Deal:
“I love history. ‘Course you know my favorite president was Truman. One night Truman was speaking to the young Democrats. And he was way down in the polls. Strom Thurmond had walked out with the Dixiecrats, Henry Wallace had walked out with the Progressives, Life magazine in that summer had run a picture of Dewey calling his President Dewey. One young Democrat yelled out, ‘Who’s gonna be the next president?’ Truman looked at him, he said ‘Young man, next January, there’s gonna be a Democrat in the White House, and you’re lookin’ at him.’ And that’s what I say to you. You’re lookin’ at him. ‘Cause we’re gonna win.”
“I sense a hunger to turn away from the legacy of the Reagan-Bush Administration. Those policies that have made the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, made the middle class pay the freight both ways. Those policies that have cost your jobs, exporting them out of this country…young people can’t get a college education, don’t know where they’re gonna get the money…
“If you’re a junk bond dealer, a corporate trader, best of times. If you’re a corporate CEO with a golden parachute, best of times. But if you’re a working class person, lost your job, no job training, don’t know what to do? Worst of times. If you’re a family, unemployed, you don’t know how you’re gonna pay your health care bill? An elderly person? Worst of times.
There is nothing to argue with in Harkin’s broad-bush portrait of America today, though his vignettes about what is wrong are more than a little stale by this time. Free trade is a two-way street. Jobs. Tell Japan to open its doors. Level playing field. Reciprocity. If I ever go to Japan, I won’t be taking the three top auto executives. They can’t even figure out to put the steering wheel on the right-hand side. Bring the money home, invest it here. Rebuild our infrastructure.
Tell you the truth, this guy is a little too calculatedly down-home for my taste. Okay, they’ve got an answer for everything, but the tone…this picture of America as a land of happy workers, raring to go to pitch in…the way everything is us versus them…and the way everybody’s complaints feed directly into his argument about minority issues, racial divisions…of course, none of the others have, either, except in code. You go to White America, you talk the White America talk.
“WHAT ABOUT THE DRUGS?”
This question punctures the rhapsodic upswing that was supposed to conclude Harkin’s speech, and the candidate is clearly irritated, but game:
We’ve gotta beef up our coast guard. Anyway, who was it that put Manuel Noriega on the CIA payroll? George-Herbert-Hoover-Bush!” And he goes on. Rather alarmingly. If I understand him correctly, Harkin has no qualms about sending the Marines into South America. With its permission, of course.
“Mr. Harkin,” a boozy-sounding woman in the back pipes up, “why should be send billions of dollars to Russia, when they have always been our enemy? And Poland, and Yugoslavia, and all those countries, instead of keeping the money in this country?”
Before Harkin can open his mouth—well it’s already open, but before he can say anything—a large, craggy old man with a face like Lionel Stander chimes in:
“Ten billion going to Israel to put these guys to work on the Golden Heights for Russian immigrants! What the hell is this? Everybody afraid of the Jews?”
“Now sometimes you—” Harkin begins, but the man is implacable.
“I’m not a bigot, I’m not—but on the other hand, they’re human beings, but we’re human beings, looking for jobs too.
“That’s why you need to make sure that they are investing back in this country, that’s exactly what I’ve been telling you.”
The woman from earlier is also implacable:
“What I feel, you go into a store, and myself, I buy U.S. made. Made in the U.S.A.”
“You bet,” Harkin panders.
“If it’s made in U.S.A. we keep our people working, right?”
“That’s right,” he says.
“But what you see in most of the stores is Made in China. Made in Taiwan, all that. What’s the point of these countries—and if those articles were not on the shelves, people would buy U.S. made. It wouldn’t be there. So you pay a dollar more for the product. But our people don’t work for nothing, they don’t live 12 in one apartment. We have a nice way of living. And we wanna keep it that way. And I don’t want to support the Russians, believe me.”
Harkins talks about a bill he’s introducing, instructing U.S. representatives to the IMF and the World Bank to vote against any loan to any country that spends more on its military than on its health and education. This sounds nice, until you consider that the U.S. itself wouldn’t qualify for such a loan, though most other countries in the world would.
“They never pay it back. Did they ever pay it back?” the woman screeches.
“There’s one country that have paid back every loan.”
“Well, the Jews, they have more money than everybody in the world!”
Harkin quickly takes a question form another part of the room. For me, anyway, he has just collapsed into nonexistence. I suppose one can, in these bankrupt times, in a state where the only major paper once ran an editorial entitled “Kissinger the Kike?” expect a little Jew-baiting on the campaign trail. But I cannot imagine Mario Cuomo or Jay Rockefeller letting such remarks just sit there in the room, just to grub a couple of votes. Not in a million years.
On November 7, 1960, John F. Kennedy stood in Victory Park in Manchester, directly across from the Manchester
Union Leader offices, and said:
“I believe there is probably a more irresponsible newspaper than that one right over there somewhere in the United States, but I’ve been through 40 states and I haven’t found it yet.”
The kind of ignorant sentiments sounded at Harkin’s Berlin headquarters can be heard throughout the state of New Hampshire, and even if they originated generations before Loeb’s acquisition of the Union Leader, the paper has fueled them for decades. As a result, bigotry has been institutionalized among the less-educated, who believe their lives have been ruined by the Jews, the blacks, the Japanese, the communists, or invaders from Massachusetts, rather than by bad choices, bad leaders, and a refusal to learn from the larger world. The candidates certainly know this coming in, and at the risk of sounding idealistic, I think any presidential candidate stumping through this backward but maybe not entirely hopeless state has some moral duty to offer a corrective example, to show some high-mindedness, instead of just promising jobs and money and material aggrandizement.
During the years of artificial plenty, New Hampshire was happy to sell off the intangible wealth of livably scaled towns, forests, and wide-open spaces for a quick buck, three or four extra K-marts within driving distance, and an idiotic abundance of worthless consumer goods. Now that people have to live in the debris, their fields and meadows long vanished under now-vacant malls and abandoned tract developments, they might reflect that this all happened once before, when the great Amoskeag Mills shut down earlier in this century, and that history has repeated itself as farce instead of tragedy. Of course people are “hurting”—you usually do hurt after shooting yourself in the foot. And instead of yacking about wake-up calls and level playing fields and “sending a message” to the rest of the planet that America intends to remain a vicious mongoloid among nations, first in everything but human reason, any candidate worth voting for, however hard the times, ought to offer people an appeal to their better natures, as well as to the part that eats. Nobody did.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005