Senator Lindsey Graham
In a small divot between two hills behind the Derry-Salem Elks Lodge, the Republican Labor Day barbecue picnic was getting into full swing. Beneath a long shed with red, white and blue bunting, they were serving black-burnt hot dogs, burgers from deep tubs, mountains of corn and watermelon on the side. The plenty was the point. People would have had a meal like this round here in 1675, I thought. Or 6000 BC, come to that. Slim kids running around in the T-shirts of a dozen candidates — a few of whom will be speaking here today — middle-aged men and women filled out, either bourgeois style — solid, expanding in an orderly fashion — or Tea Party/Reagan Democrat, cantilevered outwards in folds and annexes. Music: Dancing In The Moonlight, Witchcraft. Hubbub, excited talk, Scott Walker, Carly on her way …
I sit down at a bench between a woman with a wall eye — yes, yes, turned to the right — and a jowly vet in an air force cap.
Me (to woman): So are you following a particular candidate.
She: Oh I don’t really follow the politics. I own the last original farm in Andover across the way, been running since 1680. Independent people. I’m a registered independent.
Me: So you might vote Democrat.
She: (eye widening) Oh, no ….
Me: Any preference?
She: Oh I like that guy, that Bernie guy …
Me: Bernie? Bernie Sanders? The Democrat?
She: Well, he tells it like it is …
Vet: Bernie Sanders? He’s a communist.
Me: Well … socialist. I mean, not even that, but for our purposes …
Vet: (shrugs) Yeah alright, socialist.
“Ladies and gentleman — Senator Lindsey Graham!”
There’s a weird noise from the audience, perfectly combining polite applause and a groan, as the short, compact Graham, in slacks and polo short, declining the use of the small stage, comes out into the middle of the tables. “How y’all, how y’all dowung?”
God, poor old Lindsey Graham. Thirty years in the military, as he says (25 of it in the reserves, he fails to mention), a decade in the Senate, and when he turns up it looks like someone hired a Mickey Rooney impersonator. Until he opens his mouth. “How y’all doing? You know my folks ran a cafe/bar/poolhall, and my mammy died when I was 21, and my daddy a year later …” Jesus. The only man who’s come near some of the valiant things the others talk about, and he sounds like Blanche DuBois as played in a school production of Streetcar by a male maths teacher. “Wha, I do declare that Mistuh Obama he is no gentleman, no suh! And that Mrs Clinton. Weyell, huh, definition of poverty ain’t maiyin let me tell you …” He gets big cheers for three minutes, then he gets onto his own ideas and the audience goes dead. Stone dead. He’s one of the candidates who won’t be going through to the next round. He’s running not for influence but survival, name recognition. A hawk in foreign affairs, he’s a centrist in domestic ones, and someone the hard right are desperate to knock off in 2020. A lot of in his own state don’t like him, fewer here — despite being a blue New England state, New Hampshire’s Republicans are conservatives, with a strong libertarian streak. This is a state with no sales tax — vodka can be got for $4 a litre — and no seatbelt laws. Despite that, or because of it, this is a dry event.
Four and a half minutes in, Lindsey’s speech, having gone dead, becomes a slog. By the end, there’s a pleading tone. “Y’gotta have someone who’s got both military and civilian experience. I’m that someone!” The crowd is stony-faced. Off to curt applause, and back to the Holiday Inn to weep into his crinoline, presumably. You got a put on a show for these folks. No kindness from these strangers for someone from the Suth, suh.
Hours earlier, outside Lino’s restaurant in Sanbornville, Scott Walker, roaring into the centre of town on a Harley, was doing just that. Well, trying to. Part of a bike run, covering ALL TEN! of New Hampshire’s counties, with two dark-green state troopers in the front on mirrored-pearl police bikes, a few neat weekend bikers, and a dozen fat Hell’s Angels behind. Walker’s the Wisconsin governor who took on the unions a few years ago and made himself a Republican hero. That status had him at second place in the New Hampshire and Iowa polling — until a fortnight ago, since then he has skidded off the road. Polling at 12% and 13%, he’s now at 6% and 7%, soon to be 4% and 5%. No real reason why, except that voters got to see more of the other candidates than they had up to then, and Walker didn’t have anything the others didn’t. His campaign team may not be the A-team, either. After all, if you’re going to have the candidate do a bike run, the first thing you’d probably do would be … paint his name on his helmet.
“Would you like to take a photo of Governor Walker?” an aide says to the press.
“Sure, which one is he?”
“He’s in the blue helmet.”
“Three of them are in a blue helmet …” When he takes his off, Walker looks a mooky guy, Milwaukee mook. He’s not an attractive man, the type who appears to be chewing gum when he’s not chewing gum.
Ten minutes later, with a few selfies, and a rip-roaring speech — “This party has fighters and it has winners, they’re all great people! (pause) But I’m the only candidate who’s both!”, which makes him sound like a dick — Walker roars away, en route to the picnic.
The day before, I’d gone one better and planted an elbow in Carly Fiorina’s back, knocking her half-sideways. This was at the Copper Door, a mega-restaurant outside Manchester, one of those deeply pleasant American places with a square faux-marble bar, unlimited refills, and a menu selection of sides so comprehensive they come on their own menu. And so so white. So dazzlingly white!
The place was pure bobo, running on the copper theme, having found every piece of farm and kitchen implement from miles around, now that no one has to do any actual work anymore, buffed them to a high polish, and put them in the foyer. Reaching for the sides menu, I tripped over a seed-driller and fell backwards into a woman who may control the nuclear codes to annihilate the world in 16 months’ time. Fiorina, small, elfin, in a dark green dress, as if she’d anodised, barely noticed. There was an enormous crush and little security. We all streamed into a side room, and she stood on a small podium, like an upturned fez, and gave her speech.
“We have a government that doesn’t know business, doesn’t know government, doesn’t understand that our rights come from God and that is why this is the only country in the world where a woman like me can start as a secretary and become ….”
Oh god. Fiorina is the ex-head of Hewlett-Packard (even though her tenure there is wreathed in controversy), and she could pitch a more realistic business Republican message. But these are the pre-pre-primaries, and something simpler is needed. So we get the boilerplate:
“We need to focus on the real challenges facing our nation, which is why Congress should defund Planned Parenthood and pass the Fetal Pain Bill.”
“Margaret Thatcher, a hero of mine, said she was not willing to manage decline …”
The speech gets big booyas throughout. Carly fans? A base already? “Oh, I’m just here because we eat here all the time, and Bob, who owns it, sent round an email.” “So what do you think of her?” “Eeeeh, she’s alright. I won’t get involved till next year.” Fiorina is climbing the polls but not racing up them, and there’s something in her schtick that isn’t working. The speech is too elegantly put together — like an Escher picture, every line plugs into every other one without the whole making sense. She wants to shrink government, but to have Congress oversee all regulation changes (Jesus!). The big picture is what matters, which is why the two most important things Congress should pass are anti-abortion malarkey. Plus, her manner is too precise, ranging into icy. In the Q and A afterwards, she sounded defensive, even at softball questions, shades of a CEO having fronted one too many shareholder gatherings.
“Carly! Carly!” The next day, at the Labor Day barbecue, there’s no doubt who the crowd wants. Mobbed for selfies as she comes up the path, a second queue forms, running counter to the hamburger line. Carly is their darling. She climbs the stage, none of this folksy on-the-floor nonsense, and begins: “Margaret Thatcher, who’s a hero of mine …” her speech is already a stump act. Her volunteers buzz around, kids in red T-shirts, girls mostly, types like someone was casting a remake of Clueless. Everyone’s got their team here, even those who aren’t speaking. The Rand crew look like nutters, Chris Christie’s are fat teenagers, scared of all the nature, and team Jeb! are all preppie boys doing it for college credit. Carly’s blowing everyone away though.
As the stump routine unwinds (“… who understands that our rights come from God …”) I trek back to the car park, where Ohio governor John Kasich has wisely set up camp. He’ll speak later, but he knows he’s already lost the crowd to Carly, and so he’s taking the chance to have an impromptu presser. As your correspondent noted at the time of the first debate, Kasich is one to watch — and in New Hampshire, he’s ratcheted up to second place, at 12%, from a base of 2%. His politics are finely judged, appealing to his claimed record as a budget-balancer and job-creator in Ohio, playing down union-busting, welfare cutting, and Jesus freakery (all the while that his state party panders to the religious right). His style matches the substance, downplayed to a near-sadistic level, an enforced boredom. He speaks low, so low you struggle to hear, keeps it short, talks about the financials, the need to get back to all that, a bit of “my pappy” stuff (mailman, apparently), no Reaganolatry or from-God moments, talks about no one party having the virtues. He’s talking about this now, to five journos and a camera guy in a mournful tone — Max Cherry! I.e. Robert Forster, the cool bonds guy from Jackie Brown, that’s who he’s like, dead spit, man, that was bugging me — almost hangdog … and of course he’s drowned out by the Scott Walker posse rolling into the car park, the barbecue their final pitstop. Kasich looks up, shrugs, ploughs on about the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank. Walker struts around, drapes his hand over bikies, looks like a man who has nothing to do. When you’re on the way down, nothing goes right.
Indeed, they’re already taking the bunting down as Walker starts speaking. It’s five o’clock, most of these folks want their evening meal by now. “I’m a winner and a fighter,” he yells. He sounds like a dick. He seems stunned by the near silence, the wall of it. Its palpable absence a measure of simple reversal. When you’re up, you’re up. And when you’re down … None of these people are going anywhere, despite the Carly buzz, whatever their ride.
Except John Kasich, who will be the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2016. Unless, by popular acclaim, Bernie Sanders is.