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Henningsen: Primary Time

Back in the fall, trying to take a shortcut through a building at Dartmouth, I was surrounded by armed guards eyeing me with grim suspicion. I’d forgotten Hillary Clinton was campaigning there. What a change! During the 1996 New Hampshire primary, I experienced politics as it used to be and a lot of us wish it still was. A full field of Republicans vied to oppose Bill Clinton’s re-election. Remember Maurry Taylor, midwestern tire magnate turned presidential hopeful? He gave me a quick pitch, but really wanted to know if he was on the road to Woodsville.

Voters had the chance to watch flat-taxer Steve Forbes lament the ruin of expensive shoes as he crossed a muddy field. In an off-the-record exchange, many heard Pat Buchanan confess that though he believed in the right to bear arms, people who wanted to include bazookas were “crazy.”

Lamar Alexander pressed his video into my hands. Bob Dole greeted me while being ushered into MTV’s “Rock the Vote” bus for an interview. He looked like he was being taken hostage.

It didn’t matter if you weren’t Republican. They wanted to make personal contact: traditional hallmark of the first-in-the-nation primary. With them were one or two staff, minimal security, and a few bored national reporters. Only eager local press provided the aura of an actual event.

This was only 20 years ago, but it had more in common with the campaigns of Grover Cleveland than with today’s scripted events.
Given the ferocity of the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquitous presence of smartphone cameras primed for candidate gaffes, it’s not surprising spontaneity is out. But candidates don’t shine in rote performances, which become empty rituals for true believers.

That’s too bad. Casual encounters with the contenders offered a pretty good sense of who they were. Maurry Taylor pursued the American dream that anyone can become president (regardless of Adlai Stevenson’s warning, “that’s one of the risks we take”); Steve Forbes was kind of a wimp; Pat Buchanan an opportunist; Lamar Alexander a nice guy. Bob Dole looked like he had his own chapter in “Lives of the Hunted.”

We make better choices when we have face-to-face chances to judge candidate character, which rarely happens these days. That makes both the candidates – and the voters - losers.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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