New Hampshire diary
Is McCain a political cross-dresser? Is Bush letting conservative hatchet
men fight his battles? One reporter hits the road in search of answers.
Talking Politics by Seth Gitell
NEW HAMPSHIRE, JANUARY 6 -- George W. Bush is mocking me.
We are in the post-debate spin room at the University of New Hampshire. He is
on the stage. I am 10 feet from him, in a small pack of television cameras and
reporters. I have just asked Bush about a subject raised during the Republican
debate, when John McCain complained that a Bush "ally" is running ads in which
McCain's face is "morphed" into Bill Clinton's. Picking up on that complaint, I
ask Bush to respond to McCain's claim that the sponsor of the ads, Grover
Norquist, is doing Bush's dirty work for him.
"McCain -- says -- Norquist -- is -- doing my -- dirty work," Bush says in a
painstakingly slow cadence, looking at me incredulously, as if he's never heard
the allegation before. He says this the way the coolest kid in school would
respond to a question from a nerd. "Yeah," I say. "It just came up during the
"I believe you asked me this before, and I told you then I haven't seen them,"
Bush chides. (In fact, I had asked him the same question the day before and he
had insisted then that he knew nothing about the ads. I find it creepy and
somewhat intimidating that Bush is able to remember me and my question from the
pack of reporters following him around New Hampshire. Maybe he isn't as stupid
as everyone seems to think.) Bush fails to change the subject, though. A minute
later, another reporter raises the issue. "I'd hope that you'd seek out the
independent groups that are running ads against me with the same zeal and
indignation," Bush answers. He is looking right at me.
Also, the weird worlds of Forbes, Keyes, Hatch, and Bauer
and Bill Bradley is so awkward he must be for real, right?
This rare breach in composure marks one of the few times in recent days that
reporters have been able to pierce the shell of Bush's carefully stage-managed
campaign. In this first week of January, Bush is hitting his stride in the
presidential race. He is emphasizing his themes of leadership and tax cuts --
and heading toward a coronation.
But still, there is much talk in New Hampshire of two George Bushes. The good
Bush is the "compassionate conservative" leader of the state with the
second-biggest population in the union. The bad Bush, according to many in the
McCain camp, is relying on conservative surrogates to chew McCain up and
portray him as a crypto-Democrat -- an anti-tobacco,
pro-campaign-finance-reform destroyer of the conservative way of life. The big
question is how this will play with the natives.
Monday, January 3
The story of how I got under Bush's skin begins when I put out a round of calls
to Washington conservatives, all classic insiders, to ask them about the
primary race. Some were McCain supporters. Others liked Bush. But everybody was
talking about someone else -- Grover Norquist. Norquist is the head of a group
called Americans for Tax Reform. On December 22, he began running the ads that
drew McCain's complaint. Norquist contends that McCain's plan for
campaign-finance reform would weaken the Republican Party to the point of
irrelevance. Because this is the same position that Bush holds, there has been
much speculation (especially among McCain supporters) that Norquist is acting
as a closet surrogate for the Texas governor.
Gore's demeanor on the campaign trail suggests he'd offer a Cabinet post to a small-town mayor
if it would win him a few votes.
The Bush supporters, meanwhile, believe that McCain's campaign behavior will
help the Democrats. New Hampshire conservatives, who are suspicious-minded folk
to begin with, think so too. President Clinton, after all, allowed McCain to
speak at his gala millennium celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on New Year's
Eve. And what reason would the Democrats have to promote McCain other than to
hurt Bush? (For what it's worth, I once saw McCain and Clinton at a private
gathering in Washington, DC. Clinton greeted McCain warmly, and the two men
After numerous interviews with conservative operatives, I decide to venture up
to the Granite State to survey the scene for myself.
Tuesday, January 4
My first stop is at Scudder Kemper Investments, located in a salmon-colored
office park in Salem, where McCain is scheduled to give a speech. Before he
talks, I make my way to the staging area, where I'm greeted by a man with a
handlebar mustache and a Marine Corps tie pin. A Manchester firefighter, he is
a volunteer advance man for McCain and a veteran of the Marines. Nearby is Paul
Chevalier, who's decked out in a military-style garrison cap and ribbons
identifying him as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. His license plate
reads GUNG HO. Chevalier tells me he is the New Hampshire chairman of Veterans
for McCain. Veterans of all party affiliations have tremendous loyalty to
McCain, who was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. They form a core of supporters
that he can count on to attend events and provide a base of grassroots
activism. In Merrimack, New Hampshire, there is a bridge called the Merrill's
Marauders Bridge, which is named for an elite Army Ranger unit that fought in
Burma during World War II. Call these vets McCain's Marauders.
Before McCain arrives, the Scudder workers sit quietly behind a yellow
plastic-link chain in what usually serves as the employee dining area. When
reporters try to ask them questions, they say, "We're not allowed to talk to
you." It's like an audience of Dilberts. McCain arrives and is introduced by
Lorie O'Malley, the president of Scudder's retirement division -- a blond woman
whose face resembles a Matt Groening sketch. She invokes the need "to discuss
issues key to the future of our firm and our nation." McCain gets up on the
stage. The television reporters and camera people are upset: McCain doesn't
look good in the light. But he forges on through his usual shtick --
campaign-finance reform, the military -- and adds a word about Social Security.
Following his talk, the Scudder employees line up to greet the candidate. After
a woman grasps his hand and says, "Thank you for your service to the military,"
I get the chance to ask my first question: how did it happen that McCain was
able to deliver a high-profile address at Clinton's New Year's Eve
extravaganza? "I was invited by [film producer] George Stevens. He was in
charge of that," McCain tells me. The answer isn't satisfying. The event was
Clinton's. Stevens just planned it, along with Quincy Jones. But McCain doesn't
give me any more, and then the other reporters pounce.
Wednesday, January 5
Today McCain is scheduled to make what's being hyped as a "major speech on
citizenship." When I arrive at the Manchester Boys and Girls Club, I find an
old school gymnasium, an LED scoreboard, and six American flags. Marching music
is playing in the background as the gym slowly fills. McCain and former
education secretary William Bennett are sitting at a table, unmolested by
reporters, signing books for a stream of students and old folks. Frequently on
the campaign trail you see McCain groupies carrying copies of his
autobiography, Faith of Our Fathers, for him to sign. The previous day I
had met a screwball who'd driven all the way up from Worcester to get McCain to
sign a blown-up photo of him with the candidate. Today, anyone who wants
Bennett to sign his trademark Book of Virtues is in luck as well. Like
movies and sports, these days politics seems to feature a merchandising
WAITING FOR THE CORONATION:
with their tight security, restricted access, and canned campaign music, Bush events have taken on a
Between the groupies, I am able to draw Bennett's attention. I ask him what he
thinks about McCain's campaign-finance position. "I think there will be a
constitutional challenge," Bennett says. "I have concerns about the
constitutionality of it. I think John McCain would welcome a challenge to
clarify it." Then he stops. A blond, curly-haired high-school senior has stood
to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
McCain's speech follows some words from Bennett, who makes it clear that he's
not giving McCain his official endorsement. McCain has done his marketing
homework. He begins with a reference to Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ill-fated
1914 expedition to Antarctica on the HMS Endurance is the subject of a
new exhibit at the National Geographic Society. He praises the six firefighters
who gave their lives in Worcester. He mentions Arlington National Cemetery. The
strategists in McCain's campaign are plainly aware of two recent cultural
trends: the newfound respect for the American veteran (evident in Steven
Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest
Generation) and the craze for adventure stories, such as Shackleton's,
Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin
Air. After the junk food of the Clinton administration, McCain's people
figure, Americans are in the mood for some old-fashioned meat and potatoes.
After McCain speaks, he is again mobbed by supporters. Waiting patiently is a
group of students led by Andreas Reif, the principal of the Faith Christian
Academy, who is wearing glasses, a tan trench coat, and a garish colored tie --
a Rush Limbaugh design! Reif tells me his institution is a Bible-believing
academy. Outside the gym, I see a truck that has been servicing the event:
Christian Party Rental, a division of Christian Delivery & Chair Service.
Who says John McCain doesn't appeal to conservatives?
I drive to Fidelity's office complex in nearby Merrimack, where Bush will give
a speech in a few hours. The office building abuts a finely manicured lawn with
a pristine, artificial-looking pond. The setting seems fitting, because Bush's
campaign is no less manufactured. One Fidelity flack meets me, and as another
escorts me to the event area, I can hear the lead flack, Tom O'Rourke,
saying of NBC's David Bloom and his cameraman: "No Fidelity people out of the
building. If they [Bloom and his cameraman] want, they can go out." Upstairs --
again in the dining area -- I meet a reporter who's with the Nashua
Telegraph. She tells me that the set-up for this event is much tighter than
for a previous event Fidelity did with Steve Forbes. Texas Rangers, who provide
security for Bush, are all over the place. The tight security, restricted
access, and advance people give the proceedings a presidential feel; the Bush
people are running their campaign as if he were the president in all but name.
They've provided Fidelity employees with a little gray booklet, its cover
bearing a creepy portrait of their man. A Fresh Start for America: Policy
Addresses of George W. Bush. I expected it to be one of those joke books
where all the pages are blank.
After much waiting and bitching and moaning on the part of reporters, the
audience readies itself for Bush. Country music begins playing, and in he
walks. "I'm runnin' for president because I got some things to do," Bush
begins. "I believe free trade is good for America. I believe in NAFTA." During
the foreign-policy portion of his talk, Bush refers to "accidental launches by
madmen." This leaves me puzzled. The danger of accidental missile launches
exists, as does the danger of missile launches by madmen, such as Saddam
Hussein. But a madman wouldn't launch missiles at America or its allies by
accident. A madman would do it intentionally. That's why they're called madmen.
Perhaps this was just another of Bush's increasingly frequent slips of the
tongue. Perhaps not. No one else seems to notice.
Bush concludes his remarks, and the country music starts up again. The
candidate is mobbed by people who want to touch him and shake his hand. This is
the kind of thing that happens to President Clinton. I get close, but a Texas
Ranger stops me from getting close enough to ask a question. Instead I talk to
Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire congressman who is supporting
Bush. Bass, a moderate Republican, was a sponsor of the Shays-Meehan bill, the
House version of campaign-finance-reform legislation. "I don't feel campaign
finance should be an issue," he says when I press him on McCain's
campaign-finance position. "There's a lot more to campaign finance than
Then I ask Bass about McCain's performance at Clinton's New Year's Eve
extravaganza. "They want to promote any challenge to George Bush," Bass says.
"If I were Bill Clinton, I'd prop McCain up as best I could. They'll do
By the time I'm done speaking with Bass, I've got a clear path to Bush. I
slowly edge toward him. He's talking to a Fidelity jock about the Texas Rangers
baseball team, which he once owned. "I was the guy who made a brilliant trade
-- Sosa and Alvarez for Harold Baines," he says. The conversation wraps up, and
that's when I ask Bush about those Grover Norquist ads. "I haven't seen them,"
"I'm just asking because a lot of people say that Norquist is just acting as a
surrogate for you," I say.
"I haven't seen them," Bush repeats.
I wander away, and David Bloom leads the pack of reporters back toward Bush.
This time it is Bush himself who is linking McCain to Clinton-Gore. "Senator
McCain agrees with Al Gore that my tax plan is too much," Bush says. "I'm
startled by the fact that Senator McCain and Al Gore are on the same page on
this." There are at least 30 reporters around us at this point. Television
cameras, too. Bush's lead spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, is standing about 12
inches from Bush. As Bush responds to reporters' questions, Hughes's eyes begin
to shine. Her face is clenched, and she's staring right into his face. It's as
if she were trying to give him the correct answers telepathically. If she were
touching him, I'd think she was giving him the Vulcan mind meld. Somehow, Bush
As the crowd disperses, I ask Hughes about the country music that seems to be
serving as theme music for the Bush campaign. She says she hasn't heard it. I
ask again, and she doesn't answer. Later, I ask the Fidelity people about it.
They say the Bush campaign supplied the music. Someone thinks it was Travis
Tritt. The Bush campaign is so stage-managed that the managers want to deny
they are managing.
Thursday, January 6
I've had enough of the campaign trail. Setting off in search of real New
Hampshire conservatives, I head to Madden's Restaurant, in Merrimack, where I
meet computer programmer Bryan Williams. Williams's public life began in the
'80s with a grassroots anti-gun-control effort called "Let Freedom Ring" that
organized conservative activists to call Congress on April 19, the
anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (later, this would be the
day Timothy McVeigh chose to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City).
Williams, a Forbes supporter, participates in a weekly gathering of
conservatives modeled after the meetings Grover Norquist holds every week in
Washington. He reviles McCain's proposals on campaign-finance reform, which, as
he tells me over burgers, will "gut the Republican Party's ability to
McCain's Vietnam heroics appeal to veterans, but that's where his Republican credentials seem to stop.
After lunch, I follow the trail of New Hampshire conservatives to the New
Hampshire State House in Concord, where lawmakers are paid just $100 a year. I
walk by a statue of Daniel Webster and into the building, which is filled with
Civil War-era portraits and memorabilia. Inside I find one of the state
legislature's most conservative members, Representative Richard "Stretch"
Kennedy of Contoocook, who wears a tie pin in the shape of a revolver and keeps
a miniature copy of the Constitution in his coat pocket. Kennedy has sued New
Hampshire for violating the First Amendment with its campaign-finance laws. "I
think McCain's a nut," says Kennedy, who supports Forbes. He adds that the
Democrats seem to be promoting McCain: "If the Democrats like the campaign
policies he's pushing, they'd be foolish not to build him up."
He calls Representative Kenneth Weyler of Kingston over to talk with me.
Weyler, a Republican who supports Bush, recalls going to a "ladies' lilac
luncheon" where McCain spoke. "We were surprised by his statement that we need
to tax tobacco more," he says. He, too, thinks that the Clinton administration
has been trying to build up McCain.
Later that afternoon, I leave for Durham, where a Republican debate will take
place in just a few hours at the University of New Hampshire. When I arrive,
supporters of the various campaigns are vying for attention in front of the
debate site. Out front are the Bush supporters, chanting "G-W-B! G-W-B!" -- an
appropriate chant for the most frat-boy-like of the candidates. The supporters
could just as easily be chanting "S-A-E!" or "T-K-E!" The McCain people are
here too, a mix of veterans and students. Then there are the Forbes people,
clad in bright orange ponchos supplied by the campaign. Two of these
Oompa-Loompas walk into the rally area carrying a huge Forbes sign.
Near debate time, the press room is filled with reporters -- including Grover
Norquist himself, who is covering the debate for the American Spectator.
Once the debate is under way, I watch him closely, especially when McCain
challenges Bush about Norquist's ads. "Right now, a supporter of yours is
running attack ads morphing Bill Clinton's face into mine," McCain says. "By
the way, ask him to get a better picture, will you? And ask him at least, at
least to disclose where the money's coming from."
I get up out of my seat and move one row, to where Norquist is sitting. Bush
replies: "Hey John, this so-called supporter was running ads against me in the
state of Texas." As the exchange takes place, Norquist sits calmly in his seat.
He sips Pepsi from a plastic bottle, looks at correspondence, and puts it back
into his planner. He opens and shuts his planner several times.
When the debate is over, I ask Norquist to disclose his donors as McCain
requested. "We have 100,000 donors. We didn't use any money from anybody who
gave me more than 100 bucks," Norquist says. "McCain would know this if he
asked. He just wanted to make something out of this silliness."
For the record, Norquist denies having anything to do with Bush.
Following this encounter, I rush into the briefing room, where Bush then
arrives. That's when I ask him about his connection to Norquist and he gets
When McCain comes in, I tell him that Norquist is in the hall. I repeat
Norquist's answer to McCain's request verbatim. Is McCain satisfied? No. "I
would very much appreciate it if he would disclose the names of his donors. I
would ask Governor Bush to ask him to disclose those names," McCain says. "And
ask him again to get a better picture of me."
I rush back to Norquist and repeat what McCain just told me. "That's a pathetic
response," Norquist says. He points out that if he publicized the names of his
donors, liberal activists and the government would then have the names. The
Internal Revenue Service could audit conservatives. There could be reprisals
from the Clinton administration.
Norquist does back up Bush's claim that he once ran ads against Bush's position
on taxes as Texas governor. "We spent $200,000 down there," Norquist says.
"Bush wasn't a crybaby about it like McCain. He never took it personal, and he
did the right thing in the end." And he says, by the way, that he got the
McCain photograph from the senator's own campaign.
I leave Norquist in the hall alone and drive back down Route 95. My three days
in New Hampshire have left me with the feeling that Bush's aggressive Granite
State strategy has weakened McCain. Whether there is a direct connection or
not, Bush will be able to bank on the fact that the conservatives -- in New
Hampshire and elsewhere -- will hate McCain more than they hate him. His
campaign will sit back and act presidential, leaving others to tar John McCain
with the dreaded brush of Clintonism.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.