Elephants in the Snow

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

January 17, 1992|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- For the next month, there will be standing room only at the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer in Manchester. Reporters and political hangers-on will meet to lie to each other and watch winter slowly immobilize the waterfall outside, and then on February 18 the people of the Granite State will have their disproportionate say in who becomes president of us all.

There are always some laughs in New Hampshire.

There was the baby GOP elephant booked into the room next to mine during George Romney's 1968 expedition to Dixville Notch, the hamlet that votes at the stroke of midnight just to get its name in the worldwide press. The poor creature had gas pains and the sniffles, and his snorts and rumbles kept me awake all night.

New Hampshiremen are noted for their political sagacity; the oldest saw is about the villager asked whether he would vote for Senator Whoozis. ''Don't know,'' he said. ''Only met him twice.''

There was the prototype, monosyllabic, $4 barber in Newport, up against the Vermont border, whose analysis I solicited the morning after the Iowa caucuses a couple of elections back. He kept clipping for a minute, then said, ''Wal, they already voted in Ohio, didn't they?''

Except for its quadrennial primaries, New Hampshire's main attraction then was that it and Alaska were the only states without either income or sales taxes. This has brought hordes of newcomers, who arrive to find huge property taxes instead. The state's other major distinction is that it was home to President Millard Fillmore, namesake of a society whose stated purpose is ''to rescue him from the obscurity he so richly deserves.''

New Hampshire is untypical in ways that make it a peculiar

barometer of national political sentiment. With hundreds of plants clustered in the Boston exurbs, it is the fourth most industrialized state, but its union membership is only half the U.S. average. Its non-white population is barely measurable.

Nobody paid much attention to its primary until 1952, when Sen. Estes Kefauver surprised Harry Truman there, and three weeks later Truman said he wouldn't run again. The same year, political amateur Dwight Eisenhower beat ''Mr. Republican'' Bob Taft, and was on his way to the White House.

Since then, the common wisdom has grown that nobody becomes president without first winning the New Hampshire primary. The more remarkable thing is how many front-runners New Hampshire has scared out of their wits, and often out of the race.

Gene McCarthy's 1968 New Hampshire campaign helped drive Lyndon Johnson out of the White House, but how it happened is often misunderstood. Mr. McCarthy did not win: With his name on the ballot and hundreds of student volunteers ringing doorbells, he got 42 percent. Johnson, not on the ballot, did not campaign but got the rest -- all write-ins. The McCarthy vote was not all anti-war; many New Hampshire conservatives voted for him to protest Johnson's restraint in Vietnam. And Johnson did not withdraw until after Robert Kennedy, too, jumped in.

The night before that primary, I wrote that ''pro-Johnson forces were predicting at the outset that McCarthy would not be able to pull more than 10 percent. . . . But this week, [they were] falling back and regrouping around the more tenable figure of 25 percent.''

McCarthy didn't beat Johnson; he beat expectations. Ever since, everybody has played the expectations game. In 1972, some newsmen set 50 percent as the success threshold for front-runner Ed Muskie, since he was from the neighboring state of Maine. He led a crowded field, but fell just short of getting half -- and like Lyndon Johnson was pronounced loser, because he didn't beat expectations.

Indeed, George Bush and Pat Buchanan are playing expectations this very moment. As the president slumps in opinion polls, writers boost their guesses of what percentage his challenger will draw. Most are in the 30-35 percent range. Mr. Buchanan minimizes his prospects. But crafty old Richard Nixon, a Bush backer, predicts he will shock the president with 40. Mr. Buchanan says, ''I am a summa cum laude graduate of the Richard Nixon school of politics'' (in his circles, that's bragging), and the Nixon school, of course, teaches ''raising thresholds for your opponents.''

It would be fun to crawl out of a warm bed this morning and mush out in pre-dawn cold to watch somebody like George Romney or Paul Tsongas shake hands with possible voters at a factory gate in Nashua. At least, it used to be.

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