N.H. conservative with a Southern accent

Governor: Meldrim Thomson was ahead of his times and behind the curve.

April 29, 2001|By Candus Thomson

In death, Meldrim Thomson accomplished once more what he had done so often as governor of New Hampshire: lower the flags to half staff.

Thomson, the diminutive Republican firebrand with the deceptive courtly Southern accent and mannerisms, died April 19 at the age of 89.

During his three terms as the Granite State's governor, he lowered the flags on public buildings for Good Friday to honor Jesus, lowered them to protest the Panama Canal treaty, lowered them when Taiwanese athletes were banned from the 1976 Summer Olympics, lowered them when the United States recognized mainland China, lowered them when President Carter granted amnesty to draft dodgers.

"Mel-practice" was a way of life from 1973-1979. The governor was ahead of the times, behind the times and often contemptuous of the times. In a 1978 financial profile of the state, Fortune magazine called him leader of "the land of granite and fruitcake."

But as governor of the state with the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, what Thomson said counted for something. His campaign slogans, "Ax the Tax," and "New Hampshire is What America Was," were precursors to Ronald Reagan's anti-tax speeches and his Norman Rockwell-esque "Morning in America," promises.

Indeed, in 1975 Reagan traveled to the governor's farm on Mount Cube to get Thomson's blessing for his first bid for the presidency. But by 1980 Thomson found Reagan "too liberal" and ran a Quixotic campaign for the White House himself.

How conservative was Thomson?

Howard Phillips, the director of the Conservative Caucus, labeled the governor "a bizarre mixture of authoritarianism, paranoia and simple aggression."

And, one might add, behind the curve. At a time when the public was beginning to turn away from nuclear power, Thomson played lead trumpet in the pro-nuclear band. His staunch -- and some said blind -- support of the building of the Seabrook nuclear power plant on New Hampshire's 18-mile coast made him a convenient target for demonstrators.

In 1977, 2,000 protestors swarmed the construction site and forced a showdown with Thomson, who donned battle fatigues and hovered over the site in a National Guard helicopter. He stood stone-faced as a woman his own age, a Quaker, pleaded with him to listen, then had her and 1,413 other demonstrators arrested and held in armories around the state.

Thomson won the battle that year, but the damage to him and the nuclear industry was done. Two years later, when the cost of Seabrook drove electricity prices to record levels, a Democrat was able to turn utility bills into a successful campaign for governor. The Seabrook plant opened in 1986 at half its planned size and the owner was driven into bankruptcy.

To the delight of those who covered his administration, Thomson seemed incapable of avoiding confrontation, making William Donald Schaefer's "Mayor Annoyed" routine look positively statesmanlike. He forbade female state workers from using the title, "Ms.," toasted Roman Catholic priests leading a boycott of Gallo wine with a bottle of it and padlocked the State House pressroom.

He was not above wrangling with his neighbors, either.

Thomson urged residents of Nantucket to secede from Massachusetts and join New Hampshire. He waged a "lobster war" against Maine. He built sales-tax-free state-run liquor stores on the borders to entice customers and then had state troopers escort from the parking lots revenue agents from other states.

One could debate his sanity -- and many did during his time in office -- but one could not challenge his love for his adopted state (he grew up in Georgia and retained his Southern accent).

Thomson hiked many of the state's peaks and even held news conferences for reporters with enough stamina to accompany him. Once a year, he opened the door to the sugar house on his farm so that folks could sample fresh maple syrup on pancakes made by his wife, Gail.

Ironically, his most lasting contribution to New Hampshire was pure Mel Thomson. He replaced "Scenic" on the license plates with "Live Free or Die," then jailed a man -- a Jehovah's Witness -- who covered the motto for religious reasons.

The U.S. Supreme Court took the license plate's motto to heart. Thomson lost his appeal.

Candus Thomson spent 11 years covering New Hampshire politics be fore joining The Sun's staff. She is the newspaper's out-of-doors writer. She is not related to Meldrim Thomson.

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