The Magazine

The Spirit of New Hampshire

From the February 2, 2004 issue: With the "Wes-wavers," Lieberman's mom, and Dennis Kucinich in Manchester.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By MATT LABASH
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Manchester, New Hampshire

OWING TO geographic and time-travel limitations, Cicero never made it to the New Hampshire primaries. Still, he anticipated them when he said, "A most wretched custom is our electioneering and scrambling for office." From the moment you touch down here, you sense a chicken-or-egg dynamic: It's unclear if the trivial is being made to seem important, or the important, trivial.

Almost everything in the state is tainted by overkill or hype. Rookie reporters check into Bedford's Wayfarer Inn--perhaps the most storied hotel on the campaign trail--half expecting the hotel bar to be haunted by grizzled newspapermen with hollow legs full of lager. Instead, they find that they're in a dreary hole next to a Macy's parking lot, that the bar often closes by 10, and that the toilets are installed too low, making even short people feel like NBA players when they sit on them, which I wouldn't recommend.

But despite all the "quaint" towns and "flinty" locals--as the newspaper guild requires hacks to designate all places and people in New Hampshire--it is, as one visitor tells me, a peek "inside the fishbowl--the ultimate 'Finding Nemo'." And he is right. I wasn't on the ground for 45 minutes before I found myself on a frozen downtown street corner, waving for Wes Clark (a Clark press release, one of 50 or so that come from the campaigns each day, reminded us that "if it's Wednesday, it's time for Waving for Wes").

For the last five Wednesdays, a group of 30 or so young campaign staffers, or Wes-wavers, have taken to street-corners, braving frostbite and heckling car horns and extended middle digits to sway sentiments toward The General. Despite all the blowback, they "stay positive, like John Edwards," says one, who's dutifully, if not sarcastically, feeding me back a journalistic cliché. This is, after all, a place that thrives on journalistic clichés, as evidenced by an entire chattering class of adults who spent the week being scandalized by Howard Dean's exclamatory "yee-hawwww," after his third-place finish in Iowa.

As the Wes-wavers take their places, Vinny Solomeno, a volunteer who's here with his cousin ("Cousins for Clark," they call themselves) shouts stage directions in an imitative Dean bellow: "We're going to Granite Ave.! We're going to Merrimack! We're going to Main Street!" Just then, a car drives by, spying the Clark signs and giving the thumbs-up. "Wow," says one volunteer, "that wasn't even one of our staffers. Those are real people!" As I talk to several Wes-wavers who admit such exercises are nearly pointless, I ask one why they do it. He's been nothing but friendly, but at this, he grows impatient. "We're doing it for you, you assholes. What would you guys be saying if you didn't see anyone out here?"

After an hour, I'm down Elm Street to the next pseudo-event: the launching of Joe Lieberman's bus, the Integrity One. If you're a candidate, it's a swell thing to have a bus. On it, you can talk to your press corps about your best attributes--like your integrity, for one. Lieberman's bus, however, is hung up in traffic. So the inaugural ride will become the inaugural walk, in which Lieberman, and a throng of rabid "Joe"-chanting supporters, will pin hapless yet "flinty" potential voters against the "quaint" storefronts of Papa John's, CVS, and Dunkin Donuts.

But before Lieberman shows, his wheelchair-bound 89-year-old mother is rolled out to wait for him. Though the temperature is subfreezing, she has neither a hat, nor gloves. I ask her what kind of son would let his aged mother cool her heels in this weather. She socks me in the arm--either playfully or just feebly, because she is an octogenarian who's been left out in the elements and is unable to muster more force. As she waits for her son to come out and roast some warm chestnuts ("State of the Union? George Bush is in a State of Denial"), she tells me she doesn't need any more layers: The excitement of the campaign is such that "I'm warm in my heart."