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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There's no such luck for the rest of us, who catch the Exeter town hall appearance of John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz, or Teresa Heinz-Kerry, as she prefers to be called during campaign years. Taking the stage of one of the elite prep school's halls, decked with marble columns and framed portraits of long-ago trustees looking distinguished in goopy oils, Heinz lives up to her well-earned reputation for saying just about anything. (Earlier last year, the ketchup heiress told Elle that "you have to have a prenup.") Launching into a Dadaist recitation of every subject from her childhood in Mozambique to Marilyn Monroe, she offers that one of the reasons she thinks her husband should be president is "because I'm getting older." While she extols his going into battle as "a lieutenant, not a general" (an obvious swipe at Wes Clark, who had earlier bragged of outranking Kerry), she awkwardly concludes by saying, "I would like to be in a foxhole with him."

On the Internet, the Exeter event was billed as a "Chili-feed," a campaign staple that has allowed Kerry to be all things to all people (he's gigged with Moby, invited reporters to watch him play pick-up hockey, and even posed for WindSurfer magazine). Tonight, he's not actually serving chili, but that doesn't mean that the guitar-picking wind-surfer can't show off a new hat--or an old one to be more precise--that of a blue-blooded child of privilege.

Kerry sounds all his usual themes, including the obligatory dozen or so allusions to his military service. But he also lets the Exeter audience know that he's their kind of people, rattling off his prep school pedigree. Admitting that he went to St. Paul's and that his daughter and father went to Andover, he jokingly begs for mercy since his wife used to be a trustee at Exeter. At this, my former colleague "Crossfire"-host Tucker Carlson, sitting next to me, nearly chokes on his Nicorette gum. "I don't remember him talking like this in Iowa," he says.

The next morning, I wake up not feeling so well. It seems I've come down with a touch of Kucinich Fever. Inside of Dennis Kucinich's bustling Manchester headquarters, he's consented to a slew of one-on-one's with reporters. As I wait for my turn, I gaze around the office, which looks like that of an alternative newspaper edited by John Lennon. Everywhere are clippings taped to the wall, and peace-themed literature, befitting the candidate who has espoused a Department of Peace.

As Kucinich pops his head out of his office door, he shushes us in the waiting room, telling us our chatter is ruining the audio for a television crew. Leavening the reprimand, he whispers, "Peace," and pops his head back in. When my turn comes, the staunch vegan is enjoying a bowl full of oatmeal and a styrofoam cup of hot lemon-water, which he trades for a paper cup, since, he says, the acidity of the lemon absorbs the styrofoam. "You're drinking plastic," he warns.

With ferret-like movements, he lands next to me, and tells me how the frontrunners in his party have stepped into a Republican-sprung bear trap on Iraq: They either voted for the war, and pretend that they didn't. Or they didn't vote for the war, but support a limited occupation. As Iraq comes to define the election, only he provides a clear-cut alternative to Bush, as someone who was against the war and wants to bring our troops home immediately, replacing them with U.N. peacekeeping forces. He's convinced no nominee will pick up 50 percent of the delegates by the convention, that he will push the fight all the way, and ultimately become his party's nominee. "You think I'm kidding," he says when I permit a slight smile, thinking about him stuck at 4 percent in the polls. He's not, he assures me. Because he has a secret weapon: "unlimited chutzpah."

A sucker for directness, I'm utterly charmed by Kucinich. I ask him to sign "A Prayer for America," his campaign book, which I now call "my bible," so that I can flip it on eBay. "Cool," he says. In fact, we get along so well that I ask him to send out a special coded message to me in that night's Democratic debate--a word that's not too inevitable, like "peace," but not too obscure, like "rutabaga." He can choose the word. I half expect him to tell me to get lost. But he doesn't. He chews his oatmeal thoughtfully. "Spirit," he says. It's a deal.

I kill the rest of the afternoon watching Wes Clark bag groceries at Sully's Superette. It's an ugly little affair in which throngs of journalists clog supermarket aisles, with photographers angrily barking at each other as each tries to capture the perfect backdrop of Clark standing in front of Velveeta cheese-spread boxes. Clark, in his defense, packs a mean sack, even if he drops an old woman's diet cookies. The manager says she'd hire him if he'd fill out an application. As a fledgling candidate, it's good to have a marketable skill to fall back on.