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Primary Colors

Jonathan V. Last, reporter.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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For a reporter, going to New Hampshire in primary season is like going to the ballpark: No matter how many times you've been, you might see something you've never seen before.

This year, the Granite State provided more than the usual incidence of the unusual. I saw the best nut-ball protest candidate in a long time, a fellow named Vermin Supreme. He filed to get on the ballot the same day as Hillary Clinton, and you could spot him with his megaphone outside the rallies of the major candidates. Unlike most protest candidates, Vermin seemed to be in on the joke: His campaign manifesto attacking the tyranny of the two-party system read: "No longer should people have to choose between the vanilla and chocolate of a two-party system. America has a new choice. Vermin Supreme! A chocolate-vanilla swirl! Possibly dipped in chocolate or maybe with sprinkles!"

Then at the debates at Saint Anselm College, hundreds of us journalists were penned up in a gymnasium from 4 P.M. till midnight. We were there to watch the encounters on big-screen televisions, while the actual debates took place in the building next door. I watched as big name media types spent the night kibitzing or surfing the web, all but oblivious to the event they were supposedly covering--no surprise there. But here's the oddity: Sitting at the table in front of me, veteran Beltway Boy Mort Kondracke spent the entire night carefully watching the debates and taking notes, longhand, on a reporter's pad.

The other surprise came in a little jewel of a 100-year-old opera house in Rochester. Barack Obama was in town, fresh from his Iowa triumph, and the circus was in full swing. Just about everyone in America (except the voters) was ready to escort him into the Oval Office, and he was being followed by crowds of adoring supporters, many of them working journalists.

A few minutes after Obama took the stage, a group of about a dozen protesters in the balcony interrupted him, chanting, "Abortion is abomination!" This sort of thing happens all the time at political events. Sometimes the intruders are the "community of peacemakers" who call themselves Code Pink, sometimes they're LaRouchies. When anti-abortion folks disrupt an event, the response is usually the same: The pro-abortion audience heckles the banner-wielding protesters; the speaker tosses off a barb or two; security escorts the demonstrators away; and the audience cheers, partly in self-satisfaction, partly in derision at the rubes who think babies are not choices.

But at the Obama event, something extraordinary happened. The protesters chanted "Abortion is abomination!" Obama lost his place in his speech and stared up into the balcony, looking to see who was interrupting him. The crowd began booing lustily, and suddenly Obama turned on them.

"There's no need to boo," he chastised them. After silencing the crowd, Obama turned back to the protesters and said he appreciated their point and would be happy to talk with them afterwards if they'd let him finish his speech. The protesters continued, and the crowd, thinking Obama simply didn't want them to be negative, tried shouting them down, chanting "Obama! Obama!"

At which point Obama turned on them again. "Hold up," he commanded. "This is an example of nobody hearing each other." The Obama partisans desisted once more. The anti-abortion chanters continued, and Obama tried to engage them. "For the folks who are opposed to abortion, I understand your position, but this isn't going to solve anything," he said plaintively. He gave them time to make their point, and eventually they were led away.

The crowd cheered wildly as the demonstrators were taken down the back staircase by the local police, and here Obama cut through the applause to lecture them one final time. "Let me just say this, though," he said. "Those people got organized to do that. And that is part of the American tradition we are proud of. And that's hard, too--standing in the midst of people who don't agree with you and letting your voice be heard." The audience, a bit stunned, didn't quite know what to make of this.

I didn't either. From my point of view, it would be much better if Barack Obama were willing to help protect the lives of the unborn. Still, his treatment of those protesters--and especially his treatment of his own supporters--spoke to his intellectual seriousness and his temperament, both of which seem to be first rate.

A superior clown-candidate, a media star not resting on his laurels, a calm and civil politician: a mere week's worth of wonders in New Hampshire.

JONATHAN V. LAST