The New Hampshire primary, more than most stops on the campaign trail, is no place for human dignity. It sits at the crossroads of abasement and overhype. It is populated by rubberneckers, drunks, moral pygmies, and publicity tapeworms—and that’s before you ever leave media HQ at the Radisson Hotel on Elm Street.
But to make a reporter truly question his career choice, one need only cross the street to Veterans Memorial Park. While the election circus is in town this week, the park is inhabited by Occupy The New Hampshire Primary, a subsidiary of Occupy Wall Street™—the anticorporatist, anti-one-percenter, anti-everything movement that since last September has proved that the Tea Party ranks a distant second when it comes to screaming in the streets while wearing fruity costumes.
It is here that I encounter Vermin Supreme, shouting through an electric megaphone about getting the money out of politics while wearing a rubber wading boot on his head. You’ve probably heard of Vermin already. He’s been featured everywhere from CNN to the Washington Post. With flowing gray hair and beard, he looks like Tolkien’s Gandalf, except instead of wearing wizard’s robes, he dons a loud tiger-striped jacket and seven or eight ties simultaneously, reasoning that “the more ties you wear, the higher rank you are.”
Between being an odd-jobber—doing everything from painting houses to dressing as Babar the Elephant for the Baltimore Museum of Art—Vermin is a career gadfly activist. Like so many other opportunistic grievance-groupers, he’s hitched his wagon to Occupy, realizing the publicity they generate is a force multiplier, which helps his fledgling campaign for president. He’s on the ballot in New Hampshire, challenging Barack Obama on the Democratic side. Vermin’s issues—which are deliberately beside the point, like most of the issues of mainstream candidates running this cycle—include mandatory tooth-brushing (“Strong Teeth for a Strong America”) and a pony for every citizen. It’s a promise that’s only slightly less sustainable than the ones his competition made in 2008.
I ask Vermin the significance of the boot on his head. “It stands for all that is good with America,” he says. I don’t get it, I respond. “Oh man! You and the media with your tough, follow-up questions,” he grimaces. “You got me, fella. What this boot is really about is attracting media interest. It’s like a f—ing hooker’s red light, okay? Who’s the guy with the boot? You come over and start talking to me. There you go, it works!”
We chat for a while about his hopes and dreams. “My own personal goal was always to beat Lyndon LaRouche,” Vermin confides. He relates some of his campaign highlights, such as the time he glitter-bombed Randall Terry at the Lesser Known Candidates Presidential Forum, claiming that Jesus had instructed him to turn Terry gay. “It was a one-off,” says Vermin. “It is not my tactic. If I were to become a serial glitter-bomber, it would seriously impact my ability to get close enough to candidates to ask them a stupid question.”
In fact, he’s just back from a Rick Santorum event. It was a nice break for him, since Santorum was late, so Vermin availed himself of the empty podium and warmed up the crowd. “It was beautiful,” says Vermin. “It was very fine. It was at a smaller restaurant [where Santorum] was totally outnumbered by protesters and the media, of course. Because the media are probably responsible for half the given people at any event anyway. It’s just a big show-and-tell, you know? The media and the politicians—it’s a feedback loop.”
I ask Vermin if he’d like to join me for Occupy’s “Bird-Dogging Political Candidates” clinic at a nearby church. He declines. “I’ve got my bird-dogging system down,” he says, waving his megaphone. I walk away, but before I can cross the street, Vermin yells through the megaphone for me to come back. He wants me to meet some admirers who just approached—Ron Paul supporters in buttons and tricorn hats who ecstatically tell Vermin that they just saw him on C-SPAN.
Since I last spent quality time with the Occupy movement in October, at their Zuccotti Park Ground Zero, their hundreds of nationwide encampments (now mostly disbanded by local authorities) have generated barrels of ink. If it’s true that any publicity is good publicity, then Occupy is golden, having garnered headlines for Occupiers’ defecating on cop cars, splattering blood and urine on food carts after vendors stopped their free service, masturbating in public, perpetrating sexual assaults, storming hospitals and ports, spitting on Coast Guard members, singing “F— the USA,” and drawing the support of China and the Communist party. My very favorite Drudge headline: “SHOCK VIDEO: Occupy Toronto: ‘This Man Was in my Tent Sniffing my Girlfriend’s Feet.’ ”
Needless to say, Occupy has become America’s Sweetheart. Or not exactly—but they have become part of the architecture, as their steady patter about class warfare, the evils of capitalism, and upending a good many of our corrupt financial and political institutions seems to be catching on in uneasy, recession-addled America. A December Pew poll showed that while Americans disapproved of the protesters’ tactics by 49 percent to 29 percent, 48 percent agreed with Occupiers’ concerns (however those are defined), while only 30 percent disagreed. A just-released Pew poll shows that a full two-thirds of the public now believe that there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between rich and poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.
To the Occupiers’ delight, even fat-cat Republicans seem willing to push the hot-button these days, even if it’s just for cynical political gain. Rick Perry, who has raised enough money to float Texas if it decides to secede, as he once advocated it doing, is now calling Mitt Romney a “vulture capitalist.” Newt Gingrich, just two months ago, dismissively told Occupiers that they needed to “get a job” and “take a bath.” But while on his chat-show lecture rounds on the evils of Romney’s rapacious tenure as a corporate turnaround artist, Gingrich is starting to sound like a kaffiyeh-wearing Occupier himself, even as he depends on a pro-Newt super-PAC spending millions to sing the point home. It beats the hell out of Vermin’s megaphone.
Still, as I enter the park, I can’t help but feel a loss of Occupier momentum on the ground. It’s not like those heady days back at Zuccotti when I marched with the anarchists and yelled at the pigs, when I sat in on conga at the crowded drum circles, when I stood in line for a half an hour waiting to take a squirt at the People’s McDonald’s across the street.
Here, a good four-fifths of the Occupiers’ park is utterly unoccupied. The General Assemblies are poorly attended, and when one Occupier is asked to help break down tents, he claims he’s suffering a hip pointer. When asked to draft volunteers instead, he refuses, saying that’s “excessively hierarchical.” The “Puppets and Power” theater is lame. The “Dance Party of Awesomeness / Emma Goldman Tribute” plays dated rap music from the early ’90s. Nobody seems to know what time the flash mob starts.
Last October in Manhattan, I kept company with menacing intimidators like Sid the Nazi, who was covered in Third Reich and naked pagan goddess tattoos. Here in Manchester, there are the requisite Sherpa hats and scraggly facial hair (even on a few of the women). But the protesters are so unthreatening that I’m actually approached at the park by a gaggle of curiosity-seeking Romney supporters, one of them still wearing a Sundance Festival lammie on his ski jacket, who said they happened by because they “like the music—good rhythm section.” Sundance Man tries to give me a knuckle-bump of solidarity. I make a quick escape, looking for a self-respecting anarchist. I approach the one guy I see with a mask around his neck, asking if he is one. “No, but I have an affinity for some of their principles,” he says. When I ask why I can’t seem to find any anarchists when the place was crawling with them in New York, he says, “We’re a pretty small town, comparatively speaking.” His nose-ringed buddy shakes his head in assent. “Location, location,” he laments.
Most of the action takes place away from the park. To this end, I wet my beak by attending the Occupiers’ “Bird-Dogging Political Candidates” seminar at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester. Like most Unitarian spaces, it is a welcoming one—lots of soft colors, multi-cultural depictions of Jesus, and cutesy signs such as “Unattended children will be given lots of espresso and a puppy.”
We form a circle in the sanctuary. Our facilitator, who wears a sweater with a very complicated pattern, has us role play. He tells us to try to shake the candidate’s hand, then to hold on for dear life so that he can’t get away. Meanwhile, we are to ask short, nonabusive questions that are sharpened like spears, designed to achieve maximum media penetration. I listen to my classmates’ practice questions. Many seem to favor the white-paper route, with lots of statistics and footnotes. Just stick and move, people, I want to tell them. So I zone out, instead reading the fascinating church literature. It asks if I’m looking for a religious home. I’m good. But I’m intrigued by their claims that Unitarians afford a church that “encourages open dialogue on questions of faith, one in which it is okay to change your mind.” I figure I should hand this pamphlet off to my new knuckle-bumping Romney friends at the park. If Mitt is ever excommunicated from LDS, he’ll fit in here just fine.
The next day, we hearty Occupiers are off to bird-dog Rick Santorum during a scheduled door-to-door neighborhood walk-through. From the park, we all split off, and I offer to drive three Occupiers in my SUV. Kevin O’Connell, who is from Boston and who wears a Bruins jersey, carries an empty placard, feeling pressure to fill it out before we’re on our way. We decide to brainstorm in the car. “Moratorium on Santorum,” says Jim Taddeo, a political science student who rides shotgun. “That sounded better in my head,” he says.
“Catholics forgive—not pick fights with Iran,” Kevin offers haltingly. “Let’s keep working on it,” I say, not wishing to untangle Kevin’s syntax. I ask my car-mates to locate themselves politically. “I’ve gone old-school Marxist,” says Jim, “though I reject materialism as a metaphysics.” Victor Ochoa from Asheville, who is wearing a brand-new snazzy Patagonia jacket with the tag still on it in case he wants to return it after Revolution Week, offers, “I believe in progressive utilization theory.” Not wishing to open that can of wind, I put the question to Kevin: “What are you politically?”
“Disgusted,” he says.
We rendezvous with other activists at a Catholic church where Santorum is supposed to kick things off. But after waiting in vain for 30 minutes, we find out that he’s running late and is skipping ahead to his next event. I find out the address of the general store where he’ll appear in Amherst and am instructed by another activist to mic-check it for the crowd (the process whereby one Occupier will shout something, and the rest of the crowd will shout it back). “Mic-check!” I yell, and make my announcement. I pause after every word, waiting for the echo to come back, so everyone catches the info.
“That was my first mic-check,” I tell one Occupier afterwards. “How’d I do?”
“Not bad,” he says. “You might want to speed it up a little.”
Waiting for Santorum outside the general store, a 17-year-old Occupier named Austin is shown by a more seasoned activist how to knife through the crowd, clasp Santorum’s hand, then pop his question, giving the world another electric media moment. Austin is nervous. He’s not done this before. He paces, while running the question over and over with his girlfriend, who does her best to play Santorum if Santorum were a 17-year-old girl with multicolored hair. I tell Austin he doesn’t want to get stiff-armed by Santorum’s security thugs. The cops are already checking us out, so he needs to lose the Occupy sticker, his funky hat (Republicans are hair people, not hat people), and maybe to ditch the earrings. He passes on the last suggestion, which is fine. They’re two black studs—pretty conservative as earrings go.
Santorum arrives, and as his Escalade disgorges him, a crowd presses in. Austin is nowhere to be seen. Being a professional news-gatherer, I am in position to ask my own very important question, which will further the democratic process and help illuminate who is best suited to lead the free world: “Senator Santorum, how many sweater vests do you . . . ”
But before I can finish, Austin swoops in like a bird of prey, grips Santorum’s hand and says, “Senator Santorum, I just wanted to ask you if you support 99 percent of the people more than 1 percent of the corporations?” Perhaps taken aback by the subtlety and nuance of the question, Santorum briefly pauses, smiles, and says, “I support 100 percent of the people.”
Congratulations-singing Occupiers ring Austin afterwards.
Not every caper comes off so clean, however. A day later, the Occupiers have descended on a Mexican restaurant where Newt is due for a Latino town hall. I sneak my old pal Victor inside as a member of the press, even if his Patagonia tag, still dangling from his new jacket, elicits suspicious looks. It is strictly back-to-belly. We can’t even get near the main room. There must be 500 people in this tight space, 450 of them journalists. Victor ducks low and rudely squeezes through the crowd like a greased ferret. Still stubbornly clinging to my last shred of dignity, I head outside with the other Occupiers. They are jostling for attention in the parking lot, where they’ve been joined by two PETA activists in pink pig suits (the swine, staying in character, refuse to speak but do refer me to their spokesperson). There is also a man standing in front of a banner depicting a cross-section of women in their skivvies. He is hawking American-manufactured bras, custom-made using 10 unique measurements for the perfect “bra experience.”
I tell him I’m so impressed by his bra spiel that I’m thinking of buying one for myself.
“We guarantee a perfect fit,” he deadpans.
In the parking lot, the Occupiers get rowdy. Mark Provost, one of their leaders, “plays” a drum, two sticks simultaneously, while chanting at the top of his lungs and banging on every syllable in a thrash cadence, “Occ-U-Py-Dem-Oc-Ra-Cy / Occ-U-Py-Plu-Toc-Ra-Cy.”
“He can’t play drums for s—t,” says a fellow Occupier.
The restaurant owners don’t take kindly to this and ask the cops to remove the protesters to the street. The protesters don’t take kindly to the cops’ request. One tries to slide a window open so Mark can serenade Newt’s town hall with his plutocracy rocker. But a Newt security goon starts punching his hand, breaking the skin, sending Mark into a rage: “We’re filing a police report against you! . . . You don’t know who the f— you’re f—ing with! . . . Now you’re done, son!” Occupiers keep firing off chants such as JP Morgan / Goldman Sachs / People Want Their Country Back!, while on the far end of the building, presumably where Newt is actually delivering remarks on the other side of the wall, stands Vermin Supreme with his megaphone up to the window, shouting: “Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt! We have you surrounded! Come out with your hands up and your pants down.”
I point out to Vermin that he’s a grown man. Doesn’t he ever get tired of being on the outside looking in? “Sometimes I do get in the building,” he says defensively. I meant metaphorically, I tell him. Not really, he says. Sure, it’s hard work being permanently agitated, instead of working a real job. He doesn’t have health insurance even though he lives in a state that mandates it “because I’m an outlaw.” But if he were inside, he says, “that would imply another kind of social status that I don’t know I’d be comfortable with.” So I ask him what he gets out of this—besides a little bit of attention.
“As the kids say, FTWLOLB,” Vermin smiles. “F— the world, lots of laughs, baby.”
On primary eve, I’m in for a different kind of Occupy experience. I’ve headed up through the White Mountains to the North Country. I arrive in hallowed Dixville Notch, home of the grand old New Hampshire hotel, the Balsams, where at the stroke of midnight on Election Day the nine registered voters left in this tiny hamlet will cast the first votes in the first primary in the nation. While the ballot room and a few others will be open for this purpose, the hotel has recently been sold and shuttered indefinitely for renovations. The rest of the property has gone dark.
So I have to stay at the nearby Notch View Inn, where my innkeeper, Bill Sparklin, who resembles Jeff Bridges in his Big Lebowski phase, tells me that his daughter’s boyfriend is a member of Occupy L.A. “He’s been arrested like three times,” says Bill. “And they keep letting him out. Keep him in there!”
Occupier Corry Hughes, a retired special-ed teacher from nearby Jefferson who has a tie-dyed business card that says “Old Hippies for Peace,” organized an Occupier protest outside the hotel, which has attracted about 20 comrades. She cleared it in advance with the hotel owners and the authorities. But instead of playing thrash chants or berating those on their way inside, the generally middle-aged-to-older crowd stands meekly outside the entrance with their get-the-money-out-of-politics signs, welcoming townspeople they recognize.
Inside, the nine voters of Dixville Notch ready themselves in a cordoned-off VIP section. They mostly are hotel employees who now, like so much of the rest of the country, are looking for work. General manager/voter Jeff McIver tells me what a great place this once was. It’s the kind of drafty old resort hotel of yesteryear, with a music director and a band. It’s the kind of place without televisions in the rooms. “Because if you have televisions,” says Jeff, “everybody stays in their room, and you don’t have that music director and that band.”
Back outside, I tell the Occupiers that this is the most well-mannered protest I’ve ever attended. It seems almost odd, as if the protesters have a reverence for the decades-old tradition unfolding inside. “I love this stuff,” says Susan Bruce, an underemployed blogger whose husband died a few years back, whose house was then foreclosed on and who has suffered through bouts of homelessness since. “This hotel has been here since the 1800s. It was built before there was electricity. So there’s reverence for that, especially if you love history.” And she does—her husband was a historian.
“These are the townspeople of Dixville, which is a very small town. We don’t want to mess up their voting. This is what they do. It’s important to them. Many of them are the 99 percent. We’re part of them. There’s no need to be disrespectful. How can you be disrespectful here?”
I point out that many of the voters inside are voting Republican, Republicans being the people her people think are destroying the country. That’s okay too, she says. “Because that’s their choice. I believe in choice of every kind. I know that’s not a Republican tenet,” she jokes. She takes her politics seriously, lives them even. But she’s from a small town where “Republicans are my neighbors. Collectively, Republicans are pretty reprehensible. But individually, not so much.”
Midnight strikes, and the votes are cast and counted. The voters, the media, and even the Occupiers—leaving their signs behind in the cold—all gather outside the ballot room to hear the results not five minutes after the polls close. The first ballot of this presidential primary was cast by Jacques Couture, the hotel’s erstwhile locksmith, a French Canadian and naturalized citizen who voted for Obama, perhaps not a good omen for Republicans (Obama racked up three of the nine votes). Mitt Romney tied for first on the Republican side with Jon Huntsman (two votes apiece), surely the last time Huntsman will ever enjoy frontrunner status.
The room digests these little absurdities. The night seems over before it began. We all breathe a sigh of anticlimax. In my ear, I hear a hoarse whisper. It comes from a charming septuagenarian Occupier in a clerical collar named Rev. Gerald Oleson. His business card reads “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” Oleson is missing most of his voice as a result of throat cancer.
But he puts a nice capper on the evening and, indeed, on the whole New Hampshire primary experience: “It’s like Senator Eugene McCarthy used to say, ‘Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.’ ”
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Fly Fishing with Darth Vader.