MERRIMACK, N.H. — It’s one of the oddities of American politics that this most parochial and atypical of states has so much to say about selecting presidents.
As such, one would imagine that local parades — especially local July 4th parades — would be teeming with contenders for the job. But they won’t have them in Warner. Not in the parade. Not in the crowd. In Nashua, bands of mummers in full costume march, but there’s not a presidential candidate to be seen. These are family-style events, by invitation only. The appearance by politicians with or without their claque of chanting supporters and printed signs is decidedly unwelcome in New Hampshire town parades.
That is, except for the occasional town that decides to brave the political maelstrom.
Merrimack, a town a bit south of Manchester, by custom allows the men and women who would be president to parade and work the crowds. The contenders march, separated from one another by the high school marching bands, girls gymnastic squads, veterans‚ civic groups and homemade floats carrying kids dressed in colonial costumes throwing candy from bags at ranks of other kids lining the street.
The town has grown precipitously as “flatlanders” have moved into the southern part of the state, fleeing income taxes and the other burdens of civilization. It’s an ordinary, growing-too-fast New Hampshire town. At the parade, only two African Americans could be spotted — a Howard Dean volunteer who drove down from Vermont and a man with a Bob Graham T-shirt marching with the Florida senator and a half a dozen supporters.
The parade seemed to reflect the polls, which now hint of a two-man race, at least in New Hampshire. Former vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman walked around jauntily; North Carolina Senator John Edwards was a no-show — he was represented by a large truck with Teamster District Council signs — and I couldn’t find Rep. Dick Gephardt (though I suppose that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.) It was, essentially, a two-man show, with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and former Vermont governor Howard Dean flanked by the largest contingents by far, with floats, cars and massed supporters with distinctive signs.
Kerry walked, talked and shook hands, sometimes in front of and sometimes behind his supporters. His marchers were led by a contingent of Veterans for Kerry. The senator, despite the media rap that he’s stiff and inaccessible, was actually quite affable. He dribbled a beach ball, smiled and talked easily and intelligently to ordinary folks. He shook hands with everyone, including Dean supporters. He’s tall and thin and looks like he hasn’t been in the sun enough — a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that he’s still a working senator while his opponent, and in many ways polar opposite, Howard Dean, is a full-time campaigner.
When asked what he made of the fact that he was walking while a Republican campaign bus rumbled alongside, Kerry responded to the softball question with a line about being a man of the people.
As Kerry fell behind while talking to this reporter, his handlers got nervous. There were hands to shake, a march to keep moving, and they tried to maneuver me away. That’s Kerry’s problem. He needs to be himself and follow his own instincts.
Many observers say his fateful mistake was his attempt to be both for and against the Iraq war, with considerations of the general election apparently dancing in his — or an adviser’s — head. According to this view, Kerry, a war hero and anti-war activist, became in that instant just another politician and gave an opening to Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor walked through that door and was carried along by the tide of enthusiastic supporters that is still propelling him forward.
Dean is the new fundraising and Web champ. His volunteers recently even went house-to-house in Warner, leaving campaign literature in my door on a dirt road where the next house to the west is almost a half-mile away. And although he’s now playing with the big boys, there’s still a sense of insurgent energy and improvisational élan running through the Dean campaign.
The kids, the candidates, the bands passed. As is traditional in many towns, the parade ended with fire trucks, sirens screaming and horns blaring. I was standing in the shade alongside a town cemetery next to a classic, white steepled church talking to 74-year-old Roland, from Nashua, and his wife, Betty.
Nashua is the state’s second largest city, a short drive to the south. In his time, Roland has watched Nashua grow from 26,000 to 90,000. Back in 1946 (the year I was born), Roland explained, the Nashua football team was the first to play out of the state. Nashua, he said, is perfectly situated, an hour from Boston and an hour from the ocean and the mountains.
Roland was looking forward to the Nashua parade. String bands. And no politicians.