The Late Bill Clinton

by Our Frozen Correspondent

MONDAY, JAN 7: The Claremont, NH Edwards campaign office is a shabby storefront, one of many on this once thriving, Victorian-era Main Street. A few folding tables and chairs are all that occupy the empty room. A couple of campaign workers sit at one end of a table hunched over their laptops which display lists of names, addresses, and phone numbers. They are methodically going through the lists, which are lists of “known supporters,” calling them to ask for help at the polls tomorrow. The preschool-age daughter of one of the workers tosses a boomerang toy around the room. “Not near the computers!” her mother gently cautions.

Plainly a lot of people are sick and tired of being called by campaigns, the workers spent half their time apologizing. They are expert at making an apology that segues into a candidate pitch.
Other people drift in: a homeless man in a Dartmouth t-shirt, a woman who has volunteered to make phone calls, more experienced volunteers, and campaign workers, including my friend Judith.
Judith is mad with Kucinich, who has dissed Edwards. The phone-callers take a break to show her a satiric online video about Hillary – it shows audience members at a Hillary speech getting bored and leaving during one of her Q&A sessions.

A young man who appears to be the head staff person here is upbeat about the election. Polls show Hillary’s lead slipping. He thinks (against the convention wisdom that this is due to Obama picking up votes – the “bounce” from his Iowa victory) that this gives Edwards an advantage, and he will have a substantial second-place showing tomorrow, if not a victory.

He will be going on, depending on the NH Primary outcome, to the next primary. I ask if he will be in Maryland for our primary. He shrugs. Judith gets excited – says she will come down for the Maryland primary, and go around with me to candidate rallies and home-visits. I shake my head. “Judith, you are so spoiled in New Hampshire!”

One of the campaign workers, who I at first took for the companion of the homeless man, picks up a cell phone and makes it instantly clear that she is a brilliant organizer. She deftly handles the callee’s annoyance and gets them talking about the issues they care about, relating them to her own concerns. Soon she is swapping anecdotes about health insurance, skillfully inserting references to Edwards and how he will fix the problems. Edwards claims to have the most progressive plan for health care reform, closer than Obama’s or Clinton’s to that liberal holy grail: The Single Payer System.

Another volunteer is not as skilled. One of the more experienced workers delicately suggests she should not ask people if they are still supporting Edwards “because we want to keep track of who people are voting for.” Frankly, if I’d been called by this rather thick-witted volunteer, I would switch my vote. But, local voluteers are golden, so she is handled gently and with appreciation.

Judith offers the opportunity to cross the town square to the Opera House to hear Bill Clinton speak. Sounds good to me. She considers it a spy mission, she makes sure she has no Edwards buttons, stuffs her purse with copies of his 60 page program (he’s the only candidate to have such a document, she claims), and we head out, past the Obama and Hillary campaign offices, all within sight of each other (this is a boon for Claremont – three derelict storefronts rented out and an influx of campaign workers with spending money).

Past the Tumble In Cafe – an ancient, tiny trolley diner, the real thing, to the Opera House built when Claremont was a major manufacturing center. We line up to wait (this seems to be standard for these events), but this time it is indoors, on a grand flight of stairs. Judith is all eyes. She knows many of the people here and keeps me informed via murmured commentary from the corner of her mouth. Not only does she know them, she knows what candidate they support. She is gleeful that a significant number of the crowd are not Hillary supporters.

She strikes up a conversation with a fellow in front of us in line, quizzes him about his candidate preference. She mentions Edwards, the fellow wrinkles his face and says Edwards is a phony. Judith makes a spirited defense and pulls out a copy of Edwards’ 60 page program, pressing it into his reluctant hand. He continues to disparage Edwards, she continues to argue. Recognizing the impasse, they shift to analyzing the other candidates.

I’ve seen this happen alot at these things, especially in line. Bored people strike up conversations about the candidates, compare their impressions of them, and when they find areas of disagreement, acknowledge them politely and move the discussion on. Most everyone is going the rounds, getting out to see all the candidates – out of duty or curiosity. Some have seen candidates more than once. I’m reminded of the chatter you’d hear on line for a concert or club about local bands, declaring favorite performers and songs, citing memorable lyrics or performances. “Did you see him in Manchester? OH, he rocked!”

Judith is thrilled that the hall is not filled. Only about 200 people are there. We find good seats near the front. Judith chats up a local politician, but can’t pry a candidate preference out of her. We wait over an hour, watching the sweeps by a bomb-sniffing dog, the self-important pacings of campaign staffers, the interactions of the crowd, including the complicated negotiations between staff and a group of deaf people. I can’t tell exactly, but I think they brought their own interpreter, but the staff has one too. We spot the homeless man in the audience and wonder how he got past security and if he will be a problem.

I want to get down to Salem , over an hour’s drive to the southeast to see Hillary, so I leave without seeing Bill. I do get to see the t-shirt toss, however! Just as we’re leaving, a highly charged young woman comes out on stage and throws out packets of white Hillary t-shirts, she asks people to put them on.

Judith will be up all night, probably. There are signs to put out at the polling places, and door-hangers to hang on doors. Judith refuses to do the door-hanging, especially late at night, she fears dogs.

I drive southeast on 2-lane roads that tunnel through pine forests. I pass ponds and lakes, the summer homes shuttered and dark, hibernating under pillows of snow. A blue-black river clefts a white field and twists into the woods. The road bends to follow it up a hill.

I remember this road. This was the way to a commune I used to visit. They had a mimeograph machine they let me and my friends use to print an underground high-school newsletter. There used to be a sign at this corner, hung by some local farmer that read “Drive carefully, your highway taxes at work!” – a comment on the lack of services and maintenance in tax-free New Hampshire.

The old farmhouse the mimeo-owning communards occupied came semi-furnished. In other words, the previous occupants had left a lot of their stuff. The former occupants had been in the house for at least two generations. A doorframe was heavily marked and annotated with names and heights of family members. The communards were using someone’s old diaries and photos to start the fire in the old cast-iron woodstove. I expressed horror. The lead communard said, “Oh, I read them over, there was nothing important in them.”

And, this is how the drive goes as I get onto the interstate and travel toward my hometown, landmarks triggering memories all the way.

No time to stop, though, I zoom past and head directly south to Salem next to the Massachusetts border.


About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.