Primary Crimes

The scene: 5:30 a.m., Tuesday, February 24, 1976, pitch dark and blood-freezing, in a nameless maze of tract-house streets on the outskirts of Nashua, New Hampshire. I’m a twenty-two year old med school dropout, left off in the small hours of Primary Day to make the rounds of this moonscape with a big handful of Udall for President door hangers, trying not to stir the local dog population into alarums and excursions. I’ve had no coffee, nor anything else remotely warming, and I’ve forgotten my gloves. Someone’s supposed to pick me up sometime after noon.

How did I get here?  I could’ve stayed in the nice warm national campaign headquarters in Washington, DC, two blocks from my apartment. Since the campaign powers-that-be discovered that I can type (an Ivy League degree being otherwise worthless in the later 1970s), I’ve been promoted to administrative assistant on the second floor, away from all the envelope-stuffing and Xeroxing assigned to a typical walk-in volunteer.

But the action and excitement—and Mo himself, for the most part—are in the all-important New Hampshire primary. Our man, a one-eyed, six-foot-five Jack Mormon liberal environmentalist, is facing off against the upstart Jimmy Carter, and a few of us decide we want to experience it first-hand. So, needing all the hands they can get to counteract the disciplined busloads of Georgians blanketing the streets of New Hampshire, the campaign director decides he can dispense with my typing skills for a few days.

Which is how I find myself crammed into a faded blue Volkswagen Beetle of uncertain vintage and roadworthiness with four other front-lines wannabes, crawling up Route 95 towards Nashua like a bug towards the light, buoyed by the promise of a warm bed and a good dinner from one of the hospitable families who are turning over their spare bedrooms to campaign workers. We’re aiming for an address on Nashua’s Main Street, which sounds nice and convenient to downtown, where there will surely be good diners for candidate-spotting and blue-plate specials of hash and poached eggs, tomato soup and grilled cheese.

It starts going bad when our driver, a stringy stoner named Jim, finally admits about nine hours into an eight-hour trip that he’s gotten us lost,  not an easy thing to do on Route 95. Hannah, the other female passenger, and I have been trading turns on somebody’s lap, an arrangement that has rapidly grown tiresome for everyone. Stoner Jim has overshot the northern turnoff and is heading us straight for Providence. Once corrected, it takes us another four hours and around 1 a.m., tired and grungy and not quite satisfied by the junk-food stop we made at a rest area two hundred miles back, we end up at 100 Main Street in Nashua.

Instead of the motherly welcome, hot soup and soft beds we’ve been looking forward to, we find ourselves trudging up a wide, worn wooden staircase to the second floor and what turns out to be the local campaign headquarters. A lugubrious-looking beanpole with pale, freckled skin and rusty-red hair pulled back in a ponytail accosts us with a clipboard, an item from which, we soon learn, he never allows himself to be separated. A large, hairy dog rouses itself from sleep and toenails over to join him. A small white terrier trots after it.

“You the people from Washington?” he says it as if it were a disease or a federal prison.

“Yep. We got lost. Where’s the house we’re supposed to be sleeping at?”

He frowns, looks surprised and waves a hand around. “Here. Pick up a sleeping bag,” he says, jerking his thumb towards a pile in the corner, “unless you brought your own.” He writes something on his clipboard. “I’m Jeremiah,” he adds. “The Nashua volunteer director.” Of course he is.

We stare in dawning horror. On the floor of the large, darkened room behind us, about forty bodies are lined up on the floor, some in sleeping bags, some just covered with a blanket. Most are asleep, some snoring, but a few blink at us in sleep-disturbed annoyance. We lower our voices and look at each other.

“Um, where are the bathrooms?” I venture. First things first; it’s been a long ride.

“Bathroom,” he corrects. “Top of the stairs, where you came in.” Of course: the fluorescent interrogation-grade light, the door up a step from the landing. The bathroom does not, in fact, contain a bath, or even a shower. It has one leaky toilet and one sink on which the cold tap works and the hot one doesn’t, the sole facility for the forty-five-odd souls camped out on the floor of this former dance studio—the mirrors and barre are still in place—and two dogs who, as it turns out, are not altogether housebroken.

Hungry and grimed, I lie down between my travel companions, plump Dan, a merry prankster just out of law school, and Russ, an earnest bloke from blue-collar Milford, Connecticut. We each carve out a little space for ourselves, bundle up our coats for pillows and try to sleep, indignation at the deception practiced upon us vying with the exhaustion of too many hours on the road, the latter eventually winning.

In the morning there are doughnuts, and a species of coffee. Well, it could be worse. Campaigns, I’ve since come to learn, are fueled on Dunkin’ Donuts and Boxes o’ Joe. Dunkin’ in 1976 is a more regionally limited chain than it has since become, and the brand is new to me. They’re not as good as the Krispy Kremes at home, but they’re bigger, which compensates.

Clipboard, or Ponytail as our little gang alternates in calling him, is rounding people up and giving them orders. In the daylight it’s clear he can’t be older than eighteen. Our Washington crew averages twenty-three or so, ancient and jaded compared with the slew of college kids and recent high-school grads gathering around wide-eyed and eager for assignments.

Clipboard is assisted by a sloe-eyed, petite girl even younger than he who, we learn from earlier arrivals, is the girlfriend and ideological slave of the statewide volunteer coordinator, whose words she quotes as if he were Chairman Mao. Indeed, the core management group of this Nashua operation, average age eighteen and a half, all seems in thrall to this charismatic person: “Mark says we have to get two thousand of these out by tomorrow,” they intone with utter seriousness. “Mark says it’s vital to hit the suburban areas before the Carter people do.”

I wonder whether the as yet unseen Mark, based at the state headquarters in Manchester, derives his authority from being over twenty-one, or perhaps it’s just that these refugees from a communal soybean farm are used to being led around by some guru with burning, fervid eyes. Something about these people is bringing out the latent anarchist in me and my traveling companions. Or maybe we’re just immature.

The first day we’re assigned to phone canvassing. Sloe-eyes hands us a script and solemnly warns us not to deviate from a word of it. “It’s real important,” she says, as if talking to a class of third-graders, “to use the same words with everybody you call,” which instantly awakes the imp of the perverse. We personalize our pitches as much as possible; who wants to listen to a robot talking at them?

That’s when we start finding out that the people we’re calling to persuade to get out and vote for Mo have been barraged by campaign phone calls—live phone calls, this being the pre-robocall age. There are ten serious candidates running for the Democratic nomination, never mind an assortment of unfunded hardy-perennial wing-nuts and, in the days before Caller ID, you don’t know who’s on the other end of the ringing phone. When they find out, they often hang up instantly, or favor us with a few choice editorial comments before slamming down the phone. My worst encounter is with a woman who, with fury and grief barely contained, says, “I am here by myself trying to care for a dying woman, and you people keep calling and calling!” Come to think of it, my phone phobia may date from this point.

On our second evening on the dance-studio floor, a new group arrives just as we’ve all bedded down for the night. Reacting with better humor than we did, one curly-haired fellow about our age, with a roguish Dennis Quaid smile and a Southern accent, prances around in his underpants before diving into a sleeping-bag. Chided by Clipboard, he spreads his arms and explains, “Muh ex-wife got everythin’ else!”

Michael is his name, with something of the fallen seraph about him at that. We befriend him at first light, along with a cadaverous-looking, bespectacled geek he’s brought along whom Dan instantly dubs Ichabod, another Marylander whose accent reminds us that the state’s south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

We rapidly form an alliance against Clipboard and his humorless soybean refugees, dubbing ourselves the Rabble and popping their sanctimonious balloons with irreverent, annoying questions. All it takes is a mention of Mo’s primary opponent Fred Harris, the genial, down-home Senator from Oklahoma, for Dan to flop a lock of hair in his eyes and do a perfect Fred imitation: “Th’ isshah is privilege!” Clipboard glares and, after a couple of these, stops mentioning the importance of outpolling Fred in his morning exhortations.

A day or two later, we’re out in the streets doing “lit drops,” which in the days before recycling typically means adding to what the average New Hampshirite puts out for the trash man. Typically we’re on streets where the Carter people have gotten there first—not only are the crisp green-and-white brochures perfectly wedged in the cracks of storm doors, but each one bears a handwritten “Sorry I missed you—hoping for your support on Tuesday,” purportedly signed by Jimmy himself. As if, but people tend to take things at face value.

In a diner where we pause for lunch, an affable fat man in a winter version of a cowboy hat is sitting on a stool regaling the waitresses with stories. This, it turns out, is Billy Joe Clegg (“he won’t pull your leg,” is his slogan), one of the more out-there candidates, who seems to be running for President because it’s fun. He’s to be found in this diner at any given time, and seems content to hold court and to quote the Bible by way of a platform. Not even he is clear which party’s primary he’s running in.

“You think he’s weird,” Ichabod tells us as we move on. “Did you hear about Arthur Blessitt? He dragged a cross through the streets of Manchester the other day.”

“You’re making that up.”

“No, really, it was in the Union-Leader.” He’s right; the appropriately named born-again Christian candidate for President (before they all got that way and moved from lunatic fringe to mainstream) distinguishes himself by going nowhere without the true believer’s ultimate fashion accessory.

Stopping in an old Woolworth’s with dusty displays and plank floors gone gray and furry, we hit pay dirt in the can-you-spot-’em sweepstakes: Jimmy Carter himself. With his dazzling array of teeth and his “Ah’ll never lie to you” message, I’ve pegged him for a flash-in-the-pan fraud from the beginning, but this little guy who approaches us, looking dog-tired and a bit lonely, seems like a genuine, kindly human being, actually interested in who we are and not at all put off when we tell him we’re Udall workers. We all shake hands and part on friendly terms, and when in the end he wins the nomination I reflect that we could have done a lot worse.

Five blurred days of phone-dialing and tramping the streets of Nashua trying to move fast enough not to turn into a Popsicle culminate on the eve of the primary. The mythical Mark, guru of all youthful New Hampshire Udall volunteers, makes a cameo appearance. He is a dazzlingly good-looking guy, with deep brown eyes you could get lost in and long glossy hair, but with an air of solemn self-importance that the Rabble does not find contagious. However, we’re all jazzed up by now, ready to do whatever it takes to help Mo edge out the rest of the Dems. Anything can happen in a ten-way race. So when they tell us we’re all going out at four o’clock the following morning to hang a Udall leaflet on the door of every house in Nashua, I shrug and nod assent.

In the dark and silent morning, in which even molecular movement seems to have stopped dead in the cold, four of us pile into an old sedan with boxes of door hangers and individualized walking route maps.

About ten minutes later, the first cop turns on his lights and pulls us over. We’ve been driving slowly, looking for drop-off points, not violating any highway laws. He shines his flashlight in, scans for evidence of drinking or the red eyes of pot-smoking, and curtly waves us on.

Another five minutes or so and another member of Nashua’s Finest stops us, this one wanting to see the driver’s license and registration. We still haven’t broken any laws as far as we know, though evidently being out and about at four in the morning and being under thirty is presumptive evidence of criminal intent. We tell him what we’re doing out there, and we can almost see him make a mental note to vote Republican.

Incredibly, we’re stopped again in another five minutes, though this one backs off pretty fast when we chorus, “We’re Udall volunteers! The primary’s today! We’re just dropping literature! And all the others will be out soon doing the same thing!”

“Jeez,” the driver mutters after the cop withdraws, “I’d heard New Hampshire was a bit of a police state.”

I lurch out of the warm car and onto the sidewalk at my designated intersection. The car pulls away and I feel like an astronaut stranded on the moon. Under a dim streetlight I scan the map and set out down my first street, trying to cover the streets as efficiently as possible. When you do this kind of scut-work, you develop efficiencies after a while that would make W. Edwards Deming proud: tuck box under arm, hold sheaf of hangers in left hand, hook right index finger through hanger loop as you walk towards the next door, open and close gate (most of these yards are chain-link fenced), find the door the family uses most (inevitably not the front door in New England), drop hanger loop over door-handle, repeat. Gloves wouldn’t have worked, actually; not enough fine motor control. However, when your fingers freeze you’re going to lose that anyway.

There’s nothing but fenced cracker-boxes around for miles, it seems. No small commercial strip with a welcoming, aromatic little bakery, no back-ends of shopping malls, nothing. Not even a sewage treatment plant. An hour and a half to go before it gets light.

I open the gate to a square little Cape on a fenced corner lot with a big lawn. The short driveway is empty. The house is dark except for a light in an upstairs back room, so I tread quietly so as not to alert a wakeful occupant and hope there’s not a dog inside.

I reach the side door, clearly the one they’d use, and stop. My cold-fuzzed, sleep-and-caffeine-deprived brain registers that there’s something wrong with the storm door. The bottom panel is smashed, little pellets and shards of glass all over the top step, so I step carefully to avoid them. What a shame; their door’s broken and they haven’t had time to get it fixed. Next I notice the inside door is ajar. I loop a “Udall for President—please remember to vote today” hanger over the inside doorknob. Then, finally, the nickel drops.

Burglary in progress.

The empty driveway. The family, I realize, isn’t there. What do I do? Have to find a cop. Lord knows there were enough of them around on my way here. This is the pre-cellphone age, or I’d be able to hit 911 immediately and they’d catch the perp red-handed. Noiselessly I back down the driveway, taking great care when I lift the latch on the chain-link gate. I tiptoe down the street, scanning for cruisers. It didn’t occur to me to remove the Udall door hanger; I wonder what the burglar will think when he comes out and finds it. Maybe he’s a registered voter.

Between then and twelve-thirty in the afternoon, when someone from the campaign finally comes back to pick me up, I walk my assigned neighborhoods, dutifully dropping off door hangers. In seven hours I have seen not one single policeman or cop car.

Much later on that same day, we ride to Manchester and watch Mo—tall, handsome, funny, smart, decent Mo—give the first of many concession speeches, congratulating Jimmy Carter. “I’m not too worried about coming in second,” he says. “After all, George Washington, the Father of our Country, married a widow.”

Mo is long gone now, felled by disappointments, personal tragedies, and Parkinson’s disease. I worked in his Congressional office for a while after the campaign folded, wrote him a few speeches and one or two bills. On my bookshelf, its spine faded by the years, is his collected wit and wisdom in a volume entitled Too Funny to be President, which came out ten years after I left his staff and moved to Vermont. On the flyleaf he’s inscribed it “To Roberta Harold, a first-rate friend and staffer.” I’d forgotten that until today.

 

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