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With the New Hampshire primary upon us, TBS regular Derryn Hinch recounts his time on the ’72 campaign trail…
There we were. Me and Shirley MacLaine. Drinking beer and eating pizza on a bus while chugging through “the snows of New Hampshire” – as every feature writer describes it – at the start of another American presidential election year.
Most people don’t give this small piece of Northern USA a passing thought. Even some Americans don’t really know exactly where it sits around Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
But New Hampshire is in the news right now because every four years, The Granite State, as they proudly call it, holds the first primary election to test the popularity of would-be White House inhabitants; both Democrats and Republicans, and some write-in candidates.
The New Hampshire primary used to be in March but they moved it forward to this weekend because other states tried to get the jump on the north-easterners.
In recent years, Iowa, and its crazy-mid-western breed of corn-growing bible-bashers (the ultra-conservative evangelicals), have tried to usurp the early bird crown by bringing forward their four-yearly caucuses. But a caucus is not viewed quite as seriously as a primary. Sorry, Ted Cruz.
(Unless you are Barack Obama and Iowa convinces the media that, Jesus wept, Hillary Clinton is beatable.)
Before I dig too deeply into my old journo’s notebook and the intricacies of primary elections, I should explain about Miss MacLaine.
It was 1972. I was drinking beer on the bus and she was eating pizza, but she wasn’t with me.
(This was before she gave our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrew Peacock, “a foreign affair he’ll never forget.”)
The actress was on the bus because she was keeping company with New York Post columnist Pete Hamill who was covering George McGovern’s campaign. She also supported McGovern.
A lot of Hollywood was backing the left-leaning Senator – who would go on and win the Democrats’ nomination, and lose so spectacularly to a re-elected Richard Nixon that, in the November election, he would carry only Washington, DC and (thanks to Teddy Kennedy’s pulling power) the state of Massachusetts.
New Hampshire developed a giant killer reputation in 1968 after Eugene McCarthy, the mild-mannered anti-Vietnam candidate, garnered the student vote and polled so well in the New Hampshire primary that President Johnson took one look at the figures and decided not to stand for re-election.
McCarthy did so well and proved LBJ so vulnerable, that the following weekend Bobby Kennedy made the fatal error of announcing his candidacy and three months later his life ebbed away on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
The professorial, anti-war, anti -Establishment, anti-Wall Street, anti-Washington campaign of Bernie Sanders – with his young, volunteer army of idealists – is spookily reminiscent of Eugene McCarthy’s.
I believe that by the time they hit the convention floor mid-year his socialist campaign will suffer the same fate as his forerunner: bulldozed by the Democratic Party machine.
Hinch’s Hunch is that America will never elect a socialist, even a mild left-winger – hence the shellacking of McGovern. Like, at crunch time, they’ll never elect a comb-over narcissistic, ultra-right megalomaniac like Donald Trump.
Is that where I slip in how often I am wrong when it comes to predicting election results at home and abroad?
I have some great memories of New Hampshire and the main street in the Norman Rockwell painting of a town called Manchester.
You see up close, in diners and at factory gates, men who could be president a few months down the track. Primaries like New Hampshire make and break candidates.
My confrere, Ray Martin, who “trudged through the snows of New Hampshire” and shivered at the factory gates with low-rating candidates, always introduced himself to them because “You never know, mate, they might win. And they might remember who was there at the gates with them when few others were.”
It was there in Manchester in 1972, that a candidate named Ed Muskie cried as he stood in the snow defending his wife’s reputation after she had been cruelly smeared by the local right-wing newspaper, The Manchester Union-Leader, run by a ruthless publisher named William Loeb.
Muskie, an imposing 6ft 4in former Governor of Maine and Hubert Humphies’ running mate in 1968 against Nixon, had weathered an earlier Loeb blow when accused of an ethnic slur which turned out to be a hoax letter from the Nixon White House Dirty Tricks department.
Loeb accused Muskie’s wife of “taking unladylike pleasure” in drinking and swapping dirty jokes with reporters in the back of the campaign bus. Muskie stood on the front steps of the newspaper office in Manchester and said of the powerful publisher: “By attacking my wife he has proved to be a gutless coward.” But then he cried. His aides said it was melting snow but the damage was done. Muskie was depicted as a softie – not tough enough for the White House. He still won the New Hampshire primary but finished fourth in Florida and, the man they said looked like Abraham Lincoln, pulled out.
So keep an eye on New Hampshire. Clinton, Sanders, Trump, Rubio and Cruz, are the five to watch. I bet Shirl is backing Bernie.