POLITICS JANUARY 30, 2008
According to The New York Times, New Hampshire is the new Disneyland—where political tourists flock to enjoy the spectacle of the ultimate campaign theme park. Two days before the vote, I joined the horde. Unlike most of my colleagues at The New Republic, I’ve never covered a presidential campaign, interviewed a voter, or even watched a rally on television. So I set off for the perfect geek vacation.
Like Epcot Center, which has miniaturized the nations of the world around an artificial lake, New Hampshire is compact enough to be traversed in a few hours, allowing several stops in a day. I began with a McCain rally in Salem and arrived just as the Straight Talk Express was pulling into town. “The Mac,” of course, has quite a reputation as a comedian—at least, that’s why ink-stained wretches have a habit of swooning for him. As I packed into the sweltering gym of the Woodbury School, I stood behind a bank of TV cameras and craned for a glimpse of the diminutive candidate. Maybe it was the obstructed view, but I found his stump speech formulaic and devoid of energy. He seemed not only tired but prickly and old. He began with an Irish joke, denounced Time for naming Vladimir Putin the “Man of the Year” (“I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters: KGB”), and, in the style of Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz, kept addressing the crowd as “my friends.”
During the question-and-answer period, McCain became defensive when challenged and churlishly argued with skeptics rather than trying to persuade them. One undecided voter respectfully questioned his consistency on tax policy—noting that McCain had voted against the Bush tax cuts and then insisted on making them permanent. “You can say that, but it’s just not true!” McCain snapped. By the time McCain came to a defiant riff about Iraq (“I would much rather lose a political campaign than lose a war”), I had seen enough and escaped for an Obama rally in Derry.
The lines were snaking around the gym of the Pinkerton Academy when I arrived: One estimate put the crowd at 2,500. Obama was running an hour and a half late, so there was plenty of time to catch up with friends in the vast media conspiracy. Confirming Clintonian paranoia, there’s now a standard greeting when reporters at an Obama rally meet each other: “When did you fall for him?” we asked each other. “Have you fallen all the way?” To avoid disappointment, my editor Frank Foer—the Bill to my Ted on this excellent adventure—bet that Obama wouldn’t live up to inflated expectations; I bet that he would. As Obama campaign officials kept scolding us for sitting on the rolled-up wrestling mats, Maureen Dowd of the Times offered up an explanation for the Obama phenomenon. At least since 1980, she said, general elections have been won by the candidate with comparatively more charm. (Michael Dukakis made George H.W. Bush look like Cary Grant.) As politics becomes increasingly personalized, swing voters aren’t interested in policy debates, so they vote for the candidate with whom they feel the greatest emotional connection. That’s why polls show Obama as the most electable Democrat in November. Nevertheless, the Democratic base has a habit of ignoring this axiom and sending emotionally inaccessible candidates to the slaughter.
Finally, Obama loped onto the podium. From the back of a big room, the key to his charisma wasn’t his physical presence but his voice. It draws you in by varying its colors and effects, ranging from the husky whispers of a smoker’s baritone to exultant oratory, constructed around the repeated trope “in two days’ time.” “In two days’ time, we have the opportunity to elect a president who won’t just tell you what you want to hear but what you need to hear,” he declared. “In two days’ time.” Obama is often compared to Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy. But he avoids the expected cadences of a black preacher by lowering rather than raising his voice at the end of sentences; and, unlike Kennedy, he never becomes a prisoner of his parallelisms. (As it happens, Kennedy’s speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, campaigned for Obama in Derry.) As a result, Obama gives the impression of talking to you rather than at you.
“I’VE BEEN TEASED, even derided for talking about hope,” Obama said as he approached his big finish. Like FDR happily welcoming his opponents’ scorn, Obama said he relished being derided by Hillary Clinton in the last debate as a “hope-monger.” “The only progress we’ve made in our history was because someone was willing to hope,” he sang out. It was hope that allowed colonists to throw off the British Empire; Lincoln to end slavery; and the Greatest Generation to defeat fascism and the Great Depression. “It was because of hope that young people lay down in Selma and Montgomery and suffered fire hoses and beatings and jail for freedom’s cause.” Frank leaned over to me and whispered, “I lose.”
Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is based not on a bottom-up community organizer’s sense of hope but on a top-down progressive’s sense of entitlement. In the last debate, she seemed genuinely baffled about why The People don’t appreciate all the good work that she’s done for Them for 35 years. That’s why Obama, rather than Hillary, is the true heir to the original Man from Hope. And so, the next morning, I set off for the village of Henniker to watch Bill Clinton try to save his wife’s candidacy. In a gray blazer and cowboy boots, Clinton seemed exhausted and distracted when he arrived at Daniel’s Restaurant an hour late to find a crowd of about 60.
But the former president came to life when talking about himself, and, eventually, his hard-wired need to win over every member of the small crowd with an avalanche of wonkish facts and big-think visions got the better of him. When a young boy asked how Hillary would help stop childhood obesity, Clinton replied, “I work on that, do you know that?” He then fixed the boy with the full Clinton gaze and launched into a long disquisition about the need to “reduce the spread of foods across the globe that are fueling this epidemic.” The boy seemed overwhelmed, but Clinton wouldn’t stop talking until he had made his case. For a moment, he couldn’t prevent himself from being a hope-monger.