Big politics takes on small town flair
I no longer wonder why teeny New Hampshire earned the right to influence national politics-no politician can handle Washington if they can't handle Hampton Falls.
One of the innumerable little hamlets that lie on Route One between Canada and Key West, Hampton Falls is made up of a couple of intersections, a post office, a coffee shop that apparently isn't open on Sundays (or at least when there are out-of-towners visiting) and of course, its residents.
Last Sunday the town snapped out of its single stoplight-induced haze to welcome North Carolina Senator and presidential contender John Edwards to its town gazebo. While I'm not from New Hampshire or even a registered Democrat, I wanted to join in the fun. So, along with friend and Orient colleague Evan Kohn, I headed down to see and hear democracy in action.
The "town meeting" with Edwards was slated to start at 11:30
a.m., and we arrived just before 11. We were the first ones there except
for Dan, Andrew, and Mackenzie and her cocker spaniel Bailey.
As one would expect, these young campaign workers were personable folks, and before long Evan and I found ourselves holding posters and watching Andrew-by far the wildest of the group-dash across the street when the stoplight permitted. We proceeded to search for a bathroom and a quick bite to eat. Walking down Route One past Barn Antiques, Apple Crest Orchards, and Agway Farm and Garden Supplies, we found neither.
Before long it was time to head to the town green. Anchored at one end by a plain vanilla gazebo and at the other by a taller-than-usual flagpole and a few ceremonial cannons, the green was framed by the one-hundred year-old First Baptist Church, a one-story brick elementary school, and Route One.
There were about thirty chairs set up, and it was clear to Evan and me that this was going to be an intimate gathering. Like ten year-olds at the newest action flick, we grabbed front-row seats and waited for the show to begin. Our chairs rested on a paved brick section in front of the gazebo, and we noticed many of the bricks had names and dates carved into them. Most of the bricks memorialized deceased relatives of Hampton Falls residents, but one in particular stood out. It asked, presumably in reference to fallen soldiers, "Am I worth their sacrifice?" The small-town-America setting was too perfect for such contemplation.
The seats slowly filled with residents and a few reporters, presumably from the local media. There were a couple of whole families there, but most of the audience was composed of middle-aged and older couples. Several wore "Edwards for President" stickers and buttons. One wore an "I'm a Health Care Voter" sticker. And in a subtle and probably unintentional bit of political disregard, an elderly man wore a "USS Ronald Reagan" cap. The area buzzed with hushed conversations about what to expect and-more urgently-what to ask. While there were still a few chairs available, some chose to stand in the back. They had never been to something like this before.
11:30 came and passed with no signs of "the Senator," as the campaign crew called him. Dan, with whom we had been holding posters on Route One, sat down next to us. Dan is a senior at Salem State College in New Hampshire, just outside Boston, and had just come out that day to volunteer. We exchanged the usual questions and answers about college life.
At around 11:55 one of the campaign workers announced that "the Senator" was caught in traffic on Route One, but then proceeded to predict that he'd arrive in a mere two minutes. With a smirk Evan told me he was getting chills-he's been a close follower of Edwards. I, too, had chills. I should have worn a jacket.
Edwards arrived in a late-model white Oldsmobile Silhouette. He hopped out, donned his blue blazer, and stepped in front of a standing and applauding crowd of about forty. After shaking hands with the front row, he began.
The opening five-minute speech had an extemporaneous feel to it, but Edwards' command of the issues-jobs, the economy, civil rights-was certain. As the son of a mill worker and the first in his family to go to college, Edwards said he speaks up for "regular people," by fighting to protect them against corporate America, improving public education, and working to offer everyone health insurance. He said he will provide students one year of free tuition to public universities and community colleges. In return, students will be required to come to college academically prepared and to work or serve their communities for an average of 10 hours each week. The speech was short, which allowed the senator to get right to his audience's questions-but not before a campaign worker handed him a Diet Coke.
The predictable issues-Iraq, education, taxes-were raised, and the candidate spoke with fluency and ease. He made eye contact with the questioners, briefly pausing to give relevant issues sufficient thought and craft substantive answers. I suppose one expects nothing less from a serious Presidential candidate, and Edwards did get his start as a trial lawyer. But there was still something special about the give-and-take nature of the exchange, especially when compared to the highly scripted debates we all hear on television.
The most memorable moment came when a union carpenter, standing in the back, queried Edwards about health care, drawing a very personal response from the candidate in which he revealed that his sister-in-law has had health problems that have been dealt with successfully only through union-offered health insurance. Edwards leaned over the front row and the exchange continued as though the rest of the crowd wasn't even there.
After the end of the meeting Edwards stayed to chat with audience members individually. Evan asked the senator about the Patriot Act and its effects on college students' privacy. "There's no reason to worry," Edwards said. "It's very unlikely the government would get involved [in a way that threatened students' private records]. There are some great parts of the Patriot Act, but this part should certainly be changed."
The whole event lasted about an hour and a half and by 1:00 it was time
for the senator to move on to his next appearance. He hadn't faced many
tough questions from the mostly friendly crowd (one reporter briefly tried
to spar with him), but he had faced a crowd nonetheless. These were the
people who would help shape the character of the November election. One
gets the feeling that, for a candidate, facing these voters is arguably
more frightening-and certainly more important-than facing anyone in Washington.
And when the little Hampton Falls gazebo stands taller than the dome of
the U.S. Capitol, you know that the sacrifice recalled by those little
bricks was indeed worth it.