Kerry swings by Weirs Beach firehouse
Next to Dexter Shoes, a Texaco station, and Lake Winnipesaukee, Adam and I found ourselves once again on the New Hampshire Democratic presidential campaign trail last week, this time at a community-center-slash-firehouse in Weirs Beach. With foliage at its peak, I used up most of the digital camera's battery taking photos of the landscapes instead of waiting for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's campaign stop.
What we wanted to be a 4:45 p.m. visit to a Franklin Veterans of Foreign Wars Kerry stop became a 7:00 p.m. visit to a Weirs Beach town hall meeting with the senator at the local fire station. Thanks to hundreds of Kerry's own Massachusetts constituents driving home from Vacationland, enough traffic was amassed to make the town of Kittery a fire hazard, drastically delaying our drive.
Upon arrival in Laconia, we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to this community center slash firehouse. After talking to the manager for a solid five minutes, Adam came out of the station with the conclusion, "He doesn't speak English."
Driving along Route 11-essentially a ring of summer lake cottages-"New Hampshire for Kerry" signs led us to the firehouse. We parked in the back and went inside.
After participating in a town hall meeting on the Hampton Falls town common with North Carolina Senator John Edwards the weekend before, the first thought that came to my mind when walking into the center was, "This guy has a lot of money." The otherwise sterile room was practically wallpapered with enormous Kerry for President signs, a "The courage to do what's right for America" banner that definitely wouldn't fit in my dorm room, American and New Hampshire flags, and "Firefighters for Kerry" posters. A dozen campaign workers dressed in formal attire stood by. A generously large refreshments stand was set up near the 50 or so chairs situated into three rows of circles. A television aired Kerry advertisements and interviews. Enormous speakers were parked in all corners and an information table practically took over the entrance, covered with free bumpers stickers, pamphlets on every political issue out there (and Kerry's position on it), pins, and email signup sheets (which, ironically, spelled the word "veteran" wrong).
Before it could all sink in, Emily, a campaign worker, welcomed us to the event. Adam and I found our seats in the front row and observed the growing crowd. Though it was hard to get by the fire department smell (you'd know it if you smelled it), the room seemed quite orderly, yet had a lot of energy. Among the crowd, about least half senior citizens and the rest families, almost everyone sported "Kerry for President" stickers, unlike the sticker-deprived Edwards crowd. Many older women wore purple "I'm a healthcare voter" shirts and sat together as if they were some traveling mah-jongg team. A woman across from us was knitting an afghan.
Gathering refreshments, I watched the television show a young Kerry speaking out against Vietnam, followed by a segment on family. He said his kids have been the greatest part of his life, saying "kids are you" as images flashed of him playing catch with his daughters in a park. Okay.
Not to be outdone by his own 20-year-old commercials, Mr. Kerry appeared in the flesh-twenty minutes late.
"That's the hair everyone's talking about" I thought to myself. After an awkward microphone dilemma that stalled Kerry's start for a minute, he proceeded to the middle of the circle, where Laconia Mayor Matt Lahey introduced him.
"I'll come here any night the Red Sox are playing," Kerry jokingly said to open.
Getting down to business, Kerry said that he was there to say that he would fight for affordable healthcare for all seniors, triggering an immediate round of applause.
He then shifted the atmosphere to one of comfort and laughter as he turned to the woman knitting the afghan and said with a grand smile, "Why you didn't have to knit that for me!" She said it was for her grandson, but agreed he would get another one if he became President. Kerry thought it was a fair deal.
He then said, "It's good to be here, even when it's not motorcycle week," as he has made several appearances across the country on his Harley-an action said by many to be an attempt to look less "stiff." Adam and I whispered to one another how surprised we were about his sense of humor. Though now he had the crowd in the liking, he quickly made his way to less exciting issues than his complaints about having tickets to the postponed Red Sox game the night before and "New England's destiny to break the curse."
After briefly recalling fond memories in New Hampshire such as skiing, his extensive education, and hiking Mt. Washington as a youth, it didn't take long for him to sound angry-Howard Dean angry. He said, "No one should just run for President and knock what's there. I have a vision for America."
Yet the rhetoric that followed seemed more concerned with critiquing the Bush administration than advancing any recognizable vision. He said, "The Bush administration is the greatest 'say one thing, do another,' in the history of the United States," and that President Bush is "taking this country in a radically wrong direction." The Senator spoke of the tremendous deficit, saying "our children will pay the price in future years" while pointing to a little boy in back sitting on his father's lap.
Throughout the meeting, he threw out memorable phrases left and right that drew numerous rounds of applause, all while looking crowd members in the eye.
They included: "We're going to go to the moon on earth," "Why are we funding fire stations in Baghdad when Brooklyn's are understaffed and under funded?" "The administration is creating terrorist where there weren't before," "We need a leader with experience who won't act arrogantly and unilaterally-I have experience in all fields, not just some," "The Iraq situation needs four things: A resolution, a multi-lateral force, trained Iraqi police, and a set date of power transfer to the Iraqi government," "There is no excuse for one country like ours to be 25 percent of the world's pollution-I want tax incentives for hybrid cars," "We must invent our way out of the oil crises," "We should be excited about the future of this country and this planet, as long as we believe in our leadership," and "Partisan talk is rhetoric; we need a leader who will be less divisive."
He said, "I'm the only four-time senator who has never taken soft money," to which the man behind us whispered to his wife, "He's also a multimillionaire."
Questions from the audience ranged from labor, Iraq, and the economy, and Kerry gave annoyingly specific responses (about the issues more than the questions). It reminded me of Al Gore.
When asked about the Patriot Act (the act that has recently worried the Bowdoin community about the confidentiality of student records), he said, "There are problems with the way it is being carried out. Though the act has a 'sunset clause' that says it will die at the end of next year, such abuses won't return when I'm president."
Before breaking away to let people approach him individually with questions, he asked for donations, saying, "It's not about me, it's for the cause." But clearly seduced by the imminent opening pitch of the Red Sox game, he talked to a few people, took some pictures with kids, and was then pulled out by one of his campaign workers who kept telling the crowd, "The Senator has to leave." I was able to catch a handshake and say, "Good luck," but it certainly didn't rival the opportunity Edwards gave me to chat one-on-one for a minute.
The Red Sox went on to beat the Yankees that night, which surely made Kerry a happy man. Adam and I concluded that though he showed a sense of humor, we can understand why his image has often been stamped with adjectives like "angry" and "too political." And unfortunately, America wants a president they would like to go to dinner with.
The whole second half was, well, really boring. Maybe it was the bad lighting or nagging smell. Maybe it was too much "Kerry for President" thrown at us. Maybe it was the traffic in Kittery. Maybe it's that little distinguishes Senator Kerry from being much beyond a politician, despite his quite impressive resume.
I think it was the setting. Though only a few dozen miles away on a map, this town hall meeting was worlds apart from the one we attended in Hampton Falls. Edwards' was an intimate gathering on a sunny fall afternoon at a quaint town green gazebo, where true connections with voters were made. It set the mood for patriotism. While Kerry spoke with ease, passion, and a professor's command of intricate detail, it still felt more like C-SPAN's "Book TV" rather than a grassroots political gathering. We found ourselves wanting to change the channel. Perhaps money and impressive organization aren't everything in campaigning.