New Hampshire: a prickly individual independence and a powerful primary

When Grandpa Lang served in the New Hampshire legislature in 1867, he lived in the American House and Andrew Johnson was President. When I go up to cover the New Hampshire primaries every four years, I think about him. There is something ancestral in it. Everything about the state is larger than life except its size. The snow crunches under foot. The temperature is zero, give or take five degrees, and the Presidential Range is off to the left, dappled with white; political gatherings meet in the high school gymnasium and are serious and informed. It has been that way up here for a long time.

My grandfather's rules book, inscribed in gold print ''Benj. F. Lang,'' includes the original state constitution. As he sat in Section 1, Seat 42, he doubtless thumbed it. I have it before me now. Rule 67 says that ''in all cases where sums of money are mentioned the value thereof shall be computed in silver at six shillings and eight pence per ounce.''

Two or three centuries back the contentious little colony was almost a theocracy. Senate Rule 29 of that day discusses eligibility and says, ''Provided , nevertheless, that no person shall be elected a senator who is not of the Protestant religion.''

President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee received a salary of $25,000 for his labors; his vice-president ''pro tem,'' Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, made $8,000. Grandpa Lang represented the township of Lee, in Strafford County. He had eight children; his father, Lt. Thomas Lang (married thrice), had 20 children, 10 sons and 10 daughters.

To this day, New Hampshire retains a reputation for prickly independence. It likes the publicity it gets from having the first primary in the maze of the presidential election, and when other states try to share the place, it just makes its own primary earlier. It just grabbed national attention when the eight current Democratic presidential candidates met at Dartmouth College for a joint argument and interview; interviews in other states generally last a couple of minutes; this lasted three hours. In its free form it may have set a new political style. And on election day the first results from anywhere will probably come from Dixville Notch, where the voters are already organizing for the test. Don't be misled about size. New Hampshire in recent days has been decisive in a number of candidacies.

It all started March 16, 1680, when 11 ''delegates'' from Plymouth, Dover, Hampton, and Exeter met to form a tiny legislature. It wanted to protest something, of course. A faraway King (Charles II of England) had sent a royal commission to press an enormous land claim on behalf of the heir of a court favorite. Colonists were rock-ribbed then, as now.

They soon created their annual town meetings. These came in ''mud time'' between harvest and spring, when you couldn't farm anyway and it was more fun to argue than plow. That's why the primary comes in March today.

They eventually created the third-largest legislature (a House of 400, a Senate of 24 today) of any English-speaking territory in the world, after Congress and the British Parliament. (If California were as fully represented in Sacramento as New Hampshire is at Concord, it would have a legislature of 10,400 members.)

Grandpa Lang came to Concord to join one of those winter debates. Fortunately , the regular session met only in odd-numbered years, for 90 days. (There is also a five-member Executive Council, to help run things.)

Presidential candidates today disregard the early primaries at their peril. Publicity - the beneficence the primary distributes - is invaluable. A kind of compact has grown up between the state and the news media: The state holds the primary and the media say who's ''won'' and what it means.

This part of a larger development: More and more the press has joined the process of government in America.

The operation in New Hampshire in 1952 was a conspicuous manifestation. Harry Truman had surprised everybody in 1948 by defeating Thomas Dewey (''the little man on the wedding cake''). Four years later the question was, Would Truman run again? What would the Democrats say in the New Hampshire primary in 1952? Running against him was Sen. Estes Kefauver (D) of Tennessee. The senator toured the state in his coonskin cap. He got a big vote, bigger than the press expected. It encouraged President Truman to abandon any hopes for reelection.

The New Hampshire primary has a mind of its own: Other states say ''yes'' or ''no''; in the Granite State they grunt ''yup'' or ''nope.'' Take the primary of 1964, this time on the Republican side. There were the well-heeled Rockefeller and the Goldwater organizations whose supporters worked hard. But there is something about a primary election that brings out youth, and college students throw their enthusiasm into the fray.

Some of them started a ''Draft Lodge'' movement, referring to Henry Cabot Lodge, the ambassador to Vietnam. Mr. Lodge was 10,000 miles away. The other candidates campaigned, shook hands, met crowds, toured the state. Lodge stayed in Saigon. He said he was not a candidate. And yet when the votes came in he had won the Republican contest. (Lodge made no effort to follow up on this remarkable victory. And of course Lyndon Johnson won the ultimate election).

Let's move on to 1972. New Hampshire at the time had an ultrarightest publisher at its leading paper, the late William Loeb. The Manchester Union Leader was the only paper that covered the state. The publisher reprinted a derogatory article on Feb. 25 about the wife of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, then ahead of the Democratic pack in the primary. Under the caption ''Big Daddy's Jane,'' it reproduced a gossip item from Women's Wear Daily. Typical sentence: '' 'Let's tell dirty jokes,' shouted Jane to the reporters and aides aboard the chartered bus.''

Senator Muskie had come to Manchester to denounce the publisher. It was snowing that next morning as the candidate, with this reporter on one side of him and another with a tape recorder on the other, left the hotel and moved over the drifts to the Union Leader's office. Sidewalks were so snowblocked we had to leap gulleys and drifts. Under these unfavorable conditions Mr. Muskie gave two interviews simultaneously. He seemed composed. A flat truck was halted just before the newspaper office and Muskie mounted it. The snow formed a wig on his bare head.

What happened then? Disagreement has risen, but this reporter was there to see it all. Muskie began with a couple of ''liars'' aimed at a Loeb charge that he had referred to French-Canadians as ''Canucks.'' As the son of a Polish immigrant, he said, he had been called ''Polack'' as a boy and hated it.

His voice changed when he came to his wife. He read the headline and his voice broke. Another man on the big truck filled in the awkward pause. Muskie vainly tried in all three times unsuccessfully to continue. His face was wet, whether from snow or emotion. Two hand-printed signs behind him stirred. They read in French: ''Nous Aimons Muskie.'' ''Maybe I've said all I should,'' he said finally. He appealed for a campaign based on issues, not personalities. The meeting ended; had it been snow or tears?

In a note to my office I complained of the omission of a line in my piece calling it ''one of the strangest incidents'' in presidential politics. My office mildly asked if I hadn't exaggerated the thing. I didn't think so. In any case Mr. Muskie himself decided to withdraw, Feb. 28.

The strange American primary system is unique in the world. A problem has always been in America how to choose the best leader. Lord Bryce, 90 years ago, argued that the system produces second-rate presidents: men who are good candidates rather than good presidents.

I went up to New Hampshire again in 1976 with Ronald Reagan. He was relatively unknown in the East, and then trying to get the GOP nomination from Ford. He said he could save Washington $90 billion a year and balance the budget by reducing social aid - school funds, highway money, and things like that.

At the end another reporter, Ted Knapp, and I chatted with him at the airport. He had offered his ''$90 billion plan'' at the Executive Club in Chicago, Sept. 28, 1976. We asked him questions. He disarmingly said that he might be wrong and couldn't remember the source of his statistics. ''If I am mistaken,'' he said mildly, ''I stand corrected.'' Then he flew away.

As for Grandpa Lang, I think he would get along, even now. What if they don't hyphenate ''New-Hampshire'' anymore? He adjusted to the times. He was elected head of the New Market bank himself at the end, and would sign his name on the $ 10 notes on the red gingham kitchen table, to make them legal. Then he would go out to feed the critters. New Hampshire people are like that: town meetings, presidential primaries - they understand. They adjust as they go along.

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