Less than half an hour south of Hookset, on the other side of Manchester, is Merrimack, home of American Legion Post 98, on Baboosic Lake Road. Pete Buttigieg was to speak there, doors opening at 2:30. I wanted to get there early as I expected he would draw a big crowd in the wake of his Iowa showing, and how much parking area would a Legion post have? (The candidates’ public events are almost always posted online, with a link to register for them. Although you can show up without having registered, the campaigns like you to sign up so they know how many to expect; however, I don’t believe they ever close registration, so it’s possible you may be among a thousand who come to a venue that holds five hundred.)

The campaign staff had wisely picked a spot across the street from a high school that had parking. I still had not learned to resist the first lot I came to, so I drove around in it and confirmed it was indeed full. Possibly the cars exiting that lot as I drove in might have tipped me off; instead, they had filled me with certainty that I’d park in one of the spots they surely must have just vacated. How dumb is that? (Rhetorical.) But I did take satisfaction, as I drove out, in seeing other cars pulling into the same lot. I did not attempt to warn them.

Finally getting a spot in an auxiliary lot about 37 miles away, I walked back and into the (small) parking lot of the Legion post itself where I was amused to see a driver, straight in off the road, arguing with a campaign volunteer over why he couldn’t just park right there in front. I joined a line of people inching their way toward the entrance door. Volunteers for Pete were talking with groups of four or five people at a time, asking them questions and tapping data, presumably, onto tablets. When they finished with a group it was admitted to the entrance.

Eventually I was close enough to the front that a volunteer came over, tablet in hand. I gave him my name and as he started to type, I said I had signed up online the night before, in case that helped. His joy was unbridled. “That makes it really easy” he said, and my name came up with all the information they wanted. (Address, phone, email, pets’ names, blood type, credit card numbers — so they can ask you for donations two or three times a day for the next five months. And ask you to volunteer so you can in turn beg all your friends to donate. I should start using a fake name.)

Once inside the outer door, it still took ten minutes to get inside the event room, which was up a short flight of stairs and through another door — the crowd oozed along, squeezing into a space that already was full. Again, media across the whole back end of the room, through which we entered, and almost no place to go from there. Up front, there was a ten-foot-square clearing, holding a stool with a mike on it, surrounded on four sides with folding chairs full of people and folks standing behind them. I wiggled toward an edge of the seating and stood tightly with others. A camera crew advanced on us from behind and told us we were blocking their view. Tough. I got First Amendment rights too buddy, so buzz off. They grumbled and retreated.

Media phalanx in the American Legion Hall

The theme for Pete’s speech was veterans, and many of them were in the front couple of rows surrounding the ‘stage.’ Both of the warmup speakers were vets, the first a lovely (female) Marine officer, the second a grizzled but dynamic Army guy.

And then Pete Buttigieg comes bounding in and is met with a roar. He launches into his speech, how he rolled out his veterans’ program right here in New Hampshire; how this state famously makes up its own mind, so he knows his win in Iowa (Look at me! I won!) doesn’t buy him anything here; how we need a president who has served, and respects the weight of the decision to commit troops or not.

He gets big applause from the vets for a promise to straighten out communications between the Department of Defense and the Veterans’ Administration; evidently medical and other records get garbled or lost a lot, to see the response to this item.

He speaks at a perfect pace, not too slow or too fast; the emphasis is right, the energy is right, he looks at you, doesn’t hesitate for words — and it seems spontaneous. Watching and hearing him up close, I never think this is the product of careful prep and practice, even though rationally I know it must be. He is, by diligent application or innate talent (probably some of each) a gifted speaker.

Pete Buttigieg speaking on February 6 in Merrimack NH

There are moments of eloquence: he asserts that veterans’ benefits are not a favor, they are the return of the promise the vets made to us – “they wrote a blank check to the people of the United States” when they served. And “Politics is not just local, it is personal.” How when he got into a vehicle in Afghanistan to ‘run an errand,’ none of his fellow soldiers cared who was liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, white or black; they just wanted to know that each could and would protect the others.

All of this is standard stuff, especially on paper, but powerful and meaningful in person.

He takes a few questions. The first is not a question but praise for Pete’s recent comment that if someone (i.e. Mr. Trump) has a problem with Pete’s sexual orientation he should not take it up with “me, but with my Creator.” The audience member hopes Pete will get to share a debate stage with Trump and hit him with that. Buttigieg takes the moment to add the line that “God is not a member of any political party.”

A questioner asks about his healthcare plan. Pete says it is “Medicare for all who want it.” You can keep your private plan if you wish to. He estimates the cost at $1.5 trillion over ten years and says he will pay for it from two sources: “rolling back the Trump tax cut for big corporations” and “allowing negotiation of the prices of prescription drugs.” (Better heads than I can opine on whether the cost estimate is accurate, and whether those two steps are likely to cover it.)

Someone asks about trade relations with the UK after Brexit. Pete says that “not everything is either a revolution or you’re for the status quo,” explaining that he is neither for pure free trade, which he notes hurt South Bend, nor for trade wars, which hurt American consumers. Some issues demand nuance and balance, and that’s one of them, he says. It’s an eminently reasonable position, although not very enlightening.

One vet asks for any specific items Pete learned in Kabul that would help a commander in chief. Pete starts out saying that when he arrived there, he still had his mayor’s hat on – he was serving as mayor of South Bend when called up as a reservist – so he saw that a city, like Kabul, must provide the basics to its people, like power and safe water, or there is chaos. Then he shifts to say he learned the importance of keeping a sense of humor in stressful circumstances.

I detect he’s not satisfied with his response so far, but then he finds the right tone: the third thing he mentions is a sense of humility. ‘The officers don’t eat until the enlisted men have.’ And, without mentioning the Bible or Jesus, he ties this to the moral that the one who would lead must be the servant of all.

Buttigieg. No shortage of photographers.

During his talk I sometimes look at the reaction of the audience, including one lady about ten feet to my right, when she’s not blocked from me. It is of course Sigrid, who’s here with some of the Danes. She is nodding her head and clapping. I make eye contact once and wave hi, and get a surprised smile back.

Pete does not stay for selfies with more than a few people; he’s off to the next event. For those interested in tracking such things, his exit music is Creedence: Up Around The Bend.

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