Today was Groundhog Day; if I wake up tomorrow back in Larchmont, ready to hit the road – again – at 6:15 a.m., I’ll know it’s all just a movie. I did start my drive that early, as I learned the day before that Jeb Bush was holding a town hall meeting at 10:30 at Franklin Pierce University, in Rindge, New Hampshire, and it looked like my best chance to see him.
As my tech skills are rudimentary, I used my usual hybrid approach to the Maps app: I had it plot the route and directions, then I copied down the latter on paper. I don’t like my cellphone talking to me while I drive. The directions were accurate and despite traffic at Hartford and Springfield, I made the 195 miles by 9:40 after a stop for gas.
The setting of Franklin Pierce’s campus is striking, perched above a (frozen) lake (Monadnock?) and with views of Mt. Monadnock; I was informed it is the second most climbed mountain in the world, after Fuji. (who counts these things?)
I will not describe Jeb’s town hall talk much as I do not want to show off my note-taking ability, but he was much more impressive than I’ve found him in the televised debates; lively, personable, humorous, relaxed. He’s tall and on tv looks a bit stooped; in person he looks lanky, and younger. After an intro by Sen. Lindsey Graham, Jeb spoke pretty briefly and then took questions — on the national debt, drug addiction crises and incarceration issues, the New England Pipeline (a local issue I’d seen signs protesting), Israel, immigration, education, small business. His answers were definite, detailed, and in almost all cases responsive. (On the pipeline he said he did not know the local facts.) After a good hour of Q&A he hung around talking and getting photos taken, ’til everyone was satisfied.
I took his picture while he was chatting with handfuls of people. I’ll insert it when I figure out how.
In late afternoon, I attended a similar town hall featuring Chris Christie. He was almost exactly as seen on tv: familiar, direct, very much the straight talker — and occasionally very funny. He did a brief impression of Mr. Trump that was dead on. He spoke of his readiness, and contrasted that with his declining to run four years ago when he felt he was not ready, and with our electing, in his view, a president eight years ago who was not ready. And he contrasted the responsibilities of governors with those of senators, using a boy of about 12 in the audience, Matthew, as his foil: Matthew, do you have to show up at school at a certain time? D0 you have an assigned desk to sit at? Do you have questions you know you’ll be expected to answer? Do you get a lot of time off in the summer? All of these were “Just like Congress!” compared to the 24/7 and unpredictable responsibilities of governors (and presidents). Actually Matthew at first denied having to show up at school at a set time each morning, and Christie came back to him several times on this theme, by which point they both were laughing. Later, during the lengthy Q&A, one of the questions came from a woman whose first words, on getting the mike, were “I’m Matthew’s math teacher,” which brought the house down. She admitted Matthew was having a little fun with the governor and in fact did have to show up each day at 8:30.
Christie’s answers fulfilled his advance guarantee to the audience that he would do two things: actually answer the question they asked, and explain his position so we would understand it. He granted we might not agree with him, but we would know where he stood. Among others he answered questions on the US nuclear defense triad (and noted that he knows what the triad is, unlike a certain other candidate; not lost on this audience), Supreme Court appointments, ISIS, education, North Korea, immigration, veterans’ care and educational recognition, and equal pay for women. This last was from one Paige who looked to be about 14 (and an admitted friend of Matthew’s). Christie did not promote any new rights, mandates or benefits on this point; he said equal pay laws are on the books and they need to be enforced. But he also turned the question personal with references to his mother (a very strong woman who took no guff from the men she worked with) and his wife (who “has out-earned me every year we’ve been married;” it will be 30 years this March), and his two daughters (‘we’ve told them their value comes from themselves, it will not be conferred on them by any man’).
Yes I was impressed with both candidates. And expect to be impressed by certain others, even some I oppose. Some of these people speak clearly and fluidly, connect with people, and project integrity. And their ability to answer all parts of a rambling multisided question in a coherent way is pretty special: these folks listen hard and can organize their thoughts on the fly.
But I was most impressed by the audiences. Not that the questions were all brilliant, or even all well-expressed. But the overall seriousness of these people, their engagement, attention and diligence, gives me some optimism. It is the smallness that allows it and fosters it. No number of televised ‘debates’ or mass rallies can reveal the candidate as a person the way answering questions from a group of say 200 neighbors can. New Hampshire is tailor-made for this; it’s a small state, full of small towns, full of people who expect presidential candidates to spend time talking with them and not just at them. Iowa is similar but the wider spaces and lower density mean people must drive far to show up. From my spot here in Manchester, virtually all the candidates, at their various appearances, are within 20 or 30 minutes away.
These good people here are doing our job, because in many ways we no longer can. I hope to thank them, in part, by running up large bills at the Red Arrow Diner. And I haven’t even hit the hotel bar at the Radisson, which my source tells me is ground zero. But that’s another story.