Washing Howard Dean's sheets

Presidential politics in New Hampshire is up close and personal.

old 300.88 (photo credit: )
old 300.88
(photo credit: )
Hilda Fleisher has hosted a lot of people travelling the well-worn path through this first-in-the-nation presidential primary state en route to Washington. There have been overworked campaign staffers, penurious journalists and assorted political junkies. And then there was Howard Dean. Fleisher, a 77-year-old, five-decade Manchester resident and long-time Democratic activist, wasn't much fazed by the visit. After all, it was merely hospitality New Hampshire-style: when the former Vermont governor and leading contender for the Democratic nomination needed a place to stay, she gave him one. Fleisher didn't need any extra encouragement to back Dean in the 2004 primary, which he ultimately lost to John Kerry. But the fact that he made the bed and left a thank you note didn't hurt. Assessing whether a candidate is a gracious guest is just one of the many unique judgments New Hampshire voters get to make as season's tickets holders to what Fleisher's gentleman friend, David Stahl, terms "one of the great spectator sports in the world," the political game that is the New Hampshire primaries. Since they cast the first influential open vote over which politician each party will chose as its nominee, New Hampshirites feel entitled to select a candidate as they would a ripe melon, checking out their heft and warts and giving them a good thump. They scrutinize them for the nuances and details TV sound bites and magazine airbrushing delete so their decision can be one based on knowledge and discernment. Thus Fleisher noted that Nancy Reagan was out of touch with the populace when she wore a fur coat to ward off the New England chill. ("That was death - it was bad for the candidate. Too fancy.") And that Betty Ford would be a far from sober First Lady. ("She was on so many painkillers. It was awful to meet her. She was plastic.") As Fleisher puts it, "We really get a feel for these people." Between the two of them, Fleisher and Stahl have seen every occupant of the Oval Office since Dwight Eisenhower in the flesh during campaign season, except for George W. Bush. And they say the candidates are better for the wear - as is the country. "They have a right to make a stump speech. That's okay. But then they get peppered by questions," Fleisher explains of the small house parties and town hall meetings candidates regularly participate in here. "They have to learn to think on their feet. It's good for them." That's New Hampshire's main argument for holding on to its privileged status, which is increasingly challenged by other states. They advanced their primaries, only to have New Hampshire set its vote even earlier. Right now New Hampshire's primary is set for January, almost ten months before the elections. The New Hampshire secretary of state is empowered to set the vote as early as necessary, and Fleisher quips that he could plan it for Christmas and "they'd come out and vote." She explains that for the candidates, "There's a way of campaigning in New Hampshire that they can't do anywhere else. They don't have the time. They don't have the money." "It's a small state," according to Stahl, who puts the population at 1.2 million. "Nowhere else do candidates have to expose themselves as they do here." For instance, Stahl parlayed New Hampshire's coveted status into a journalistic coup in 2004. In that primary cycle he interviewed all of the major Democratic candidates except US Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for the New Hampshire Jewish Federation newspaper The Reporter, whose circulation he estimates at 3,500 out of an overall Jewish population of 14,000. (The primaries are also a cash cow for the publication, which reaps in Rosh Hashana greetings from all the big pols.) Stahl made sure to ask the candidates about their relationship with Judaism and position on the Middle East, as well as on domestic issues such as judicial appointments. Things have come a long way for the Manchester Jewish community, whose members weren't even allowed to hold political office until 1876, according to Stahl, who served as president of the state historical society as well as his synagogue, the federation and the state dentists association. For her part, Fleisher, after raising four children, went on to serve as a state representative. Stahl - who started dating her after both of their spouses passed away a few years ago - teases that that "isn't such a distinction because we have the third-largest legislature in the English-speaking world." When Fleisher shows up at primary events these days, she makes sure the candidates know the Jewish community is being represented and is following the race. That Jewish community might be small, but it has played a significant role in Manchester, which has itself come a long way. A largely blue-collar town built on its mills, Manchester was losing its manufacturing base until Jewish entrepreneurs came along, bought the businesses and revived industry in the area, according to Fleisher. "To some extent, the Jews saved Manchester, but it's not an acknowledged debt," says Fleisher, who found herself in Manchester because her husband's family manufactured shoes in one such factory. Stahl, a second-generation Manchester dentist, is a rarity in the Jewish community in that he was born and raised in the city. As a result, "he knows everybody," according to Fleisher, as he exchanges greetings with yet another patron at the restaurant where they are dining on halibut. Stahl begs to differ. "Not everybody, but a lot." The fact that the city is small helps - they glance around the room and conclude that there are no Democrats to be found. Much of life in Manchester takes on a political dimension, whether it's sorting fellow diners by party affiliation, eating out a restaurant named The Back Room or attending a birthday party that doubles as a fund-raiser for the guest of honor, a state legislator whose stickers they're still wearing at dinner. In other words, politics is a part of New Hampshire's identity, and when the other states try to home in on their territory, old-timers like Stahl and Fleisher don't appreciate it. "I'd just die at the thought of losing the first primary. It's such a blast!" declares Fleisher. As such, she understands that others want a piece of the action. "Why," they ask, "should we get all the fun?" she asks rhetorically. Why, indeed, shouldn't someone else get to wash Howard Dean's sheets?