INTERVALE, N.H. -- This story is seldom told, even less often remembered, almost certain never to be repeated. It is a story about a brand of politics long forgotten, about a political world long vanished, about a political tactic long abandoned. And yet this story illuminates so much about our current politics that it deserves to be retrieved from history and retold at its 50th anniversary.
On the surface it is a story about how an American ambassador in a strife-torn faraway land — a man twice defeated by the shining political star of his time, relegated to the back corridors of diplomacy and with no electoral prospects — rocked the political world by pulling off a New Hampshire primary victory against the two most famous political figures of his party.
It is a story about how a movement went viral when the term meant something else entirely.
It is a story of how two brilliant elected officials — one destined to be regarded as the founding father of modern conservatism, the other destined to be vice president of the United States — completely misread the political landscape in which they had invested heaps of time and treasure.
And it is a story about how the ancient art of political organizing, married to the ancient yearning for something fresh and new, produced upheaval in a party now full of insurgents but then a redoubt of social order.
This is the story about how Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. — defeated by John F. Kennedy in one of the signature Senate races of the century in 1952, then defeated again by Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson when he was Richard M. Nixon’s running mate in 1960, and then ensconsed by Kennedy, out of political sight, in the Saigon embassy complex — won New Hampshire a half-century ago Monday without even stepping into the state.
American politics has a long tradition of front-porch campaigning, particularly in the Republican Party — perfected by James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley, all of whom were elected to the White House without stepping far beyond their front porches — but the 1964 New Hampshire primary was won by a Republican who slipped in through the back door.
That back door was unguarded because of the gaudy spectacle played out for months in the rocky, mountainous front yard of New Hampshire politics, where the classic moderate of his time (Nelson A. Rockefeller, a beloved graduate and powerful trustee of Dartmouth College in Hanover) clashed with the classic conservative of his time (Barry Goldwater, whose penchant for speaking blunt truth and whose credo of small government was thought to have a natural affinity with the flinty and frugal Yankees of the Granite State, proud then as now of countenancing neither a sales nor an income tax).
For weeks these two giants crossed the state, then populated by only slightly more than half a million people, not yet transformed by the Yankee Magazine ethos into an enclave of the quaint and the cute, and still dominated by textile mills and the shoe industry. On the new highways that would transform New Hampshire in the next decades, the candidates sped from Concord to Keene to Conway and back to Contoocook.
Goldwater alone spent 23 days here, though he came to regret the day, in Concord, when he suggested to voters in one of the three oldest states in the nation that Social Security might be better if it were voluntary.
Rockefeller rushed here at the end of each fevered week of governing in Albany, hoping his high spirits and high-mindedness (plus a few down-home cameos with the well-loved Tanzi brothers at their grocery in Hanover, pictures of which still hang on the walls in Lou’s Restaurant on Main Street) would charm voters.
But Goldwater was discovering that his candor was unsettling in a state that prized social rest, and Rockefeller was discovering that Hampshiremen, as residents here were then known, were curiously immune to his how-are-ya-fella charm, particularly when it came from out of state and from a millionaire who had to borrow petty cash to buy a heart-shaped box of Valentine’s chocolates for the woman he married after abandoning his first wife. (William Loeb, himself twice divorced, described Rockefeller in his Manchester Union Leader newspaper as a “Home Wrecker.”)
It didn’t help either candidate’s case that each possessed a manner — as opposite in style as it was in ideology — that was slightly out of tune in a state whose politics then moved to the rhythm of a Broadway show, perhaps “Brigadoon,” which sometimes is employed as a metaphor for the quadrennial pageant and performance art of the primary here.
Rockefeller spoke of the world as a conundrum of intertwined complexities. Goldwater spoke of the world as black-and-white simplicities suited to a country where only 3 percent owned color televisions in 1964. “His candor,” said presidential chronicler Theodore H. White, “is the completely unrestrained candor of old men and little children.”
This environment — dominated by two established political figures working from their established playbooks — was peculiarly suited to an insurgency, engineered by four amateurs in search of “something fun and exciting to do.” They put down $400 to rent a Concord storefront, hired a sign painter for $162, sent out 96,000 letters and spent $750 on a crude “documentary” on the life of Lodge, still safely tucked away 10,000 miles from Manchester.
“This write-in thing came pretty much out of nowhere,” says State Rep. David Hess of Hookset, the deputy Republican leader of the state House of Representatives who, as a Dartmouth senior, had been recruited by the college dean to organize the northern third of Grafton County for Rockefeller. “It swept everyone away. Rocky and Barry were left behind — and it was a shocker, even to those of us on the ground. There’s never been anything like it.”
The primary ballot that year was a foot and a half in length, with 125 delegates listed. Voters who had been urged to make an independent choice (“Don’t be satisfied with the available. Select the best”) turned out in droves for Lodge. The ambassador received 36 percent of the vote, topping Goldwater (22 percent) and Rockefeller (21 percent).
Goldwater went on to win the nomination, Rockefeller to serve as vice president. And Lodge? He served as head of the American delegation at the Vietnam peace talks and died 29 years ago, his adventure in national politics long unremembered.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).