Keene, NH -
There is a first time for everything. Today it was the first time a presidential candidate ever set foot inside tiny Marlow, NH. Stemming from an NPR search back in May to find the impossible - a Granite State town that had never had its babies kissed and its apple pie sampled - a viable runt emerged. At the intersection of NH Rtes. 10 and 123 sits Marlow, pop. 747, on the shores of the Ashuelot River with a town historical society, a gas station, a church, a war memorial and not much else. This afternoon there were a few more cars, and even a couple with out of state plates, but not enough to drastically change the face of the town.
The face that everyone who was in town wanted to see was that of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the first candidate to ever visit Marlow. My first impression was somewhat negative. I stood in the overflow section (leaning against a wall near the window overlooking Forest Street) about 20 feet from the stage and watched as Richardson entered the room with little fanfare - no campaign songs, no long-winded introduction from the local Democratic state senator - just a slight increase in energy as pockets of people began standing and chatting as they realized the Governor was in the room. Richardson made his way around the room and shook everyone's hand before heading to a seat in the front row where the head of the town historical society nervously introduced him from a stack of cue cards she had prepared. During the intro he seemed a lot like a slimy glad-handing pol as he snaked through the room with a smile on his face, decked out in his almost standard issue navy suit with dark red tie.
That sliminess melted away almost instantly when he took the stage. The governor spoke with sincerity, authority, directness and the humor for which he has been both renowned and ridiculed. One of the first things out of his mouth, when he was given a standing ovation by a handful of people in the crowd was, "thank you for standing. I thought you were leaving." Consider me sufficiently warmed up by that point. He then self-deprecatingly compared himself to the second coming of Taft (who jilted Marlow with a failed visit in 1912) by saying "you got the other fat guy, instead." Gold. After a couple of jokes he cut to the chase, opening his speech with what he would do in his first six days as President. In other words, he listed his political priorities in order.
1) Get out of Iraq
2) Create a National Energy Policy
3) Improve education
4) Create a health care plan to cover everyone
5) Improve economic conditions for the middle class
6) Fix the little things that have been damaged by the Bush Presidency
It was very refreshing to see a candidate be so candid about what his priorities are. Having just seen Obama, it was exactly what his speech was missing. Sure we all need hope and change, but can't a lot of people do that? Richardson suggests he can, and he intends to govern as well. And how. He brought the tough talk on energy, calling for an Apollo-like program to bring CAFE standards up to 50 MPG, reduce US oil imports to 10% of our energy use, and dramatic caps on our carbon footprint, to the tune of 90% in the near future. This stuff was no joke. Best of all, he called on Americans to sacrifice in order to do so, but of course under the aegis of a unified national effort. He even joked that Marlow was doing a great job of sacrificing by not providing air conditioning for the town hall meeting. Zing!
His education plan centers around strengthening early education, pushing science and math, expanding access to college and trade schools and using the arts to boost student interest in schools. He repeatedly brought children into his speech, mentioning that their futures are at stake . He also repeatedly called out little toddlers for not paying attention to his speech. Hey-o! There were also details for his other initiatives, but Iraq, energy and education were the big 3. Everything was tied together with what is probably Richardson's guiding principle in this campaign - that our foreign policy needs to be strengthened by way of inclusion. He repeatedly spoke to our need to engage our enemies in order to make peace, and to talk tough to our friends, as illustrated by Richardson bringing up an elderly woman from the audience and bestowing upon her the role of President of Mexico. He urged her to create more jobs for her people so they don't flood our borders, and to actually do it. He then smiled his way through a mock photo-op, which he said was typical of the worthless summits that have been the hallmark of the past ten years.
The crowd in Marlow was very different from the crowd in Laconia, and this time around the biggest applause lines came from respecting the constitution, talking to Mexico about jobs and getting rid of No Child Left Behind. These are the things that small town Marlow cared about. They also cared about guns. The first question came from a man who stood up and immediately bullied his way into the spotlight, claiming his position as the man with the first question. He wanted to know what Bill Richardson thought about the 2nd Amendment. The Governor touted his role as a Western governor who "is a believer in the 2nd Amendment" before qualifying it with the need for background checks for criminals and mentally ill, respectfully citing the Virginia Tech shootings as a case in point. The questioner was pleased. Richardson also showed courage in going out of his way to voice his support for abortion and gay rights in a town where that probably wasn't the best slogan. He did the same to advocate against genocide in Darfur and sexual slavery in the third world. Richardson suggested that we project that values of the 4th of July to the world by what we say and do.
He closed with the case for Bill Richardson, asking us in the audience to support him not because of his celebrity status and money (or lack thereof) but because of the grassroots support he is building, because of his qualifications and plans and because of what he says he will do for the country. I must say, Richardson made a fine case for the America he wanted to create, and more importantly the America he felt he could and would create. Afterward, he spent another 20 minutes shaking everyone's hand, but I snuck off without seeing it all the way through. I hopped in the car, pushed into 1st and headed down 123 to 10 to 9 while the Ashuelot flowed down toward the Connecticut amid the boulders, the great herons, the deer and the turtles that crowded the road in Western New Hampshire. I had some blogging to do, and some thinking, and of course I was excited to get back to my beloved Keene. Railroad, anyone? It is Thursday, after all.