Dover, NH -
Waldron Towers is not a luxury hotel, it is a retirement community. It was also the cite of the latest Presidential job interview for Gov. Bill Richardson here in Dover, NH. All along I had suspected as much about the place, having only seen the name in print on the Richardson website, and all suspicions were confirmed when I walked through the front door, down the stairs and into a rec room with fifty or so metal chairs set up, and three square folding tables on the right side, each of which had an unfinished puzzle resting upon it. There was also the matter of the demographics. I was one of maybe ten under seventy.
Inside, I spent twenty minutes of chatting with campaign staffers, volunteers from the ONE campaign, and various and sundry Richardson supporters until the candidate arrived, all of whom shunned the Clinton appearance in nearby Portsmouth. Granted, most of them couldn’t have wheeled there if they wanted to, but still.
The Governor was introduced by the president of the community, an elderly veteran in a wheelchair whose voice trembled when he spoke, not out of humble deference but from physical difficulty. Richardson smiled as he took over the microphone, and immediately blamed the New Hampshire State Police for his tardiness. I liked what he had to say already. He then told about his approval rating in New Mexico, which has risen to a remarkable 71% in recent days. The news was broken to him over the phone by his wife.
“What?” he told her, “I’ve been campaigning so much that I haven’t even been around.”
“That is exactly why your approval rating is so high,” his wife shot back.
With Bill Richardson the jokes start early, and they come fast and furious after that. Speaking of his wife, he mentioned that she graduated from Colby-Sawyer University in New Hampshire, then looked around to acknowledge his pandering and said, “hey, when you’re at 14% you gotta say anything.” I tell ya, he gets no respect!
His speech got sillier before it got serious. “Don’t worry,” he assured us, “I am going to keep my stump speech short today. I know you have a lot of questions. It will only be an hour and a half.” This was punctuated by Richardson’s distinct and textbook move of scrunching his face, closing his eyes and turning slightly down and to the left in his best pantomimed laugh. Ahhh, it gets me every time.
Once he got rolling, it was the usual Richardson meat: No Troops Left Behind in Iraq; scrap No Child Left Behind; enhance math, science and the arts in schools; provide the option of a year of national service to get rid of college debt; create a bold energy policy with 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 and 30% by 2020; improve our national health care; and restore America’s place in the world. The general platform is pretty much the same across the Democratic candidate spectrum, but notable in Bill Richardson’s is that, if you read his big six ideas, you can tell that it is him which is more than can be said about most of the others. Given his commitment to arts in schools, his No Troops Left Behind plan, his national year of service plan, and the 90% carbon reduction, it would be prudent to call Richardson the “Ideas Candidate” of the left.
In that same vein I have heard people complain about Richardson’s performance in the debates, mocking him for beginning every statement with, “I actually have a plan for that,” and for throwing notions out of the blue like potentially boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics over human rights infractions. It’s true that he does go off the cuff, and he catches a lot of flack for it. But the common thread behind such a style is that it is based in ideas and solutions. Does Richardson toe the party message line? Hell no. He is sort of like a kid in a candy store, while most of the other candidates are adults. They are able to walk in and buy the most popular and filling candy bar, say a Snickers. But Richardson keeps eyeing over and spotting the Mambas, the Big Hunks, the gummy worms, hell, even the Chick-O-Sticks. Yeah, his lack of discipline will get him in trouble every now and then, but who else in the field is willing to try the Chick-O-Stick? You may be better off with a Snickers a lot of the time, but true salvation is found in the occasional Big Hunk and Charleston Chew.
With his stump speech done after about fifteen minutes, Richardson began entertaining questions from the audience. Now, what was remarkable about this campaign stop wasn’t his stump speech, which in most respects was sloppier than usual (he forgot to present it as his first six days half the time), rather it was the groundbreaking candor he showed with the people. Richardson brought up the Clinton rally down the road in Portsmouth and readily admitted that one Clinton was tough enough, and two were shockingly formidable before his aside that his old boss Bill was not very happy with him for running against Hillary.
The first question directed toward him asked what kind of Vice President he would have. Richardson went a few places with this one. On the Democratic campaign trail, questions about Vice Presidents invariably invite lame and predictable jokes about Dick Cheney, and this time was no different, except that it was actually funny. When talking about Cheney’s executive branch remark a few weeks ago, Richardson lit up and said, “if he’s not in the executive branch, what is he? A farmer?!” Unfortunately, he wasn’t pulling on his tie at this point, but I was imagining it nonetheless. To top it off Richardson gave a brief description of the relationship between Clinton and Gore, telling us that Gore was brought on to do certain jobs within the office, and added that on global warming, “Al Gore was right. I just hope he stays the heck out of the race. He’s not even running and I just passed him in the polls last week.” Seriously, you won’t get that anywhere else in New Hampshire (this side of Joe Biden, anyway).
When he did his customary President of Mexico schtick, during which he brings someone up from the audience (usually a kid) to stand next to him while he demonstrates why most summit meetings are full of shit, Richardson lowered his voice in mock earnestness to mimic the voice of a President. Talking about the hardliners on immigration he did the same, belting out with fake exasperation that “we’re gonna round ’em up, deport ’em, and treat ’em like felons!” He gave the audience a tip that they should go to their congressman to get a passport these days to avoid a two month wait, especially near election time. He told of his wife’s two cats having more clout around the governor’s mansion than him as re recounted the story of his wife calling him immediately upon hearing of the tainted Chinese pet food and demanding he do something about it. Bolder still he brought up Russia poisoning it’s political dissidents by quipping, “I’m not saying it is deliberate,” then lowering his head and furrowing his brow atop a smirk, “but what a coincidence.” Some call it irresponsible, I call it Gold.
It wasn’t just humorous candor, either. Another questioner asked him what he, as President, would do about affordable housing. He spouted some stuff about liquidity in the Fed and touched on his general middle class policies, things that most candidates would say. But then when he was done he looked the woman in the eye and said, “What did I miss? You know this issue, what should I have said that I didn’t say?” And he was honest. She brought up a few more ideas and he told her to write him a memo about the issue so that he could consider her point of view. Keep in mind that this is the Governor of a state with well over a million people, and a candidate running third in some polls. I know that makes some of you say, “what the hell is he doing asking some geek off the street for ideas?” But don’t forget that this is New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation-primary. They thrive on that stuff. Whether or not he actually intends to listen to this woman, he at least engaged her, and all of us. He showed humility, a connection to the common man, and a genuine interest in finding a solution to a problem.
It was a move he repeated consistently the rest of the night. Richardson blew off his staffers nearly a dozen times when they told him to take only one more question. The later the event went on, the more the questions turned to health care. Richardson unabashedly asked these voters what kind of health care plan they wanted. He defended his own plan, but asked people to rebut his arguments. He wanted to know people’s experience with Medicare D4 vs. the VA prescription drug plan, and they wanted to talk about it. Just when I was thinking that the night had gone on too long, I realized that these people would have stayed another hour, even at the risk of missing supper time up in the cafeteria and an episode of Matlock. Ultimately, Richardson reiterated the fact that he wasn’t sold on a single payer system, as advocated by much of the crowd, but that he was willing to be convinced otherwise. He told tales of asking Kucinich about it, and keeping an open mind at every event and forum. Given how much more lip service he paid to the idea tonight compared to what he said in June, I believe him.
Richardson closed with a story about FDR. He said that when Roosevelt died, his casket was carried by train from Georgia to his home on the Hudson River. The tracks were lined with thousands of people, all wanting to pay their respects to the President. At one point along the way there was a simple looking man, clad in overalls and a straw hat, just wailing and wailing in tears as the train came to a stop. A reporter came out from the train car and asked the man, “you are so upset, did you know the President?” The man replied, “no, but he knew me.” That is how Bill Richardson wants to be remembered. I tell you, if he keeps chatting up these crowds of fifty to one hundred, working four to six events a day across the state, it may well happen.