It was a really cold day in January 1968 and, as I recall, my interviewer was sitting on one of two twin beds in a modest motel room in Manchester NH, a portable typewriter at his side, the bed opposite covered with stacks of papers and newspapers. Not bothering to get up and shake my hand he got right to the point.
“What do you do?”
“Well,” I stuttered, “I’m studying architecture, I’m a free-lance designer and I’m really interested in photography.”
“We don’t need an architect or designer. We need a staff photographer. Can you do it?”
That’s the extent of my interview with Sy Hersh, at the time press secretary for presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy, that landed me my first legit job as a photographer — and ignited a passion both for justice and for underdogs.
Although it was two days before I met McCarthy, from that time forward I was “Clean for Gene,” part of an anti-Vietnam war, pro-Peace movement that shook the nation and kept Lyndon Johnson from a second term.
I was with McCarthy during the rage of the Tet Offensive; I was with him when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and I was with him, on the night we lost the primary in California, when Sirhan Sirhan murdered Bobby Kennedy.
I was present in Grant Park when Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police force and Illinois National Guardsmen clashed with demonstrators and finally, after I witnessed the Democratic Party endorse Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their candidate I knew it was time to move on. It was then I moved to Beirut, Lebanon and began a decades-long involvement in covering Middle East issues.
While I’ve remained politically concerned and active, 1968 was the last time I was personally involved in NH presidential primary politics — until this year.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had the privilege to sit in on a few editorial board meetings with four of the candidates presently running for president. Schedule conflicts prevented me from meeting a couple of others (I’m particularly sorry I missed Ohio Gov. John Kasich) and I skipped meeting a couple in whom I had little interest.
It will surprise few, I’m sure, that I was most impressed by Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton, in part because she’s so smart — she so clearly agreed with me on so many issues!
I went into meetings with Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush with fewer expectations. As a believer in the two-party system the viability of the Republican Party as a viable opposition party is important to me so I arrived at the meetings willing to listen to each as they made their case as why they would best serve America.
It’s impressive what happens here in New Hampshire every four years. While it’s clear that the 94 percent white, low unemployment rate, low evangelical-involvement Granite State isn’t representative of the nation in any significant way, its size makes personal engagement with candidates possible.
And in NH the candidates are willing to shake our hands, sit down with editors, writers and columnists and air their views on-the-record.
Marco Rubio was to me an empty suit, a package of neoconservative canned responses that reflected neither passion nor perspective. He needs seasoning and broader exposure to the world. In Arabic we have an expression — bidoun dam, lacking blood — that came to mind as I listened to Rubio.
Chris Christie began his presentation by touting his anti-terrorism credentials based mainly on his prosecution of the Fort Dix Five – a prosecution many believe was flawed and which has just been reopened.
In an exchange I had with Christie over the use of the term “”Radical Islamic Terrorism” — a term I told him I find inaccurate, offensive and counter to America’s security interests — he was unable to justify its use and then went on, as he was answering other questions, to gratuitously use the term twice more.
I had a similar exchange with candidate Jeb Bush over his use of the phrase “Radical Islamic terrorism.” It was longer and testier — each interrupting the other — and I believe we were both unsatisfied with the way it ended.
And when it ended it was clear neither of us had changed position. But it was also clear to me that Bush had actually listened, that Bush recognized that part of what makes this electoral process special is that we are a nation formed as One — where recognizing the opinion of the other, even when we don’t agree, is essential to our identity.
Finally, for me, the Bush moment that mattered was when, as he was leaving the conference room he paused and as we were shaking hands, said, “Thanks a lot for the discussion.”
That’s the way it supposed to be.
That’s the way we’re supposed to be — not always agreeing but acknowledging that one of the things that distinguishes us from other nations is what we do every four years:
Talk, listen, assess, vote.
That’s what should keep us hopeful.
This column first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald.