It was anything but a normal school day when former ambassador Alan Keyes made a campaign stop at Manchester Memorial High School ahead of the 2000 presidential primary. Students joined faculty and staff in the library to listen to the social conservative's stump speech, but the appearance quickly turned bizarre when a student asked him a question about gay rights.
"You're a victim of homosexual propaganda," responded Keyes.
Keyes fortunately received only 6 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, but this exchange is indicative of the spectacle that descends upon the Granite State every four years. It is an honor to return to my hometown this January as one of the throngs of journalists who will descend upon the Queen City to cover it.
As a volunteer for Arizona Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, I was among the countless Granite Staters and others from across the country who readily embraced this quadrennial rite of political passage. I was among a group of volunteers who stood along Elm Street in downtown Manchester in subfreezing weather on a Sunday morning and proclaimed "We're freezing for a reason!" as we held campaign posters. (Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley's then-wife Ernestine complimented our fortitude as she walked past.) McCain signed a campaign poster during an event at Jillian's in the Millyard along the Merrimack River. (I still have that sign among my political memorabilia in my home office in Washington, D.C.). A friend and I even attended McCain's victory party at a Nashua hotel after he defeated George. W. Bush. I received extra credit from my AP American Government teacher for my efforts.
Four years later, I was a senior journalism major at the University of New Hampshire, reporting on the primary for the UNH student newspaper and a now-defunct LGBT newspaper in Boston. I interviewed former North Carolina Senator John Edwards as we quickly walked up two flights of stairs after an event in the UNH Memorial Union Building. Former Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and retired General Wesley Clark were among those who made campaign stops in Durham. I even covered an on-campus Democratic presidential candidate after my Tuesday-afternoon English class.
The first-in-the-nation presidential primary is a crucial test for anyone who aspires to become the next president of the United States (or serve another term in the White House), but there are those who dismiss New Hampshire voters as a homogeneous group that does not reflect the country's diversity. Others question whether the Granite State should play such a prominent role in the nomination process. There are those who even mock the primary process in general.
The seemingly endless campaign and pollster robocalls grow particularly tiresome. The lack of parking and inevitable traffic jams associated with campaign appearances spark ire among locals who are simply trying to get to the grocery store to purchase a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. The big-city journalists from Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C., who descend upon New Hampshire every four years to cover the primary, often prove themselves a particularly peculiar lot.
Disruptions and inconveniences aside, Granite Staters certainly take their primary very seriously. And it is great to be home to once again witness this all-important political rite of passage.
Follow Michael K. Lavers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mklavers81