Breakfast with the Next President

by Jeff Woodburn

I’ve forgotten the exact breakfast spot we’re suppose to meet, but figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find (there are only two in town.) The entourage should stick out in this little town. Just look for the suits filled with young aides worrying about things they have no control over. I enter the diner and see just one local in a baseball cap having breakfast. This can’t be it so I rush back to my car wondering where everyone is. I see a suit: just one. At 7:06 a.m., it is too early for funeral or a wedding, so I assume he’s part of the candidate’s team.

“He’ll be right along,” he says, but it sounds more like don’t leave or the next president will have breakfast alone, “snow slowed us up.” I thought there would be a few more people, not just me and the guy at the end of the counter.

A moment later, my guest walks in with a rush of busy aides, and heads toward the baseball capped man. They talk about guns. My guest’s position on gun control is rare among Democrats. I greet his handlers and we engage in small talk. In an instant, he’s back and he’s got my hand and before I know it, he slides into the booth and grabs a menu. “I’m on this crazy diet,” he announces, “I ‘m going to get some real food (sausage and eggs.)” This ordinary comment is extraordinary in modern day Presidential politics, where everything is analyzed and poll tested. Presidential candidates are a very different breed.

Since 1980, I’ve met a couple dozen Presidential candidates. To survive the endless scrutiny, they create a plastic veneer and can become paralyzed with caution. You become guarded when everyone you meet wants something from you, or wants to pin something on you. Most stuffed shirts simply try to endure this process, and look utterly uncomfortable at best or like a damn fool at worst. A few like Pat Buchanan, Bill Clinton and John McCain seem to enjoy it.

The New Hampshire Primary forces big shot politicians to come down to earth and meet real people. I realize that my address is more important than my political prowess. I find the attention to be a little odd and embarrassing. The process does work so long as state politicians don’t begin to see themselves as “King makers,” rather than simply good links to the locals. My guest has been briefed enough to know a little bit about me. So he asks a question or two. He doesn’t pander, but he does listen and offers quick, witty one-liners and thoughtful observations.

I don’t get mired in policy. Politicians provide canned answers all day long to these questions. I’m interested in what kind of person they are. Issues change, people don’t. I come with two topics about his background that I find revealing. First is that he holds the Guinness Book of World Records for handshaking. This proves to me he’s willing to take risks and that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The second is that, as governor, he signed a bill that banned cock fighting. As a novice chicken farmer, I followed the legislation introduced in New Hampshire this year to ban the strict confinement of chickens (even though no one uses this practice here.) I wonder how different our two states are in terms of our politics (and our chickens.) I remember that George Bush beat John Kerry in my guest’s home state. Maybe we need a candidate who can win and govern in a place where his or her own party doesn’t dominate? I can’t imagine Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama stopping a cock fight.

My guest makes me feel comfortable. We’re now going back and forth with casual banter. It’s like a Friday night at the Woodburn House (a popular local establishment owned by the author.) I like him. I’m a sucker for an authenticity. He reminds me of the best qualities of an old time politician. He’s a character, who genuinely enjoys meeting people. He doesn’t seem disturbed with his low standing in the polls; rather he believes he can win one vote at a time. “I’m going right to the people” he adds. It sounds more like a populist political philosophy, than a campaign strategy.

My guest is Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico and former Congressman, Energy Secretary and UN Ambassador. He finally gives me the sales pitch. He’s a successful governor and diplomat, with a knack for getting things done at home and abroad. As President, he certainly would have his work cut out for him.

An aide interrupts, “It’s time to go.” I’m up and headed out not wanting to be the cause of his tardiness at the next event. I glance back; he’s still at the table settling up, I assume. I turn and move toward him, and say, “Governor, I’d be happy to support you.”

The New Hampshire Presidential primary doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Our great contribution to the Presidential selection process is that we can see beyond polls, endorsements, fundraising, and even issues, and look right into the eyes of the candidates. This process is just beginning, but I know now what others will soon learn: Bill Richardson is a good man and is worthy of serious consideration.

(Jeff Woodburn, of Whitefield, served as Chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party from 1997-99)