Baseball has spring training, football’s got its training camps. But for a political junkie like me, nothing compares with the opening of the presidential primary season.
Some 19 candidates, give or take, recently swarmed a Republican forum in New Hampshire in search of a kind word and a smile from voters there. They spent much of their time arm-wrestling each other over who hated Hillary Clinton more.
Candidates who couldn’t even spell Benghazi, let alone find it on a map, emerged as experts on the death of our ambassador in a terrorist attack there in 2012. Hillary’s fault, naturally.
I thought it was great.
I have fond memories of covering presidential campaigns in New Hampshire, a state that seems entirely sane – unlike some of the politicians who come seeking its favor.
It was there, for example, that I had my brush with greatness: an exclusive face-to-face interview with Ronald Reagan. Actually, it was more like shoulder-to-shoulder.
It was 1980. Reagan, the former governor of California, was making his run for the Republican nomination. I didn’t think he had much of a chance. He was too old for the part, for one thing, but I thought it might be fun to follow him around for a day.
We went from one picturesque little town to another, always met by friendly, enthusiastic crowds, until we got to a junior high where he was scheduled to speak and where I decided to take a bathroom break.
As I walked to the boys room, the smiling crowd parted before me and formed a lane, as though in welcome.
“I hadn’t realized I was this popular up here,” I said to myself.
I went inside, and moments later in walked Ronald Reagan. He took ownership of the urinal next to me.
Drawing on my experience as a crack political reporter, I said: “How’s it going, Governor?”
And he replied: “Oh, pretty well. I always do well up here.”
And that was it, the whole interview.
I spent the rest of the day following him around. I found him remarkable. He gave exactly the same speech at every stop with exactly the same inflection on every word, the catch in his voice at precisely the same moment.
His theme was essentially that he would bring back that time when respect for the United States was so universal that an American could walk through any revolution in the world without fear simply by putting an American flag in his lapel.
Nonsense, of course, but the New Hampshire crowds ate it up. I was sure, however, that Reagan, charming as he was, couldn’t sail so weak a vessel all the way to the nomination, let alone the presidency. He would be found out as an entertaining fraud and dismissed.
To make a long story short, I was wrong.
Still, I miss New Hampshire when the smell of hypocrisy is in the air.
I judge this group of Republican candidates to be superior to the ill-fated slate in 2012. They are, for the most part, much smarter. There’s no Michele Bachmann for one thing.
Even Texas Governor Rick Perry, another member of the double-digit IQ club, has started wearing glasses to make himself look smarter.
A few of them – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich – seem reasonable, for Republicans. And no one would call even the more flamboyant hopefuls, like Rand Paul and Chris Christie, dumb.
Even the minor players are substantial people. Ben Carson, who didn’t make the New Hampshire forum, was a brilliant neurosurgeon. And Carly Fiorina, the lone woman in this crowded field, headed Hewlett-Packard.
It’s true that most of the candidates looked more like vice-presidents-in-waiting than incipient commanders-in-chief. But that’s always the case early on. They’ll sort themselves out as the months go on.
To tell you the truth, it promises to be much more interesting than watching Hillary running against herself.