CONCORD, N.H. — The cake for the 100th birthday was big and green and covered by a frosting map of the Granite State. The relics spread around the room seemed to have been conjured up by someone trying to evoke a flinty, old-time version of New Hampshire: a straw hat with a black band; plain, wire-rimmed spectacles; a Grange certificate; and a roll-top desk, sturdy and devoid of unnecessary scrollwork.
They were artifacts from the life of Stephen A. Bullock, the lawmaker who filed the bill 100 years ago Tuesday establishing the state’s presidential primary. Bullock set in motion a phenomenon that would put New Hampshire on the political map and define it for residents and outsiders, to candidates vying for attention, political scribes writing odes to the primary’s purity, and to the larger, flashier, more centrally located states coveting what New Hampshire has.
And here is what New Hampshire has: “The best political event — evah! — in the history of our country and on the planet,” said Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National Committee member and one of many friends of the primary who gathered for cake, fruit punch, and nearly 90 minutes of birthday speeches at the State House in Concord Tuesday in the Executive Council Chamber.
It was down the hall a century ago that Bullock — a poultry farmer, selectman, tax collector, health officer, and fire warden from the town of Richmond, as well as a lawmaker — submitted a hand-written bill drafted at that roll-top desk. The bill’s simple, remarkable premise? Give voters a say in selecting presidential nominees, freeing it from smoke-filled backrooms.
‘The best political event — evah! — in the history of our country and on the planet.’ — Kathy Sullivan, Democratic National Committee member and celebrant at New Hampshire primary’s 100th birthday party
Just as remarkably, the Republican House and Democratic Senate approved his bill and the governor signed it all on that same day, foreshadowing the primary’s ability to bring together both parties to keep New Hampshire first.
“Regardless of party — as John McCain says, ‘Republican, Democrat, vegetarian, libertarian, egalitarian’ — we all love this process that lets the people decide, so may that bipartisanship on this issue continue for the next hundred years, and our primary will stay first and stay as important as it is for democracy,” said Steve Duprey, the state’s Republican National Committeeman.
Bullock, who as a boy had heard Lincoln speak, might not recognize his creation today. He proposed allowing voters to directly select presidential delegates, not candidates. New Hampshire at that moment was following closely on the heels of similar action in Minnesota and Indiana, said Secretary of State William M. Gardner, the primary’s chief historian and defender. But Minnesota switched to a caucus, and Indiana shifted its primary to late spring, meaning New Hampshire came first when the 1916 presidential cycle arrived.
Not until 1952 did the state put names of the candidates on the ballot, a year in which the New Hampshire primary asserted its now-celebrated ability to challenge conventional wisdom and put candidates through their paces and in which the new medium of television helped tell that story to the nation, Gardner said.
That year, Estes Kefauver’s Democratic win helped discourage President Harry Truman from seeking a second full term, while General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Robert A. Taft shifted the Republican landscape.
Bullock’s obituary in the Globe did not mention the primary, and Gardner did not unearth his role until the late 1990s.
“I think he would be amazed, I really do, but pleased,” Bullock’s granddaughter, Edith Atkins, said in a taped interview played Tuesday. Atkins, raised by her grandparents in their Richmond farmhouse, recalled riding around in Bullock’s 1916 Buick, watching him come in from the fields to read the paper, and seeing him “go down cellar” to bring up apples for dessert in winter, after his customary pipe, but nary a word of the primary.
Atkins died 10 years ago. Her niece, Sybil Dupuis, 8 when Great-grandfather Bullock died, presented his artifacts to the state and spoke briefly, amid a long list of celebrants attesting to the qualities besides mere position that make New Hampshire unique.
This is a state so steeped in elections — one that picks a governor every two years, and that packs its Legislature with 424 part-time volunteers — that regular people are accustomed to asking candidates hard questions and routinely talk politics in pubs and schoolyards.
“It’s not very often that a mother can say her 10-year-old daughter turns to her one day and says, ‘You know, Joe Biden is the best guy we’ve got on foreign policy, if you’ve been watching,’ ” Governor Maggie Hassan said, recalling the 2008 primary.
At 100, the primary still has the power to steal hearts. Navigating through the crowd, Gardner was heading to hug Bullock’s great-granddaughter when he did a double-take, spotting a 12-year-old he recognized from Friday night, when Gardner had seen the boy and his father outside the State Library studying the bricks that chronicle the history of the primary. Gardner invited the boy, Roddy Emley, to return for the party but did not expect him to follow through on a school day.
“You’re here!” Gardner said, beaming. “How’d you get here?”
“My mom took me,” said Roddy, who had come from Haverhill, 90 minutes north of Concord — a seventh-grader playing hooky, wearing a necktie, and carrying a digital camera. Already he was a student of the primary, soaking up its history, looking forward to the decades ahead.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.