I was 24 years old, stationed on the other side of the earth, when radio broadcasts and weeks-old newspapers in a mail pouch gave me my idealized introduction to the phenomenon of the New Hampshire primary. Just 40 days after the North Vietnamese had shockingly launched the Tet Offensive — just three weeks after one of my closest college classmates had been killed in combat — New Hampshire was no longer just the place I’d gone to high school, the tucked-away, quintessentially New England place where I’d first taken my cuts playing hockey on the black ice of Turkey Pond.
Now, suddenly, in the winter of 1968, New Hampshire was someplace else entirely, the place where legions of kids my age — kids carrying pamphlets while I was carrying a gun thousands of miles away, just kids knocking on doors, the peanut-butter-and-jelly brigade — proved themselves powerful enough to send a message all over the world that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t be president anymore.
It was an earthquake. It was palpable. It was an awakening. It was a grass-roots prairie fire and a lifelong lesson for me in the power of people.
Thirty-six years later, in my own presidential campaign, New Hampshire taught me another lesson or two. This time, it was New Hampshire as crucible. And sometimes the best lessons were those learned and earned the hard way, on icy roads marked by frost heaves and at Town Hall meetings where the air crackled with skepticism.
In 2003, I was written off as political road kill. A reporter wrote that I looked like the Granite State’s fabled “Old Man of the Mountain,” and then that rocky edifice crumbled days later. The wise guys laughed at the simile.
One gray and misty day we held an event on the banks of the Merrimack River, a short hike through the trees off the main road. Not more than 20 feet away, I could hear the Boston television wise acre recording his promo for what would be the latest political obituary: “Live from Manchester — Howard Dean surging in the polls and we’re lost in the woods with John Kerry.”
So it was that New Hampshire taught me that no matter what polls and pundits say, no matter how often I was written off, as long as I believed in what I was doing and I just kept my head down and my formidable chin up, I could push through the noise, power through what was right in front of me, and come out stronger for the experience.
People really listen in New Hampshire. They give you a lot of chances to prove yourself. They let you fall down a lot, and they challenge you to get back up. And they’re tough judges. They bring those notebooks and they write down their questions and they write down your answers. They care. They really care about their country. It’s a wonderfully idealistic responsibility they carry on their shoulders. They let you find your voice.
New Hampshire can build you up or knock you down, and sometimes what’s really wonderful is that it can build you up again. January 28, 2004, the day after I won the New Hampshire primary, we believed we could take on the world — and we owed it to New Hampshire.
But I owed something more to the people in New Hampshire, who reminded me of something that I didn’t fully realize when I was that kid in 1968: New Hampshire 1968 tapped into my activist heart. It taught me that people who believe in an issue, a cause, and who act on that conviction, really could move a whole country. Vietnam was just that way, whichever side you were on — there was a right and there was a wrong. But in activism, it’s the issue. It’s the issue first and the issue last — and it’s easy to overlook the people of character who give the cause its energy.
So when I look back on New Hampshire 12 years later, I’ll admit something: I can’t remember the finest policy distinctions between me and most of the group of Democratic rivals — opponents, not enemies — I got to know that year. But I can remember like it was yesterday the people I got to know, the friends I depended on because I couldn’t get there on my own.
I remember the firefighters who opened up their firehouses for chili feed after chili feed because, no matter how low I sank in the polls, firefighters were loyal. They played those bagpipes outside debates and stood in the snow, holding those signs, pundits be damned. Loyalty doesn’t fit in an activist’s 10-point plan, but it turns out it’s worth a lot more than tomorrow’s white paper.
I remember Manchester Mayor Bob Baines, who had promised privately to endorse me months before his own reelection, keeping that promise all those months later when my campaign was on life support.
“A promise is a promise,” said Bob, and, man, did he keep it.
I remember the kids in wheelchairs and the woman who had just beaten breast cancer and the Vietnam veterans, some of whom had never volunteered for a campaign before, who were in those headquarters night after night, because some bonds are a lot stronger than the day’s headlines.
That was New Hampshire.
Gene McCarthy talked in 1968 about how “lonely” he had been those months before the New Hampshire primary. That’s activism. You believe in the cause and you follow it. For me, this fight was activism — it was issues — but the great lesson was the strangers I met who became family and friends. They gave meaning to that activism.
John F. Kerry is US secretary of state. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org