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Primary Memories

In ’84 campaign, on the trail with Paul Newman

Actor Paul Newman spoke to a crowd of 350 as former Vice President Walter Mondale listened in Nashua. Jim Cole/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

During the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primary, news that actor Paul Newman had agreed to spend a day campaigning for Walter Mondale seemed a mixed blessing. All too often celebrity surrogates caused more trouble to a busy campaign than they were worth, with some making more demands than a rock diva. But Newman made just two simple requests: that he be allowed to speak about the nuclear freeze, and that a case of cold Budweiser be always at hand.

Mondale’s New Hampshire campaign manager, Chuck Campion, had asked me to serve as press secretary, and together we were to meet Newman at the airport and accompany the motorcade that would spirit him and Mondale on a multicity tour of the state. Braced for a day of headaches, we instead enjoyed one of the most fun and interesting days of that chaotic campaign.


Standing on the tarmac as Newman exited a small private plane, we got the first inkling that he was much more than just some celebrity: He was a genuine old-fashioned movie star. Smiling as he flashed his impossibly blue eyes, Newman graciously shook hands with everyone assembled in an impromptu receiving line of campaign staffers.

“I’ll never wash this hand again!” gushed one hard-boiled female operative from Washington.

“Me either,” replied another.

At one point, Mondale asked Newman which of his many movies was his favorite; his answer was a surprise: “Slap Shot.” Newman loved his little-remembered role as the player/coach of a struggling minor league hockey team.

The tour took us on a long loop through the eastern part of the state. At each stop, reporters from around the world joined the large enthusiastic crowds. There was a short rest period at a roadside motel for some lunch and, for Newman, several cans of cold Budweiser. (One of the great mysteries of life is how the middle-aged actor could drink a case of Bud in a day yet maintain his washboard stomach.)


We were about two hours behind schedule that evening when the motorcade finally rolled into the overflowing parking lot of a social club in the working-class West Side of Manchester for the final event of the day. The place was packed. To appease the long-waiting crowd, the bar had been kept open and had obviously done a lot of business. What appeared to be a mainly female, middle-aged crowd (perhaps the men had been pushed out of the way) was well-oiled, excited, and extremely loud. Police and staffers lined up to re-enforce the rope line leading to the stage, as the event seemed to have degenerated into something more like a Beatles concert than a political event. Screaming fans reached to grab Newman, shouting, “He’s here! He’s here!” “I love you Paul!” “You’re so handsome!”

The din rose louder and louder inside the small, low-ceilinged hall. Trying desperately to be heard as he began his remarks on the dangers of nuclear annihilation, Newman signaled for the crowd to quiet down. In that brief moment of relative silence, a large woman with curlers in her black hair and a large drink in her hand, gave a shout that rang out through the hall: “Paul Newman, please come home with me!”

I felt sorry for Newman as the crowd exploded into laughter. The actor finally gave up his effort to deliver his remarks. Mondale took over, and gradually the crowd quieted down.


Campion, the campaign manager, drove back to Portsmouth with Newman that night, and the next day I asked whether the actor was disappointed he was unable to deliver his nuclear freeze remarks, unable to be taken seriously on the subject he cared so much about. But Campion said Newman took it all in stride and was in good spirits during the ride. Throwing back Bud after Bud with no apparent diminishing of his faculties as the car wound its way back to the Seacoast, Newman regaled him with a story of once being stopped by a state trooper driving 110 miles per hour on a Connecticut highway.

“Speeding is one thing, Mr. Newman,” the trooper said. “But going 110 miles per hour is something else again!”

Always the class act, Newman didn’t argue with him: “You’re absolutely right officer,” he replied. And the trooper sent him on his way.

Michael P. Shea is a Democratic media consultant.