CONCORD, N.H. — They crammed into the century-old parlor, finding room amid the doilied end tables and overflowing bookcases: Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Joe Biden, Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon, Gary Hart, Howard Dean, and Jesse Jackson.
Bill Clinton has sat in this living room. Hillary Rodham Clinton has visited, too.
“Being the first primary state, they all come down, you know,” said Mary Louise Hancock, 94, from her living room, largely unchanged for decades. The flowered wallpaper, lamps, and pictures are as they were in 1988, 2008, and the presidential primaries in between.
The Concord native wryly notes that if she lived anyplace but New Hampshire, “I wouldn’t be nearly so important.”
Hancock plays an unlikely gatekeeper, with the ability to smooth the path of would-be Democratic presidents new to the Granite State.
“You know the saying, ‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it’? Well, she knows the history . . . more so than anybody else in the state of New Hampshire,” said Kathy Sullivan, former state Democratic Party chairwoman. “It’s just a wise thing for someone to sit down and talk to her and get her input and her wisdom.”
Hancock serves as a reservoir of wisdom on the political landscape of a state that, with its first in the nation primary, can knock candidates from the race or rescue them from obscurity. John Lynch, the former governor of New Hampshire and one of Hancock’s longtime friends, said that her stamp of approval is more than an endorsement.
“She will spend hours and hours and hours writing personal letters to her friends, telling them why she is endorsing,” said Lynch, who first met Hancock when she ran for state Senate nearly 40 years ago. “These are also influential people she’s writing to who have the ability to bring their own friends along.”
And in addition to the letters, Hancock will make “hundreds of phone calls” to her friends all over the state, he said. “She is a must-stop for anybody running for president,” he said. “This goes back as long as I can remember.”
Lynch sought her counsel when he decided to run for governor. He later took a presidential candidate to visit in 2007 — Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“She came to see me,” said Hancock, pulling out a photograph of Clinton and Lynch in her living room. “We sat right here for the whole hour, just the three of us talking.”
They talked shop, but they also talked about a bit of everything else, including how schools no longer teach cursive.
“She’s very, very, very easy to talk to,” said Hancock, who supported Hillary Clinton then and is doing the same now. Clinton will make her first trip to New Hampshire as a 2016 presidential candidate on Monday and Tuesday.
Clinton’s staff members won’t say if another visit to Hancock’s house is in the works. But the grande dame of the state’s Democrats is hopeful, recently sending the former secretary of state a handwritten note to her home address.
In her letter, Hancock wrote in Latin, “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” before signing, “Be of good cheer. Love, Mary Louise.”
“I think she’s the most qualified candidate I’ve ever heard of, saw, or thought about. Don’t you? ‘Course you do,” Hancock explained as her blue, “Ready for Hillary” posters rested on a nearby chair.
Hancock’s father owned a drugstore across the street from the State House, and she grew up listening to the political conversations of elected officials and state workers who stopped by. Her parents were Republicans, but she fell in love with the Democratic Party because of Franklin Roosevelt. Like the country’s 32d president, Hancock suffered from polio, contracting the disease as a child.
And growing up with the limited use of her legs, she said, helped shaped the sense of fairness and equality she has carried with her to the University of New Hampshire’s campus in 1938, state government in 1942, and the state Senate in 1976.
Hancock was the state’s first female planning director, but she left the job and ran for state Senate, winning a seat held by Republican men since its inception. She held the seat for 2½ years before resigning to work for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At the time — it was 1979 — the Concord Monitor said Hancock would be missed at the State House: “If there was anyone in the state Senate who disdained political mumbo-jumbo, who said bluntly what she thought, sometimes in salty terms, and who was the conscience of the Senate, it was Mary Louise Hancock. She’s a mover and a shaker who knows the innards of bureaucracy like the palm of her hand.”
Much is the same today — the insight, the candor, the humor. Ask about the current state of affairs, and Hancock says, “Sometimes I swear. I shouldn’t, but I do,” before bemoaning the bitterness and cynicism permeating politics.
“You have to have a thick skin,” said Democratic activist Debby Butler, who was New Hampshire cochairwoman of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. Butler remembers being on the receiving end of that sharp wit when she walked into Hancock’s Washington Street home with Dean, the former governor of Vermont. It was before 7 a.m., and Hancock — who was still in bed — scolded her for arriving with Dean so early. But then “they talked for an hour or so when he was nobody in the polls,” Butler said.
That year, Hancock backed Dean.
In Hancock’s modest home with green wooden shutters, the passage of time is marked by a collection of political memorabilia.
There are candid photos of a youthful Bill Clinton and Al Gore sitting in her living room separately — long before either went to the White House. A snapshot of Vice President Walter Mondale sits on the mantelpiece in the kitchen. Christmas cards from President Obama rest on the coffee table. A framed invitation to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration is displayed in the sunroom. And a massive watercolor of the White House signed by President Jimmy Carter hangs in the kitchen.
Questions about the watercolor often prompt a captivating story about a weekend spent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the Lincoln Bedroom when she and Irene Gallen, wife of former New Hampshire governor Hugh Gallen, were guests at a state dinner.
“I took a picture of everything in the room,” she said an impish grin on her face. She also admits to taking all the books on a table in the bedroom, an ashtray, and a glass.Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.