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At a Gore event in ’98, Secret Service had its hands full

Vice President Al Gore spun a basketball on his finger while visiting with students at Beech Street School in Manchester in 1998.
Vice President Al Gore spun a basketball on his finger while visiting with students at Beech Street School in Manchester in 1998.Andrew Sullivan/Associated Press

Many people think the fascination of the New Hampshire presidential primary comes from rubbing shoulders with the great and powerful. They’re right — that’s a pretty seductive feeling for us Granite Staters. Sometimes, however, it’s the backstage action that makes the primary so engrossing.

Back in the summer of ’98, before the start of the primary that would send him on his way, Al Gore agreed to come to Cornish, N.H., and appear at an event for the House Democratic caucus. This was a big deal by anyone’s thinking. Gore was vice president of the United States, with all the Secret Service protection and the cavalcade of SUVs his position required. The Secret Service personnel protecting him were clear from the start that they wanted the event to go the way they wanted. Tight ship, you bet.

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Of course, this is New Hampshire, and nothing ever goes exactly as expected.

When the Secret Service agents showed up at our farm, my family and I were eager to do what was needed to make the event a success. First they asked us to remove all living things from the house so their bomb dogs could do a sweep. We grabbed our pups and went out on the front lawn. Frankly, I just forgot about the cats. I had no idea where they were.

Turns out, one of them was hiding in a heating system vent in the dining room. As the bomb dog went sniffing by, the cat gave voice to her distress with a mighty yowl, followed by a lightening swift rake of her claws across the poor dog’s nose. That caused the dog to alert to the presence of an explosive device, and a half-dozen Secret Service people had their guns out in a second. They looked pretty serious.

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Things calmed down quickly, and I was asked to come talk to the senior agent present. He expressed his wish that there would be no further surprises once the VP arrived. He also made clear to me that an hour before the arrival time, no one not on the invitation list would be allowed up the road to our house.

Which would have been fine, except . . .

Well, we expected 350 people, and we needed food. A friend had agreed to prepare the edibles, and he was hard at work in a cooking tent out in the field. It was hot, and I think he forgot to hydrate, because a half-hour before the arrival of the VP, our chef fainted and collapsed to the ground. Someone called 911, and before you could say, “Wait a min- . . .” the Cornish Rescue Squad, complete with red lights and sirens, began to arrive. Followed by the Windsor ambulance.

I saw the look on the face of the agent in charge and decided I would meld into the crowd of eager Democrats waiting to press the flesh with Al.

Two strikes were plenty, except . . .

Just at that moment, my dear friend and neighbor to the south decided to walk to the Gore event along the old farm road that ran through the woods and came out at the top of our hay field. He came out directly behind the security people, who had rifles on the ground in front of them as they looked through binoculars at the growing crowd below. They were more than a little excited when my neighbor approached from behind and said a very cheery, “Hi guys, how ya doing?”

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After all that, the Gore event went off with out a hitch. Governor Jeanne Shaheen was there, and she was great, as were Gore and Vermont’s governor at the time, Howard Dean, who came across the river to join the festivities. It was fun.

But these days, when I read a story about the Secret Service acting strange, or maybe drinking inappropriately, I think back to that poor bomb dog and the rescue squad and the neighbor in the woods, and I think to myself, I kind of understand their problem.

Peter Burling is a former longtime New Hampshire legislator and Democratic national committeeman.