Hollywood wag Oscar Levant, poking fun at what he considered her made-for-public consumption image, once quipped that “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Levant’s impish line came to mind as I watched Elizabeth Warren campaign in the peaks of New Hampshire. Here’s why: I covered her before she was an Okie. By that, I mean before mothers became mommas, fathers became daddies, infants became babies, and dolls “dollies.” And before she asked her audience if there were other “Okies” in attendance.
By the end of her open-air town hall meeting Wednesday, I half expected her to belt out “Oh What A Beautiful Mornin.’ ” That said, serving up country corn pone is a minor matter compared with falsely claiming to have made oneself a billionaire with the help of a small $1 million family loan, as a certain president whose father actually channeled him hundreds of millions of dollars has done.
And though I winced at the hokey Okie-ness, it didn’t seem to bother the crowd of 500 or more who came to the majestic mountains of Bode Miller country to hear the liberal populist. No indeed. Warren was a certified hit.
She is corralling positive populist energy by running as pro-government but anti-Washington. That is, she is for more government services, but against a capital in the grips of big money, big oil, big pharma, big corporations, big finance, big shots, and big favors. And, based on my conversations, she is steadily assuaging doubts and gaining converts.
Among its other race-shaping dynamics, the New Hampshire primary will be a key contest between dueling New England neighbors Warren and Bernie Sanders, the two high-profile same-lane lefties. The winner will leave with progressive bragging rights, the loser likely find him or herself stuck on, with apologies to nearby Cannon Mountain, a Hardscrabble downward trail.
My sampling of opinions in this well-heeled older crowd left me with the distinct, though anecdotal, impression that Warren is on the move, while Sanders is stuck.
William Briggeman, a retired educator from nearby Twin Mountain, backed Bernie in 2016, but now thinks the Vermont senator “missed his moment” and that Donald Trump could launch devastating attacks on him because of his embrace of Democratic socialism.
“I think she could handle Trump,” he said of Warren. “She is a first-class debater.”
Jim Shuchman, a Democrat and retired attorney from Littleton who is torn between Sanders and Warren, judged the Massachusetts senator “very impressive.” He left the event thinking that her legal experience — strange as it may seem to those who know her only as an Okie from well west of Muskogee, she has taught at Harvard — has made her better equipped to strengthen the rule of law, a concern sparked by the Trump years.
His wife, Barb, said her group of friends had reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, though their hearts were really with Sanders. This time around, however, her group wasn’t torn. They are Warrenites, she said.
Similarly, Katharine Terrie, 75, of Littleton, reported that friends of hers who were “rabid” for Sanders in 2016 aren’t there this time because of concerns about his age and electability.
Elise Drake, 67, a financial analyst from Franconia and a moderate, said she liked both Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Still, she had gone to see Sanders recently in nearby Littleton. Her judgment: Warren was better organized in New Hampshire, while Sanders’ campaign “is running out of gas.”
Yet despite generally favorable impressions of Warren, there were some concerns over her embrace of single-payer health care.
Briggeman volunteered that he was “a little worried” about that because, though a Medicare recipient himself, “there are lots of people who don’t want to give up private insurance.” He had hoped to ask Warren what she would tell them to win their votes; though he didn’t have a chance on Wednesday, he has e-mailed her that question.
“I think that is a mistake,” agreed Terrie, who, as a grant-writer, has expertise in expanding access to health care in rural areas. A better approach, she said, would be to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 50.
When voters in your wheelhouse have those worries, it’s best to take heed, Senator Warren.