Fergus Cullen: Bob Smith can't outrun his bizarre political past
Winning campaigns are about the future, but when former Sen. Bob Smith announces his candidacy for Senate next Tuesday, his campaign will necessarily be about his past.
The tenacious Smith ran three times for Congress before getting elected. In 1980, he lost the nomination to Marshall Cobleigh. In 1982 he won the nomination but lost the general to incumbent Rep. Norm D’Amours. Finally in 1984 he won an open seat. Six years later he was elected to the Senate, easily defeating former Sen. John Durkin.
In those early years of Smith’s career, his everyman authenticity was his greatest political strength. He was a teacher and baseball coach at Wolfeboro’s Kingswood High, a Navy vet who served in Vietnam, a Realtor and school board member. He hung a movie poster from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” behind his D.C. desk.
But during his 12 years in the Senate, Smith became increasingly erratic and pursued causes distant from the concerns of the people who elected him. There were speeches on the floor of the Senate about banning circus elephants from Capitol grounds (“How can we stop an elephant if it goes berserk?”) and supporting a new branch of the military, a Space Force, conjuring images of X-wing fighters from “Star Wars.” He was often on the losing side of lopsided votes, such as a 97-3 tally providing AIDS funding that may be hard to explain to today’s voters.
His advocacy on behalf of the POW/MIA community came close to exploiting the families of the missing and was premised on the plot from the movie “Rambo” — that there might be living POWs held against their will by Communists in Southeast Asia and North Korea.
In 1996 Smith barely won reelection — newspaper headlines announced his defeat — but surviving did nothing to curb his odd behavior. If anything, Smith became delusional.
In February 1999, Smith announced he was running for President. Frustrated by how few rallied to his banner, Smith took the floor of the Senate in July to denounce the Republican Party for lacking principle and announced he was quitting the party. The GOP “is not a political party that means anything,” Smith thundered. “It’s a charade and I’m not going to take part in it anymore.” Members of his staff resigned, refusing to follow him. The state Republican Party banned Smith from attending party events.
In August Smith announced he would seek the nomination of the Taxpayer’s Party. A week later he abandoned that plan and in October he dropped out of the presidential race altogether. Unembarrassed, Smith agreed to rejoin the Republican Party in exchange for a Senate committee chairmanship. So much for principle.
His credibility and political relationships utterly shredded, if Smith had any sense left, he would have retired. Instead he sought reelection and would have lost to then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen had then-Rep. John E. Sununu not beaten him in the primary first. In defeat, Smith was sulky and petulant. He did not attend the party’s traditional unity breakfast two days after the primary, couldn’t bring himself to endorse Sununu, and refused to discourage a write-in campaign on Smith’s behalf that threatened to spoil the race.
Having thus burned the boats and bridges, in an act reminiscent of Davy Crockett when he lost an election in Tennessee (“Y’all can go to hell. I’m going to Texas.”), Smith moved to Florida in 2003 and took a job selling real estate for Coldwell Banker. Almost instantly he was running for Senate again — this time in the Sunshine State. He abandoned that bid after a few months, again somehow surprised at his inability to attract support.
In 2004, still bitter over having been abandoned by the party he’d quit, Smith endorsed John Kerry for President over George W. Bush. In 2009, he launched another bid for Senate from Florida. This time he hung around a year before quitting that race, too.
Now Smith wants to be taken seriously again, hoping Republican old-timers will develop amnesia and that newcomers won’t find out about his past. Not likely.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and interned for Smith in 1992. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed @FergusCullen.