Historic inn

Who's who of national political reporters fondly remember Bedford's Wayfarer

Sunday News Correspondent
February 21. 2015 7:59PM
Its iconic footbridge and waterfall were backdrops for national reporters covering the New Hampshire Primary, but the Wayfayer Inn and Conference Center in Bedford is being torn down, making way for a shopping center. (David Lane/Union Leader)

BEDFORD -- As wrecking machinery tears apart the aging walls of the abandoned Wayfarer Inn, so too is a piece of New Hampshire history being laid to rest.

"It was the centerpiece of the New Hampshire campaigns, all the way back as long as I can remember," said CBS News veteran Bob Schieffer of the Wayfarer in a phone interview on Thursday. "We all looked forward to coming there."

Demolition began last week on the Wayfarer property to make room for the Goffe Mill Plaza, which will have an apartment complex and shopping center with a Whole Foods Market as its anchor store. For years, the hotel, which closed its doors in 2010, served as an unofficial headquarters of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, with news outlets and political campaigns setting up shop there for weeks at a time.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," was the Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner when he first visited the Wayfarer in 1992, when Bill Clinton faced off with George H.W. Bush.

"I'd sit in the bathroom, knocking out my story," Matthews recalled, adding that at the time he used a Tandy laptop and phone coupler to submit articles to the desk back in California. Matthews and wife Kathy would bring their children, and he remembers his son, Michael, sitting in front of the TV in the hotel room, watching candidate speeches.

"New Hampshire is like . a theme park," he said. "You go up there and you were able to get in a car and drive around and see everybody."

He remembered piling into the car with fellow journalists like Lawrence O'Donnell and Walter Isaacson - and his son, Michael - and driving from one speech to the next.

"It was really quite a scene," Matthews said. "I love the Wayfarer. I love New Hampshire."

Schieffer, who has been with CBS since 1969 and is the network's chief Washington correspondent and moderator for "Face the Nation," has covered New Hampshire primaries since 1976 and stayed at the Wayfarer for the last time in 2008

Schieffer said he grew to expect - and often be annoyed by - the ducks that made their home near the waterfall on the Wayfarer property.

"They were always there," he said with a laugh. "We'd say, 'The campaign is officially underway, because the ducks are in the pond, and here we are at the Wayfarer.'"

Schieffer recalled interviewing George W. Bush for "Face the Nation" at the Wayfarer in 2000.

"He said, 'We're not just gonna win; we're gonna win big,'" he said. "And then, of course, (Sen. John) McCain beat him, and it changed the whole campaign."

In 1988, Scheiffer recalled, George H.W. Bush tried his hand at driving a 16-wheeler truck around a parking lot adjacent to the hotel.

"I remember putting that on television," he said. "He was trying to illustrate that he was a man of the people and a regular guy."

Washington Post columnist and Brookings Institute fellow E.J. Dionne first visited the Wayfarer in 1972 at the age of 20, when he was a student at Harvard University writing for the school paper, the Crimson, and he came back many times again.

"I felt the same sense of excitement that I suspect sports reporters feel walking into the World Series or the Super Bowl," Dionne said of entering the Wayfarer. "You knew that your being there meant that there was a very cool set of political things happening, and you were about to encounter a magnificent collection of political people, both in journalism and in politics itself."

Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt called the Wayfarer "one of the genuine landmarks" of the history of American politics.

"It's such a shame that someone from New Hampshire didn't say, 'Man, this is our landmark. We can buy it, we can make it a nicer hotel,'" Hunt said on Friday. "It was just a totally missed opportunity."

Hunt recalls meeting many of his journalistic idols at the Wayfarer as young reporter.

"I remember when I went up there in 1976, and I went up to get breakfast in the morning . and suddenly this guy said to me, 'Why don't you join me at my table?' And it was Theodore H. White," he said. "I'd died and gone to heaven."

White, a Pultizer Prize winning reporter, wrote, among other things "The Making of the President" series, covering the campaigns from 1960 to 1972.

The bar was always hopping in the evenings, Hunt said.

"It was just an education in American politics like none other," he said, adding that legendary journalist Jack Germond was known to overindulge at the bar and was even gifted with a Wayfarer barstool when he retired. It's now housed at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz was in the Granite State last week and stopped by the Wayfarer site.

"I was surprised to see that they were finally tearing it down," Balz said. "It's a storied place in terms of New Hampshire primary politics, because it was the gathering point when there was a much smaller press corps than there is today. That was where everybody stayed."

In 1992, Balz and other members of the Post's political team inhabited an entire wing of the Wayfarer for weeks at a time.

"It was like our home away from home," he said. "A number of us were there long enough to almost qualify to vote in New Hampshire."

Balz said he got to know Hillary Clinton on that trip, when reporters, campaign workers, politicians and their families would gather in the Wayfarer restaurant in a casual setting.

"Things were different in those days," he said. "People interacted a little more easily than they do today . She was quite relaxed, and in those settings, she has a very good sense of humor."

Although the property has sat vacant for years, seeing the hotel torn down was sad for Balz.

"I think there's a sense that there's a piece of New Hampshire political history that is being essentially wiped off the ground," he said.

Civil engineering firm TFMoran, which is handling the Goffe Mill Plaza project, has said that it will leave the mill building on the Wayfarer property in place and replace its siding and roof, and it plans to install signs on the property about its historical significance.

Susan Tufts-Moore, a longtime Bedford resident and member of the Bedford Historical Society, has advocated that as much of the property be preserved as possible.

"I really regret that the Wayfarer is no more, because it has played such an important role in Bedford's history, and in the state's history, and in the nation's history," she said. "I hate to see it go."

Tufts-Moore said there is a sense of sadness around town about the property being torn down.

"It really put Bedford on the map at the time," she said.


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