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Watershed 1968 primary recalled by those who were there

State House Bureau

March 12. 2018 8:18PM
Players from the 1968 New Hampshire Presidential Primary gather before a forum sponsored by the Secretary of State's office at the State House in Concord on Monday. From left are former state senator James Splaine, former executive councilor Ruth Griffin, Secretary of State William Gardner, George Roberts, a former Nixon activist, and Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — The next New Hampshire Presidential Primary is almost two years away, but the political press is already abuzz about visits to the Granite State by potential Democratic candidates and possible Republican challengers to President Trump.

But 50 years ago, what is now famously known as First in the Nation, was just a blip on the political radar. The campaign of 1968 changed all that, and cemented the state’s enduring reputation as a place where the race for the White House is launched, front-runners dethroned and obscure candidates propelled into the limelight.

It was a watershed year in so many respects, as one speaker after another reminded the crowd gathered at the State House on Monday for a roundtable discussion and celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 New Hampshire Presidential Primary.

“Fifty years ago right now, the last of the towns opened their polls,” said Secretary of State Bill Gardner, host and organizer of the event, and longtime custodian of the state’s first in the nation tradition.

The presidential primary was held on the same day as town elections back then.

“Everyone was voting 50 years ago right now,” said Gardner, “and the result of that voting had the biggest impact on our primary than any other Election Day since or before.”

Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote to 49 percent for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who chose to run as a write-in candidate. Johnson eventually decided to withdraw from the race, Sen. Robert Kennedy jumped in, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The pundits had predicted a close race on the Republican side, but New Hampshire voters proved them wrong on that point as well. Richard Nixon basically won the Republican nomination with the size of his New Hampshire victory (78 percent), vanquishing opponents George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller.

New Hampshire was in the news for the next five weeks, until the Wisconsin primary, and the state has maintained its place in the political firmament ever since.

Nine people who lived through it all, some on opposite sides, joined with Gardner to share their memories of that year, and to talk about how it changed them and the state’s political dynamics forever.

Sandra Hoeh of Hanover, who along with her husband was a McCarthy delegate to the ’68 Democratic national convention, recalled the role New Hampshire activists played in getting McCarthy to run, much to the chagrin of Johnson’s establishment supporters.

“When the campaign got really nasty toward the end, they started calling us traitors,” she said.

However deep we think the divisions are in America today, they were much worse back then, all panelists agreed.

“It was a time that none of us who were there will ever forget,” said former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul McEachern of Portsmouth, also a member of the McCarthy team.

“As divisive as the issues appear today, it doesn’t compare in my mind with that. Those of us who were declared traitors at the time stayed in politics because of Gene McCarthy.”

Rep. Chuck Grassie, a 16-year-old student at Spaulding High School at the time, talked of high school students being mobilized in ways that haven’t been seen since, except perhaps for the current debate over gun control.

Like Grassie, Rep. Renny Cushing was politicized as a freshman at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, when his cousin came back from Vietnam with stumps instead of legs.

“A lot of legacy came out of that McCarthy campaign,” said Cushing. “I testified in Representatives Hall the next year on a bill to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. Given the enthusiasm, we knew that if 18- to 21-year-olds could vote, that would have turned the tide against the war.”

On the Republican side, former House Speaker and lobbyist George Roberts of Gilmanton and former Executive Councilor Ruth Griffin of Portsmouth described their activities on behalf of Nixon. “I guess you’d call him a globalist today,” said Roberts.

Joe McQuaid, Publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News, recalled the role the newspaper played, including relationships that formed between then Publisher William Loeb and Nixon advance man Pat Buchanan.

McQuaid reminded the group that New Hampshire had upset the political apple cart before 1968.

“It was a shock to people when LBJ decided he was not going to run again based on New Hampshire results, but it wasn’t the first time,” McQuaid said. “In 1952, (Tennessee Senator) Estes Kefauver challenged Harry Truman, who said primaries were eye-wash. Kefauver cleaned the floor with him, and three weeks later, Truman said, ‘I’m not running again.’”

C-SPAN recorded the two-hour event and will air it on its American History series on C-SPAN 3 at a yet-to-be-determined date.

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