- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

Into New Hampshire

All political eyes are rightly focused on New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation primary will be held Tuesday. It remains to be seen, of course, whether there will be any further surprises like John Kerry pulled out of his hat in Iowa.

“Speechless” — or so Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, remained when Inside the Beltway bumped into him at a Capitol Hill book party Wednesday night.

The liberal lawmaker said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, telephoned him earlier in the day and expressed regret for having to abandon his second bid for the presidency, given his distant fourth-place showing in Iowa.

“He’d hoped to at least reach the Michigan caucuses [on Feb. 7], where he would have found more support,” said Mr. Conyers, a 20-term congressman who represents the heavily unionized city of Detroit.

As it was, Mr. Conyers noted, Mr. Gephardt’s political future was decided by fewer Americans than live in just one Detroit neighborhood.

“It’s amazing,” Mr. Conyers said of the primary process, “but that’s how our American political system works.”

Those Democrats who remain standing have now moved on to the tiny state of New Hampshire, smaller even than Iowa, yet whose residents play a critical role in choosing this nation’s presidents.

That said, only one native New Hampshire son was ever elected to the nation’s highest office: Franklin Pierce. And how come we never hear more about Pierce?

“Opinion on Pierce usually falls into three camps: admirers, detractors and the vast majority who have no idea who Pierce was,” says Jayme Simoes, a New Hampshire historian and chairman of the Franklin Pierce Bicentennial.

Mr. Simoes says the nation’s 14th president, elected to serve from 1853 to 1857, remains a controversial and contradictory figure. Just ask our current president, George Bush, who is a blood relative of Pierce. In fact, the maiden name of his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, is Pierce (Pierce was Mrs. Bush’s great-great-great-uncle).

So what better opportunity than the New Hampshire primary to better understand “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills,” as Pierce was nicknamed. He was a strong proponent of slavery, yet he also fought at his own expense a law banning the Shaker movement in New Hampshire. He appointed a Jew to a federal position, welcomed Catholics to Concord and defended the rights of immigrants. Yet he also ordered a fugitive slave to be arrested in Boston and returned to the South.

Pierce was the only president to have said “I promise” instead of “I swear” at his inauguration; he was arrested while in office and charged with running over an old woman with his horse, but his case was dropped due to insufficient evidence in 1853; one of his campaign slogans was, “We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852.”

During his second year at Bowdoin College, Pierce had the lowest grades of anyone in his class, but he changed his study habits and graduated third in his class (among his classmates were Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). He was wounded during the Mexican War, and when he was elected president, defeated his old commanding officer from the Mexican War, Winfield Scott. He died of cirrhosis of the liver.

While the U.S. government has earmarked tens of thousands of dollars to celebrate the future bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln, not a penny has been sent from Washington for the 200th anniversary of Pierce’s birth Nov. 23, 2004.

As for who will take Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, “I’m a lifelong Democrat and I’m still undecided,” the historian replied. “New Hampshire is unpredictable, an independent-minded state, and we love the tradition of bucking the trend.

“Four years ago, [John] McCain swept Bush and [Bill] Bradlee almost upset [Al] Gore. So New Hampshire doesn’t like to be told who to vote for. So that does not work in Kerry’s favor. But New Hampshire Democrats also want to vote for someone who can win the White House. Therefore, it looks like Kerry will do well in the primary and John Edwards will do better than some people see him doing now.”

John McCaslin, a nationally syndicated columnist, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or [email protected].

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