Down here in the lower auditorium of the Nashua Public Library there are no windows and no props on the empty stage, only a tall ceiling, dim lights, and Democrats hanging around in winter jackets, 60 maybe less, the night before the 2020 presidential race comes to New Hampshire. Far away at the caucuses in Iowa no one there knows yet, and no one here knows yet either, that that particular political institution, first in the nation, folk spectacle of democracy, is mere hours from its terminal implosion. Among the crowd there is only reason to believe in the continuity of past experience, to indulge in the peculiar comfort afforded them once every four years.
In the morning they and the rest of New Hampshire will wake up to hearty handshakes from the winner of Iowa and the surviving runner-ups, plus their staffs on tour buses stuffed with lawn signs and analytic data sets and war chests of donor money, all of which will deploy to persuade and seduce this otherwise quiet, rural, white, subdued slice of New England. That the latest polls show that this Iowa victor might be either a gay military veteran or an old Jew from up the road in Burlington goes without comment, the possibilities of either outcome, however ahistorical, sublimated to the necessity of preparing for the big show.
The legacy press and their broadcast trucks, the Amtrak corridor pencil pushers, social media content curators, out-of-towners and political junkies are en route, checking in, or waiting for the break of dawn to make their way here. Some because of professional obligation and some suctioned to the notion of watching history made in real time. In the earliest of hours, Eli Berman, a Long Islander in his 30s, will make the five-hour drive up for a day away from his family’s watch and jewelry business, to see what no Jew can in New York—the candidates up close talking to the rest of America.
But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, seated in rows on plastic chairs, the Democrats roll call their affiliations as ward leaders, state congressional members, city party leaders, a scattering are without title but announce proudly their status as concerned citizens, a couple of whom identify, with little flourishes of contrarianism in their voice, as registered independents. Understandably no one stands to identify the abstract or seismic dimension of the pending transformation of their small city, or of nearby, larger Manchester, their combined population of 200,000 the biggest pocket of residents across their state and neighboring Vermont and Maine. There’s no time for big picture or to talk about how just as soon it will all be gone because right now there’s too much business at hand, the myriad details that constitute their duty and excited deference to this particular process of civic theater, the thousand small ways in which they will organize their lives and attention around the campaigns of the candidates before the primary vote the following Tuesday.
There will be meet-and-greets, get-out-the-votes, climate change summits, bake-offs, town halls, a rally at the local college, a rally at the tennis club, watch parties for when one or the other candidates are set to appear on national TV. Though for the moment the hot, white heat of the presidential race burns brightest over in Iowa, an energy radiates here in the room, churned by the young deputy from Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, announcing their week of events, by Bernie Sanders’ man who does the same. It’s starting, the Democrats know, like the gushing water of a bath it will soon fill up and flush over their skin, a warmth that soothes however temporarily.
Now at the front there’s Deval Patrick, former two-term governor of Massachusetts, here to lay down his bet that Iowa is his own lost cause and if he’s going to transcend his status of obscurity it has to happen in New Hampshire. His super-PAC backers have tried to goose his odds with $2 million spent already on local ads, but that’s not much to prosecute a competitive campaign, not when fourth-quarter fundraising hauls topped out for Sanders at $26 million and $10 million for Andrew Yang, numbers that already bumped out Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Going all in on New Hampshire makes sense for Patrick: There’s great power at stake, as five of the past nine winners went on to capture the nomination. Top of mind for many, it was Sanders’ 2016 22-point landslide here over Hillary that rocket-launched him to front-runner contention.
But Patrick, a slim corporate-looking man in a bicep-tight dress shirt under a fitted blue vest, looks tired running through his stump speech, crossing his arms and rubbing his eyes as the reality of his improbability hangs over his head. His presentation is muddled, and brings to mind Dylan’s line about the worthless foam of the mouth—it’s too removed from the omnipresent culture war and too diffuse on how he’d overcome Trumpism, but it’s instructive in its lack of clarity, like a photo negative that suggests another image, his talk of his close ties to Obama, being “bold and humble” on climate change, the resurrection of the middle class, of public decorum and decency, it’s a grab bag of sentences pulled from the pre-Trump Democratic platform mixed with the new language of a party that hasn’t coalesced yet around its Trump-era identity.
There’s something sacrificial to Patrick’s pitch, that when he describes himself accurately as having “lived the American dream”—a kid from the Chicago projects who climbed up the fabled meritocratic ladder to law school, the executive suite of Coca-Cola, to serve the public and still become wealthy—his ascent and his story are distant, more like an elegy for an older kind of aspirational Democratic mythmaking. The room listens politely, but this isn’t what they want, this doesn’t fit their need. They shuffle off into the cold for a night of quiet sleep, to wait for the planes of the front-runners that touch down in the dark hours at the Manchester airport, carrying their live experiments.
Confusion reins in the headlines and the scroll feeds on the bungled count of the caucuses but Tuesday morning few care much here about the mess in Iowa: It’s now opening ceremonies all across the state. Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” blares from tall speakers at the Rex Theatre, where a few hundred pack in waving PETE signs for the two dozen television cameras streaming the Buttigieg town hall.
In the back row stands Eli Berman, at his first event. A stocky man with short black hair, wearing a puffy black jacket, black-rim glasses, and the only kippah I’ve seen yet in New Hampshire, his family supplies a large volume of jewelry to QVC and the Home Shopping Network, to some of the very customers likely scattered in the audience of the same events he’ll be at throughout the day. Berman brought along with him a printed Google map and spreadsheet in his pocket, marked up with the careful sequence of almost a dozen stops where he’ll scrutinize with his own metrics this pack of Democrats.
Before I can ask Berman what the candidates might mean for the Jews, or for him as a Jew, or what it means for a party splintered and broken to have a front-runner Jew and a billionaire Jew viably contending for the presidential nomination, the crowd erupts as Pete Buttigieg takes to the stage.
‘As a religious Jew, as an American Jew, it doesn’t make a difference to me if the president is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or anything. As long as they do the job, I don’t care what they are.’
Short, compact, camera-ready, he looks store bought, the duration and emotional wattage of his smile fine-tuned in research-group testing. He’s modest about emerging as the current front-runner from the caucus, says with the thrill of the news he just managed “a nap somewhere between sun down and sun up,” checking the box on his Midwestern lexical requirement.
The former mayor slides into the script of his stump speech, his touchstone phrase a Vision for America as he invites the room to imagine, for a moment, the day after President Trump leaves the White House. The narrative is functional as he sketches what it would look like, it’s palpable in the way that reading self-help offers a sanitized version of the future without any of the problems of the present—where this room of pragmatic democrats will join arms with “future former Republicans” to give gig workers a good life, mitigate overseas military threats, combat cyber security loopholes, and corral emergent global health issues.
The former mayor is so obviously patterned in speech and comportment on Obama it’d ring false and crumble into parody if Buttigieg erred once by saying the wrong thing or slipping off cadence—but the polish shines. Is Buttigieg lacquered in smugness or earned confidence? Maybe it doesn’t matter because both are similarly utilitarian, they assume an inherent viability. Something in his offering seems to assuage a particular type of pain, to heal the wound for those in the room who suffer to endure the present moment of life under the rule of Trump.
He says those “decisions made in big white buildings in Washington” dictate the lives of families in profound ways, in ways far removed from the considerations of Trump’s daily operation. “Smart, honest, careful,” he says of how he’ll make those decisions for the future, all the people in this room have to do “is put an end to this president,” he says with a carefully timed rise in his voice, a vague menacing threat for the “loudmouth guy at the end of the bar.”
Up the road a few miles on the basketball court of a community center a few hundred others fill in to see how Joe Biden figures he’ll deal with Trump. It’s a much older crowd than Pete’s, and there’s a glow of loneliness here that wasn’t so present in the Rex Theatre.
“Not many Jews up here,” Berman tells me. He doesn’t have the same reverence as the mostly elderly crowd of locals, he doesn’t sit in the designated seated areas, preferring to roam around back with the press to take in the exhibition of the campaigns from various points of view. Today he’ll see Buttigieg, Biden, Julián Castro on behalf of Elizabeth Warren, Yang, and maybe one or two others before coming back on Sunday for another round of stops.
“Some of their pitches, they’re not policy deals, they’re just a general personhood thing, a version of the office of the presidency,” Berman says. “Everyone’s cut more or less from the same cloth here, saying we went crazy for the last four years and have to get back to normal, because this is off the rails.”
But more than crazy, for the Jews at least, I say. In the political sphere there’s a newly frenetic charge around the notion of Jewishness, now and then turning violent, and no clear path to who can temper it, or who will make it more unpredictable and erratic.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a direct result of Trump, but I think the whole culture has shifted as a result of Trump,” Berman says, pointing out that more people feel emboldened to express themselves without recourse, which often becomes a precursor to violence.
In Sanders’ potential as a nominee or even the presidency, Berman doesn’t see the socialist’s Jewishness as much of a factor to reconstitute the culture left behind by Trump, at least for the Jews, or at least he thinks Sanders’ Jewishness will have no more or less of an effect on the heightened tensions than the restitution of norms advocated across the spectrum of campaigns.
“Bernie has historically not publicly displayed his Jewish identity, and is opening up now, but I don’t think that’s important,” Berman says. “As a religious Jew, as an American Jew, it doesn’t make a difference to me if the president is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or anything. As long as they do the job, I don’t care what they are.”
It’s then that Biden’s staffers start to come to the podium to spot check the teleprompter on either side. For a politician who has spent decades endearing himself to voters by speaking off the cuff, the appearance of the teleprompters at this small gathering suggest a reining-in, a fear of Biden going too far off script or misfiring key speech deliverables.
Biden’s coming into New Hampshire as the front-runner tumbling down the polls as his fundraising totals droop below Sanders and Warren. As the crowd waits for Biden to appear, the updates keep trickling in from Iowa that no matter what it doesn’t look good for Biden, who’s likely going to finish fourth behind Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren.
After a long hour wait Biden finally comes out to the middle of the crowd, where he’s surrounded on all sides by fans.
There’s a tone of sadness as he opens with a spin on the story coming from the caucus. “We had a good night last night in Iowa, I know you think that’s silly, but everything we can feel is good, and here’s the deal, we think we’re gonna come out of there really doing well,” he says with a curiously circular locution.
“I feel really good about getting more than our fair share,” he adds, and I can’t tell if it’s a slip that he sees his fair share half way down the leaderboard.
The circularity of his speech gets straightened out once he moves up to the podium and starts in on the teleprompter—the sentences get slimmed down, punctuated, bullet-pointed, but it’s a grim view of the nation, with apocalyptic hints dusted throughout.
“I think about all the families every day in this county, and even today, whether it’s staring at the ceiling because you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, or you don’t know how your family is going to make it, or you’re 50 years old and you just lost your job and you don’t know where you’re going next, or you just graduated from college with so much debt you’re wondering how in the Lord’s name do I even get started? It just makes me work harder, for the American people,” he says, but he doesn’t leave room enough for the crowd to cheer.
“We’re in the battle for the soul of this nation,” he says, setting himself up as the authentic solution to problems too grave to be left to the uncertain factions of the party. Our international reputation, the notion of democracy, the rule of law, the constitution are all up for grabs, Biden says. “What’s on the ballot is character.”
“Joe how can you talk about character, when you grope women?” a heckler suddenly says, his phone in his hand. His shouts are intelligible as the crowd suddenly springs with an energy he himself lacked, “we want Joe, we want Joe,” 10, 20 times, louder and louder.
“They follow me all over the country,” Biden said.
A woman stands up, “Go away, go away, go away!”
The heckler continues, his voice drowned by the angry mob.
“Joe you answer for the children and women to grope,” the heckler said as he’s escorted out by a large man with a buzz cut.
“Folks, that’s what’s wrong with politics,” Biden says, as a weird, nervous energy shivers through the room.
“I don’t think we’re the angry nation Donald Trump believes we are,” Biden says, as another heckler stands up, shouting that no one should touch children. He like his colleague are wearing a flat-brim hat and holding a phone up to capture their own interruption.
“It’s on YouTube, it went viral, everyone saw it,” the second heckler says as another security member escorts him out.
“This is the reason why I’m running—we have to stop this,” Biden says, trying to leverage the momentum of the disruptions. But his pattern of speech is hard to follow all the way to the end point, building and falling in curious waves of uneven articulation.
“Folks look, look, you know, I talk about this invisible moral fabric that holds up every society. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, a conservative columnist, talks about it, and he said it’s made up of basic fundamental core values of America, giving hate no safe harbor, making sure we leave no one behind, honesty, decency, helping out other people, realizing that there’s something bigger than ourselves, giving everyone a fair shot, just a fair shot, and leaving no one behind,” he said with unintentional repetition.
“Leading by the power of our example, not just by the example of our power. Ronald Reagan said it would be that shining city on the hill, being a part of something so much bigger than we are divided—it’s a code, it’s a code, you embrace here, in New Hampshire, a code they embrace in home, my home state.”
Jill Biden and Valerie, Joe Biden’s sister, sit behind the former vice president, in the front row, along with volunteers and distinguished guests, the former governor of New Hampshire, John Lynch, included. Biden strolls a slow circle beside the podium, but with a weight on his shoulders, something heavy. Gene, one of the people who spoke before Biden came out, sits in the front row next to the vice president’s sister. Gene will die soon from the terminal cancer he told the crowd about in his speech. He wears green pants held up by American-flag suspenders over a baggy white Biden T-shirt. His eyes hold upon the vice president with an intensity that radiates beyond himself, bright and raw, out of something explicable perhaps to only himself, but which to a lesser degree can been seen in the faces of others here, for their own reasons, which solidify in the Biden aura. Flashes of concern come over the face of Jill Biden as she watches her husband, a furrow that dissolves back into the detached comportment of political spouses practiced in the craft of decorative supportiveness.
Berman sees enough of the speech and heads out to Castro before Biden closes with a rousing call to arms, of hope over fear, science over fiction, truth over lies, to show who we are, he says, with an energy that was otherwise entirely absent.
“This is the United States of America, so let’s get up and take back this country,” he says loudly, to cheers, but then shuts off his microphone and leaves the gym, not sticking around to answer anyone’s questions.
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Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and the author of The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided, forthcoming from Penguin.