Houston Housewives and the American Political Process
by Thomas A. Dickson
He lost me somewhere between substantive due process and the Lochner dissent. The words and arguments continued unimpeded by my attention.
Professor Cogan’s Constitutional Law Class had reached its mid-winter drone and I was locked into it. I slumped in my seat to avoid any possibility of eye contact with the Professor. My classmate, Shannon Vale was sitting next to me. Shannon was from Houston and it was readily apparent that he was not particularly focused on the subject of the day.
We started whispering and he told me that he had spent the weekend in Houston where they were organizing volunteers to campaign for George Bush in the upcoming New Hampshire presidential primary. George Bush hailed from Houston, as did most of his campaign officials. Because New Hampshire was the first of the presidential primaries, it had a particular and singular importance. The relatively small geographical size and population made it tailor-made for door-to-door campaigning.
Volunteers would spend a week in New Hampshire staying in the homes of local Bush supporters and going door-to-door during the week.
“Would you be interested in going?”
“I didn’t know that you were a Republican.”
“Neither did I.”
Later that afternoon, Shannon called Houston and gave them our names. We had a brief orientation with several people from the Bush campaign in Dallas. Senator Tower’s daughter, Jean, informed us that this was a deadly serious week and there would be no lollygagging in this campaign. I decided to leave my skis at home. We were also informed to leave our fur coats at home, as New Hampshire was not a particularly wealthy state. Not a problem.
We flew to Manchester to begin the campaign. We were given housing and campaign assignments in northern New Hampshire and away we went. Our hosts were a retired couple, the Vizceys. This was a housing assignment made in heaven for two young law students. Mrs. Vizcey loved to cook and every morning she got up at 5:30 a.m. to make sure that we had a good breakfast before we departed on our daily rounds. It is easy to get out of bed on a cold New Hampshire morning when you are being summoned by the aroma of homemade blueberry muffins. If ever I was tempted to switch sides, it was that week at the Vizceys. Not only did they feed us every morning, but they delayed their cocktail hour and dinner until we arrived home in the evening. During the course of this week, other campaign workers often asked Shannon and me to join them for pizza or burgers. We always begged off. Pizza and burgers could not compete with Mrs. Vizceys cooking. Not to mention the refrigerator full (and I mean full) of Molsen Golden Ale. It was tough not to love politics in New Hampshire.
The first morning, we were picked up and taken to a local hotel to meet the other Texans and get our campaign assignments. There at a hotel in New Hampshire, in the middle of winter, in the middle of a presidential campaign we met Daffney and Jane; Daffney Murray and Jane Wright. Daffney was simply stunning and Jane, well Jane was Texas. Tall and loud and fun and wonderful and always, always the most interesting person in the room. She carried a gun in her purse too. Houston housewives in the hotel lobby that morning and they were all friendly and nice; friends of the Bush family. Loyal, dedicated and lots of fun. But Daffney and Jane were the real gamers in the group.
The local campaign coordinator announced the several assignments available that day, including phone-bank work, envelope-stuffing, staffing, or campaigning at the local ice-fishing derby. He needed four people to go door-to-door at the ice-fishing derby. “Ice-fishing” which has been recently described by writer David Barry as “drinking.” There were literally hundreds of fishing huts spread over this huge lake and everyone contained several potential Republican votes. Cars driving over the frozen lake always seem so unnatural. But this was New Hampshire, land of post cards, patriots, and in a presidential year,….politics. And politics was different then; before pollsters, before sound bites, before focus groups. In New Hampshire, politics was still about participation.
New Hampshire, the Granite State, was the bastion of conservatism and their favorite son, or rather the favorite son of William Loeb was running for President and his name was Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, George Bush was running against William Loeb; the publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader; the most powerful newspaper in the state. Running against Mr. Loeb was a long, tough, up-hill climb.
Leading up to New Hampshire, Bush had won the two previous contests in Puerto Rico and Iowa, thus earning the undying enmity of Mr. Loeb, the key power broker of New Hampshire Republican politics. Of course, there were several other candidates in the Republican field; Bob Dole, Phil Crane, even Harold Stassen was campaigning.
The Democratic field was also rather crowded. Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown were challenging President Carter. Lyndon LaRouche had also proclaimed himself a candidate and set loose a bizarre group of campaign workers who campaigned on the twin themes of increasing nuclear power and indicting Queen Elizabeth for being a part of an international drug cartel. It was also rumored that Linda Ronstadt was in the state campaigning for Jerry Brown.
The New Hampshire primary is a kaleidoscope of emotions. Gun-loving woodsmen, blue-collar workmen, college-educated greenies, small shop-keepers, and William Loeb. The Manchester Union Leader runs by the creed: “There is nothing so powerful as truth,” quoting Daniel Webster. However, Daniel Webster is long gone and in New Hampshire, the truth is determined by William Loeb.
It started in the February 3, 1980 newspaper. “George Bush was a member of the Trilateral Commission, and he was in bed with David Rockefeller and his friends.” That was a constant drumbeat and the drums kept beating up through the primary.
“The scheme against New Hampshire and against the Nation is so diabolical and so cleverly handled that it will take a great deal of education and talk by
those New Hampshirites who understand what is going on to wake up their fellow citizens before it is too late.”
A poll published on February 4, 1990, showed that George Bush had a slight lead over Reagan. Reagan’s picture then began prominently appearing on the front page in an array of flattering poses. The February 7, 1990 headline read:
“George Bush’s true political colors unfurled. `A duck is a duck-or is it a question mark.'”
It was a tough race. Bush was running against Reagan and the Manchester Union Leader.
There was lots of candidates, but Reagan was the competition. Both sides were looking for a show-down. It finally came in a town called Manchester. It did not go well.
Jane was the first to admit that we got hurt. It wasn’t a question of loyalty. It was a question of political intuition and she had it. I often wondered if the world would have heard of Lyndon Johnson if she had been a man.
Texans have only two sports; football and politics and Jane loved them both. Campaigning on the frozen lake was a wonderful way to spend the day. Fishermen are nothing if not polite. No door slamming, no mean dogs. Hospitable to the core, we were offered plenty of food and drink.
In the outdoor world, political discourse whittled itself down to one issue: Gun Control. Apparently, Reagan was against it. They were not so sure about Bush. We had briefings on all Bush’s policy positions but who wants to debate fiscal policy while stamping your feet to keep warm. My position was to agree with the person asking the questions. I grew up on a farm in North Dakota surrounded by guns. They were so ubiquitous, we hardly noticed them. I never did understand the single-minded obsession people had on this issue.
At the end of the day, we met at a little fishing house owned by the brother of the Bush campaign chairman. He was a wonderful fellow (the brother) who enjoyed a beer or two while waiting for whatever fisherman wait for then when they are ice-fishing. I never did see a stringer of fish. I never actually saw someone catch a fish. Lots of empty beer cans. Not sure that fish were expected by anyone. We had gathered at our customary headquarters following a day of pamphleteering, when a car drove up and unloaded a camera crew from a Dallas TV station. Football season was over and now Texas was a one-sport town. They were in New Hampshire filming, “Texans in New Hampshire.” Like some churches, Texas sent missionaries to faraway places to test the waters before actually claiming it and colonizing it.
The film crew was busy interviewing a few volunteers while the rest of us tried to put the empty beer cans out of sight. Up drove a limousine, a big, black one and it stopped right at our headquarters. Out of the limousine came part of the Kennedy clan. A couple of cousins, a really big guy, and Joe Jr. Seeing the crowd and the TV crew, Joe Jr. sidled over to pound some flesh for Uncle Ted. Bad move. There are only two things that concerned ice-fishermen after a hard day of ice-fishing, finding more beer and re-affirming their allegiance to the second amendment. Gun control was a big issue. Reagan was good, Bush was bad, but Kennedy, well he was worse, he was a Democrat. Just the mention of his name was enough to set these men off.
“Hi, my name is Joe Kennedy, Jr. I’d like to ask…”
“Hey, what’s wrong with your Uncle?”
“…you to support my Uncle.”
“Hey, leave our guns alone.”
The cameras started rolling. And so it went…That hopped-up fisherman felt strongly about the guns was no surprise. That Joe Jr. didn’t have sense enough to avoid the situation, was.
As we drove away, there were mixed emotions about the scene at the fishing house. Some voiced glee at the prospect of a Kennedy being embarrassed. Others emphathsyzed with Kennedy on the gun issue. But Jane merely observed as the lack of street smarts by Joe Kennedy. It was a very astute observation.
The Hockey Game
That week in politics will be forever intertwined with a hockey game. A game that changed a sport forever. A game that most of us will never forget. Hockey is an Olympic sport and the Olympics were in full-force that week.
Ironically, the prelude to the games did not begin auspiciously for the American hockey team. The Russians whooped-up on them 10-3 at Madison Square Garden. Never missing a moment nor a subject upon which to opine, the Manchester Union Leader predicted.
“The lopsided decision demonstrated the enormity of the task facing the Americans who entered the game with an exhibition record of 42-15-3, with 300 goals scored and 157 against. The Squad, which can realistically hope of only a bronze medal in the Olympic competition that begins Thursday, meets potential medal winners, Sweden and Czechoslovakia in its first two games.”
Before the primary and before the Olympics, I had seen Team USA play in Texas. They had played a rigorous pre-Olympic schedule in the Central Hockey League; which had franchises in Dallas or Fort Worth. It was a good hockey club. Everybody from North Dakota was familiar with Herb Brooks. He was not loved, but he was certainly respected. Herb was not a man to be underestimated.
I watched the first game on tape-delay in a bar on Greenville Avenue on my way home from the law library. Team USA versus Sweden. Tough game. But with six seconds left, Billy Baker one-timed a blast from the right-point and Team USA ties Sweden; 2-2. Lucky, lucky break. Good for us.
Two days later, Team USA beat the Czechs 5-2 and people are starting to pay attention. Norway falls 5-1 and the Americans are in the medal round. Germany is next and is no match for this team. Next up, a re-match with Russia.
Shannon and I watched the Russia Game with the Viszeys. It was on tape-delay but we watched the 6 pm CBS Evening News and Walter Cronkite’s smiling eyes gave it away. Something special had happened that afternoon in Lake Placid.
Memory has blurred the true dynamic of that game. Most people have forgotten that the Americans were outshot in the first two periods; 30 to 10. However, with luck, determination and great goal-tending, they were able to stay within striking distance and eventually triumph over the Russians. The final edge in the shots was 39 to 16.
Truly, this was a miracle. However that game wasn’t the end of Olympics nor was it the end of our campaign. Both teams had more work to do. Sunday morning we once again campaigned on the lake. However, there was one last hockey game. For the first time in 20 years, the United States was playing for the gold medal. The Finns would be no pushover. They were a good strong team and everyone was concerned about a let-down. During this past week, everybody in America became a hockey fan. The US hockey team had captivated the nation. Our campaign was no different. Lots of hockey fans in New Hampshire. Everyone loved this hockey team. Daffeny was from Chicago and she was a real hockey fan. I can still remember her describing meeting Bobby Hull for the first time. Not every hero looks the part. Jane loved everything. The underdog, the drama, the upset, the emotion, and how much fun it was to be part of something special.
Susan Baker, a truly lovely woman was the titular head of our group. Grass-root campaigns are not structured with any semblance of efficiency but we did defer to her. We were to be campaigning on the frozen lake that Sunday morning but I was insistent that the winter conditions would require some down time, particularly at a local restaurant which had a television set. We rendezvoused at the pub for the start of the game. Like every game in the tournament, Team USA started slow and fell behind. Jane was generating color commentary from the sidelines. It was wonderful.
“Skate harder boys.”
“When in trouble attack.”
“I always told my girls at Kinkaid, attack, attack, attack.”
It had been decided that we would watch only one period before returning to campaign on the lake. However, the game was very exciting and it was unanimously agreed that watching the second period would probably not cripple the campaign too much. The end of the second period had us down by a goal. Notwithstanding that we were losing, we put out coats on and walked to cashier’s desk to pay the tab. Literally, as we were walking out the door, our waiter came running out. “We scored. We scored. America has tied the game.”
There was a mad rush back into the bar to catch the replay. There we were, in winter coats, gloves, scarves, and hats cheering for our hockey team. I do remember Susan asking me.
“Tom, just how long are these hockey periods.”
“Oh not very long at all.”
“Well, we certainly can’t leave now.”
We stayed for the game. We also stayed for the Gold Medal ceremony, singing the National Anthem with everyone else in the restaurant and probably the entire country. After the ceremony, we went back on the campaign trail. Door to door, on the frozen lake.
The End Game
This was a fun group of people. At the end of a day of campaigning, we just loaded everyone into the van and dropped them off at their temporary home. I was raised in North Dakota so I was more comfortable or in all honestly, less uncomfortable driving on icy roads. I drove. Almost every night, we stopped and bought a 12-pack of beer so we could have one on the way home.
Campaigning can be fun. Campaigning with these housewives from Houston was beyond fun. Their commitment and affection for George Bush was contagious. It was a time when people actually campaigned for someone they admired, rather than just complaining about the other guy. It reminded me of a conversation around the kitchen table that grows and grows into something bigger.
And so now, 33 years last year, much has changed, into something bigger. The Bush campaign did continue and did end up in the White House. One son followed the father and another might yet again. George H.R. Bush took the high road during that campaign. I don’t think that was a political calculation. It was just who he truly was. A decent, dedicated, honorable man. In politics, there is one advantage to taking the high road. There is a lot less traffic. That part will never change.
So now after all these years, I am asked if I would do it again. Skip a week of school, travel all those miles to work in a campaign for someone from the other political party. Someone I certainly admired, but someone I did not actually vote for. My answer in all these 33 years has been the same. If a friend calls me and tells me these same housewives from Houston are organizing to go to New Hampshire to campaign in the Presidential Primary for George H.R. Bush.
“They need some winter drivers.”
“Will you go?”
I would go in a second.