Men in the Diner

Manchester’s media darlings, after the storm

MANCHESTER, NH - A few miles north of downtown Manchester, in a quaint neighborhood of narrow, wooden houses and compact, steepled churches, there’s a large, back-lit sign that reads, CANADIAN CUISINE—POUTINE—SUBS—SEAFOOD. Another, next to it, reads, in black script, “Chez Vouchon.” Enter the diner doors below the signs, make a left, and head straight to the diner’s rear. You’ll see a bulletin board spanning the diner’s back wall, covered in red-and-white gingham fabric and pinned with an explosive smattering of political bumper stickers (John Kerry ’04, Mike Huckabee ’08, John Sununu, Bob Smith); snapshots of political candidates (Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman) posing with various people; pamphlets; newspaper articles; and pretty much any other two-dimensional political paraphernalia you can think of.

If you’re there any day between the hours of eight and ten or so in the morning, you’ll likely also see, directly in front of the board, a square table (or two, or three, or four, pushed together) of middle-aged guys swigging coffee, digging into ham and eggs, and talking—loudly—about politics.

And if you’re there in the weeks before the New Hampshire primary, you’ll likely also see, hovering over and around and next to the Guys, a gaggle of reporters.

While much of the “media circus” of this week’s New Hampshire primary centered around the convention hotel-turned-media-center that was the Radisson Manchester, Chez Vouchon was that circus’ nearly-official sideshow. The Granite State’s active political engagement—its first-in-the-nation voting status is one its citizens not only fiercely protect, but also take incredibly seriously—has placed a high premium on man-on-the-street reporting when it comes to primary coverage. And here, a more convenient way to do such reporting is to tweak it a bit—to man-in-the-diner reporting. There are a couple of Go-To Diners in Manchester (the Red Arrow, the Merrimack), but the French-Canadian spot (specialties: crepes, poutine) is arguably the most popular among the media as a destination for New Hampshire’s political pulse-taking. And it’s that table of guys—jovial, genially argumentative, talking with and at and over one another—whose pulse they come to take.

In the past week, CBS News spent time with the Guys at Chez Vouchon. So did Fox News. So did the presidential candidates—every one but Obama, who sent a representative in his stead. (The Guys were not impressed.) Reuters and the Union Leader stopped by to chat. On Tuesday, election day, CNN’s American Morning took over Chez Vouchon’s back room, converting it into a makeshift TV studio, studding the room with cameras, rigging lights through plywood boards in the ceiling, and airing their broadcast live from the diner. (A lot of work, sure, but nobody minds. “They were great,” the Guys say, “really nice. We loved having them here.”)

To sit with the Guys over a meal (because “what induces conversation better than good food?” one asks) is to witness a game of political pinball: you never know who will get the conversational ball rolling, who will shoot it back, or whom it will ricochet against in the process. The ball rarely drops; the talk keeps going—ping, ping, ping—always lively, often with multiple conversations bumping into each other across the wooden table. Over the two hours I spent with the Guys this morning, they discussed, among (many) other subjects: political signs becoming litter (“that’s really my pet peeve,” one announced); Manchester Channel 9’s coverage of last Saturday’s ABC/Facebook debate (“shameful”); Edwards’ chances in South Carolina; Obama’s treatment by the press; New Hampshire’s Democratic polls, and why they went so wrong; some pundits’ speculation that they went wrong because voters wouldn’t tell pollsters they wouldn’t vote for a black man (“ridiculous and offensive”); Clinton’s chances of winning South Carolina; Obama’s chances of winning South Carolina; immigration; English as the national language; Richardson’s concession (several of the Guys are supporters); the “cajones” Richardson showed during Saturday’s debate; the personal sacrifices politicians make to run for president; the Second Amendment; the Brady Bill; John McCain’s war record…

…and so on. (Ping! Ping! Ping-ping-ping!)

The Guys rarely agree. And that’s kind of the point. “We have a lot of diversity when it comes to our ideas,” the group’s founder and unofficial leader, Dick Moquin, told me. “We want it that way; what good is discussion when everyone agrees with each other?” What they share is an active and informed love of talking politics (“lots and lots and lots of politics,” Ray Scott, the group’s loudest and most jovial member, interjects) and a sense of the influence they and their fellow New Hampshirites enjoy in selecting American presidents. “We know the nation’s looking at us when we vote, and we’re not about to screw that up,” Scott says.

The group started in 1976, says Moquin (but the Guys don’t stand on ceremony; let’s call him Dick), when he and a few of his friends started supporting Gephardt’s candidacy, advocating him in the community. “And he swept Manchester, Goffstown”—Dick motions behind his back to the next town over—“but wouldn’t you know, we forgot about the rest of the state.” Gephardt lost. But the Guys’ political influence grew. (“People will come up to me and say, ‘Who should I vote for?’” says Ray. “Just because they know that I know a lot about the issues out there, and that I really care.”) And politicians took notice: they began soliciting advice from the Guys about what Manchester-area voters want in their candidates. The Guys have, over strong coffee and poutine at their Chez Vouchon table, given informal political counsel to the likes of Bill Clinton, Gore, Reagan, Harkin, Lieberman, Kerry, and McCain.

Enter the media. With the politicians’ attention came the press’—and, soon, Chez Vouchon, and the Guys’ table in its rear, was a must-visit for both. The Guys don’t court the attention, necessarily, but they take advantage of it. They’re good at sound-biting. In this election, “there’s three things I’m against,” Buck Murphy, a Richardson supporter, tells me: “Osama, Obama, and Chelsea’s mama.” (The Guys roll their eyes; they’ve heard that one before.) They’re also good at not taking the attention too seriously. As Dick, a loyal Democrat, did an interview with CBS News, Ray tells me, Ray’s fellow-Republican, George, “went like this the whole time,” Ray says, picking up a fork and melodramatically jabbing it, back and forth, toward his eye.

Ray is a big guy with a bigger voice, playful eyes, and a full, white beard. (“Kids always think I’m Santa Claus,” he says, with a hearty laugh. “Yeah, kids are always tugging at his beard,” Bucky chimes in). He also has perhaps the best alter-ego/cocktail-party-conversation-piece ever: Ray is the Rocks-Paper-Scissors champion of New Hampshire. In March, he competed—though, alas, lost—in the R-P-S Nationals in Las Vegas.

From his table at Chez Vouchon, Ray has met, he says, each of the presidential candidates for the past twenty-five years. He’s also one of only two Republican members of the otherwise Democratic core group of eight or so Guys. “Yeah, we keep him around just to laugh at him,” Bucky says. (Ray, who is doing a crossword puzzle as he participates in the conversation—“I can’t start my day without one”—makes a point of not looking up. Both guys grin.) And by virtue of his studied opinions and easy banter, Ray is also the Guys’ de facto press secretary.

Which means that, of all the Guys, Ray might just be the one to feel the change most acutely when the media, inevitably, leave. “It’s kind of a letdown,” he says. “Every four years, we’re heroes. But then everyone moves on.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.