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.