Presidential politics starts at a resort hotel
DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. -- With Monica Lewinsky and Saddam Hussein on my mind, I came to the Grand Balsams to escape presidential politics. No such luck.
I know that this beautiful 19th century resort hotel is located in Dixville Notch, N.H., first to report its vote during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
What I didn't know is that the Grand Balsams is Dixville Notch, N.H.
When network anchors tell you that the "tiny hamlet, etc., etc." has voted, images of farmers tramping through snowy streets to cast their ballots at town hall probably spring to mind. The reality is less quaint and more intriguing.
Wandering through the Balsam's second floor, past the social room with its cozy fireplace and grand piano, you spot a sign announcing the entrance to the Ballot Room. This is where Dixville Notch votes.
There is no town hall, no picturesque New England common and no Mayberry RFD business district.
In 1952, the Granite State established the first presidential primary. By 1960, the competition was fierce to be the first community in. That year, the Notch was granted the status of an unincorporated town for voting purposes. It won the competition then, and in each succeeding presidential election.
Thanks to the Dixville Notch Amendment to the federal Uniform Poll Closing Law, a community can close the polls and tabulate its vote if all eligible voters have cast their ballots. Turning out the vote in Dixville Notch is no Herculean endeavor. There are exactly 30 registered voters.
Every four years, they assemble in the Ballot Room a few minutes before 12 a.m. on primary and election day. At the stroke of midnight, everyone votes in his own individual booth (ballots are deposited in a wooden box crafted at the state prison). The polls close, and results go out across the nation.
Voters also agree to meet qualified candidates who make their way to the Notch. Stephen Barba, the hotel's managing partner, told me the Balsams hosts get-togethers with light refreshments. Candidates speak for a few minutes, answer questions and press flesh.
Hoping for an early boost, they come. In 1996, Mrs. Lamar Alexander, Pat Buchanan, Bob and Liddy Dole, and Phil Gramm made the trek north. Then-Gov. Clinton visited the Notch in the early '80s. There are no reports of chambermaids being subpoenaed by Kenneth Starr.
The Notch's fame has spawned a few quips. In 1996, after Pat Buchanan was devastated in the Tennessee primary, a C-SPAN commentator said the columnist "began his campaign in Dixville Notch and now finds himself in a Knoxville ditch."
Lesser-known candidates who've dropped by include comedian Pat Paulsen, who promised to do "nothing much" if elected. Since 1972, Love 22 has been a quadrennial visitor. The numerologist believes in the mystical power of the number 22 and wants to issue 22-dollar bills -- which actually makes more sense than the administration's child-care initiative.
If the nation had followed the Notch, Republicans would have won every presidential election since 1960, a fact which would doubtless be reflected in the national debt.
However, the Dixville electorate is anything but stereotypical Yankee Republican. In the general election of 1992, George Bush won only half of the votes cast. Ross Perot took eight. Libertarian Party candidate Andre Marrou got five, and Bill Clinton brought up the rear with two votes. Dixville voters are more discerning than the nation as a whole.
With the exception of two elderly people with property in the town, voters are all year-round employees of the Balsams or their dependents.
Among them is 99-year-old Neil Tillotson, who owns the hotel's land and buildings. An entrepreneur and inventor who never went beyond the eighth grade in school, Tillotson joined the cavalry at age 15 and rode with Blackjack Pershing when he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico in 1913.
The Ballot Room is decorated with trophies -- an article from "George" magazine, a 1984 front-page story from The Hong Kong Standard on Reagan "drawing first blood" in the Notch and one of Lamar Alexander's plaid shirts under glass.
In a way, it's fitting that this tail wags the mutt of presidential politics, if only for a
split-second. In two years this month, Dixville Notch will make history once again.
Barba told me that I'm the first journalist to visit the Notch for the 2000 election, which I
guess makes me a small part of a small part of presidential
2/23/98: Hillary's support comes at a price
2/18/98: How many times must we say "no" to gay rights?
2/16/98: Enoch Powell spoke the truth on immigration
2/11/98: Bubba behaving badly
2/9/98: A conservative dissent on the flag-burning amendment
2/5/98: We get the leaders we deserve
2/2/98: Send a signal that could penetrate boardroom doors
1/27/98: State of the president: hollow rhetoric
1/25/98: For Monica's playmate, we have no one to blame but ourselves
1/22/98: At Yale, bet on yarmulke over gown
1/19/98: Commission tackles America's fastest-growing addiction, gambling
1/15/98: Capital punishment and the hard case: no exceptions for Karla Faye Tucker
1/12/98: Partial-birth abortion and the GOP's future: the "big tent" meets truth in advertising
1/8/98: IOLTA: the Left's latest scam to crawl into our pockets
1/5/98: Connect the dots to create a terrorist state
1/1/98: The Unacceptables of 1997: Long may they rave
12/28/97: Hypocrisy is a liberal survival mechanism
12/23/97: Chanukah is no laughing matter
12/22/97: No merry Christmas for persecuted Christians around the world
12/18/97: Bosnia, Haiti, and how not to conduct a foreign policy