SHRIBMAN | More Reagan than Reagan - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SHRIBMAN | More Reagan than Reagan

Updated: Nov 28, 2015 12:01 AM

By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ORFORD, N.H. -- This tiny community, first settled exactly 250 years ago, is conservatism's hometown.

It was here that Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, one of the founding fathers of modern conservative economics, used to repair for restorative summers. And it was here that three-term Republican Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. of New Hampshire served up his devoutly conservative view of the world along with his own pancakes, smothered in his own maple syrup tapped each spring from his own sugar bushes.

Indeed, there was a time, only a generation ago, when this community, hugging the Connecticut River and possessing a dazzling necklace of Federal-style houses built between the Colonial period and the Martin Van Buren presidency, was one of the important power centers in American political life, especially in presidential-election years.

It's not a crowded place -- its 1,237 people ramble around in a swath of New Hampshire nearly the size of Pittsburgh. It's not an accessible place -- the major north-south passage is state Route 10, which wanders with the contours of the river and the rise of the land. It's not a famous place -- though in his official Nobel Prize biography Friedman said that the catalyst for his income hypothesis "was a series of fireside conversations at our summer cottage" here in the westernmost shoulder of the state.

And yet perhaps the most influential personage in Orford's history was Thomson, born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, and educated at nearby Washington and Jefferson College. But he was grounded in Mount Cube Farm here in Orford, where in a sugar house planted on his 365 acres facing Mount Moosilauke he constructed a rigorous conservatism and a cottage industry in pancakes.

There was nothing confectionary, however, about the man who governed New Hampshire from 1973 to 1979 and who died in 2001. I used to make my own pilgrimage to his farm amid the high-bush blueberries, the stands of raspberries and the rows of tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce and onions, and listen to the gray-haired man in soiled, faded blue jeans and an old olive work shirt decry "the asp that is Red China" and describe Ronald Reagan as having "a bulldog's voice and a pussycat's tread."

Now, only two months before New Hampshire holds the nation's first presidential primary, there is value in examining how conservatism, a political doctrine that in some forms is deeply skeptical of change, has itself changed from the time in the 1970s when Thomson was an outlier, to today, when debate about the nature of conservatism is one of the principal themes of our politics.

Thomson, coming from a community where one of the most striking homes was built in the same year as the Boston patriots hurled the British tea into the harbor, was a tea party Republican before the strong tea of today's conservatism was brewed, or even harvested. He was angry -- about the way the world was changing, about how social norms in his own country were changing.

In those days New Hampshire was far more remote than it is today, and he symbolized a simpler time that was under siege -- by television, which was only beginning to pierce his state; by migrants from Massachusetts, who brought a suburban outlook and a more progressive viewpoint that threatened and, in the southern part of the state, would nearly obliterate, the Yankee culture; and by changes in the economy, which undermined the independence of a New Hampshire that had virtually vanished even before he migrated here.

Above all, he created, and then sought to preserve, a conservative narrative about the state's politics and culture. As a result, his was a backward-looking conservatism, negative and brooding, a bit regretful and resentful -- far different in some ways from today's conservatism, which embraces new technology and creates new thinking.

For all that, Thomson's conservatism -- especially his contempt for bailing out businesses -- most closely resembles the modern conservatism of Ted Cruz, though traces of the Thomson rhetoric are also evident in Marco Rubio (who inveighs against taxes), Jeb Bush (whose foreign-policy aggressiveness matches that of Thomson) and Chris Christie (whose blunt rhetoric is Thomson with a Jersey twang).

And there are echoes of Thomson in Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum (whose social conservatism is Thomson 2.0) and Donald Trump (whose bombastic criticism of his rivals and of the political culture is Mel for a new millennium).

Thomson opposed communism, the United Nations and any form of taxation. He advocated a muscular American foreign policy and a strong military. He was instinctive rather than intellectual, uncompromising and unforgiving. He and Manchester Union-Leader publisher William Loeb were a conservative tag team, each fueling the other's determination. They were like the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5 of this year's American League Championship Series. There were no left-handers in their bullpen.

Thomson became governor only eight years after Barry Goldwater was repudiated in the 1964 presidential landslide. He ordered flags lowered to half-staff when the Panama Canal treaty was signed, when Taiwan's athletes were denied places in the 1976 Olympics and, twice, on Good Friday to mark Christ's death. Unlike Gov. Reagan in California, who had a soft, engaging side, Thomson had a hard-bitten Yankee mien, enforcing a no-tax doctrine far stricter than that of Reagan -- a doctrine that survives here, the only state without a broad-based tax.

"People don't remember Mel anymore," says John H. Sununu, who followed him in the governor's chair after a two-year Democratic interregnum, "but while he is forgotten, his issues have not been forgotten."

Once the governor complained to his attorney general, Thomas D. Rath, about the conditions Washington placed on revenue-sharing funds. "These," Thomson said of the regulations, "are the rules of an omnipresent, omni-stupid federal government."

Though Thomson's personal, down-home style would be incongruous in today's politics, a remark like that would seem unremarkable in a 2016 candidate debate.

"I don't know if I was ahead of my time," Thomson told me up in these hills exactly 30 years ago, "but a lot of other people have come around." Just as I came around for the pancakes and syrup, a lot of other people have come around to his way of thinking, and to his state.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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