Advocates of the presidential nomination process have long pointed to the New Hampshire primary as democracy in action — an election in which voters can actually meet and greet candidates for the highest office. Since becoming “First in the Nation” in 1920, presidential candidates have been working rope lines, diners, and factory gates in New Hampshire every four years. As a town with a sizable vote for a small state, Milford has seen plenty of would-be presidents. Three candidate visits in the 1970s — President Gerald Ford in September 1975, Governor Ronald Reagan in January 1976, and Senator Ted Kennedy in November 1979 — have epitomized that experience.
In 1975, the Milford Cabinet had presidential fever. Talking to old-timers who remembered President William Howard Taft’s 1910 visit to Milford, the Cabinet wondered if “years from now, there will be men and women who recall the anticipation, the excitement, the shouts of ‘there he is!’ that echoed along President Gerald Ford’s route last week? It seems likely.”
Perhaps. Although, looking back at the Taft visit in 1910, the Cabinet of that era actually seemed rather miffed. Apparently, there had been talk that the rotund president would spend some time in Milford on his way to Dublin NH, but Taft seemed to prefer to play golf. By the time he got off the links in Beverly, some 1500 people had gathered in the Oval hoping to see the chief. Running several hours late, Taft’s “visit” lasted only a few minutes as he arrived in a chauffeured Pierce Arrow, stood up and raised his hat, waved, and was soon speeding off for Dublin. According to the paper, the Taft party asked for directions first.
Jerry Ford spent a little longer in town, kissing babies and pressing the flesh. Ostensibly campaigning for Republican candidate Louis Wyman in September 1975’s rerun of the closest Senate race in U.S. history, the unelected president was also in a fight for his political life. Four months before the crucial New Hampshire primary, Ford had a narrow lead over former governor Ronald Reagan. As big a golf fan as Taft ever was, Ford went for a tour of Milford’s Hitchiner Manufacturing Company, a maker of golf clubs. After shaking hands with employees and visiting the plant’s “wax room,” Ford was soon trying out a sand wedge on the Hitchiner lawn.
As Squeaky Fromme had fired a gun at the president two weeks earlier and Sara Jane Moore would get off two shots at him a week later, it’s hard to confidently say just how tight security was, but at least the Cabinet was impressed. The paper marveled at the number of police cruisers, state troopers, and secret service “scrubbing clean” the Hitchiner plant while an army helicopter checked rooftops around the Oval. The president greeted elementary school students at Bales and met locals in front of Town Hall. Apparently, he was in a hurry — often shaking the hands of two people at a time and “darting through town.”
A few months later, challenger Ronald Reagan visited Milford. There was a stop at Hendrix Wire and Cable Plant and a luncheon at Hampshire Hills (Reagan, true to form, referred to it as “Hampshire House”). Despite his time on the silver screen, the former actor and governor was apparently not a household name to everyone — one reporter asked if he preferred the pronunciation “Ray-gun or Reegan.” But he too was on the move — a planned stop at Edgewood Shopping Plaza was eliminated and after being given a chocolate elephant, he was “whisked off again for the bus.”
When Teddy Kennedy showed up somewhat unexpectedly at Milford High School the day before Thanksgiving in 1979, a rockstar atmosphere was in the air. 600 packed the gymnasium to hear the senator compare himself to the high school’s championship football team in his battle to unseat President Jimmy Carter. Three weeks earlier, his campaign had gotten off to a rocky start when he seemed stumped by the simplest of questions from interviewer Roger Mudd — “Why do you want to be President?” Asked basically the same question in a 30-minute question and answer session by a student, this time Kennedy had no trouble. But according to the Cabinet, his “eyes glazed” when school guidance counselor David Osborne asked him his feelings on the anniversary of his brother John’s assassination. Some audience members complained that the question was in bad taste but like everyone on the grueling primary trail, Kennedy was soon hurrying off — on his way to the next stop.
In the New Hampshire presidential primary on February 24, 1976, Ford held on to narrowly beat Reagan 50%-48% in New Hampshire and later prevailed on the first ballot in Kansas City. In 1980, another sitting president, Jimmy Carter, would also win narrowly in a nomination fight. Carter beat Kennedy by 10 points in New Hampshire and took the nomination in New York City before losing the general election and his presidency to Ronald Reagan.
Gerald Ford shakes hands in Milford.
Above: Ronald Reagan touring the Hendrix Wire and Cable Plant.