Saturday, September 12, 2015

President Ford’s Exeter Visit, 1975

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 11, 2015

Somewhere in the United States there must be a place that isn’t concerned with politics. New Hampshire is not that place. This is where you move if you LOVE being part of the insanity that is American politics but you’re not willing to move to D.C. In 1974, the New Hampshire Senate race took center stage at a time when the political scene had left most Americans disillusioned and cynical. Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency in August leaving Gerald Ford – an appointed Vice-President – to finish the term. All manner of subterfuge and skullduggery had tarnished the presidential campaign and Ford sought to move on from the “long national nightmare” by pardoning the former president.

When November arrived, New Hampshire’s open Senate seat was contested by Republican Louis Wyman, a seasoned four-term congressman; Democrat John Durkin, a newcomer to political office, having served only as State Assistant Attorney General and insurance commissioner; and Carmen Chimento, a 3rd party candidate running for the American Independent Party. When the votes were tallied after Election Day, Wyman had won the election by a slim 355 votes. As was to be expected, Durkin requested a recount, which resulted in his winning the election by four votes. Governor Meldrin Thompson issued a provisional certificate of election for Durkin. Not wanting the election to slip away, Wyman then requested a second recount, which again gave him the election – this time by two votes. The Governor retracted his certificate of election for Durkin and, after the sitting Senator Cotton resigned the seat early on December 31st, appointed Wyman to the Senate to serve out the remaining week of his term. But once that week was over in early January of 1975, it became obvious that the election had never really been decided.

Who actually won the election in November 1974? Our optical scanning method of voting today would make the recount tiresome, but accurate. Back in 1974, many municipalities used mechanical lever voting machines that were confusing to use and difficult to re-tabulate. The whole mess was tossed to the U.S. Senate, but they also could not decide on a winner and declared the seat vacant. With the August vacation looming, it was suggested that the two candidates come up with their own solution. Wyman suggested a run-off election in September, and Durkin agreed. A brief second campaign began in anticipation of the September 16th ballot.

Into the fray came the new President. Wyman was thought to be the stronger candidate – he had more experience and New Hampshire generally voted Republican. In the first week of September, it was announced that Gerald Ford would be making a one day visit to the state to support Louis Wyman. Exeter was chosen as one of the stops where the president would speak. With only a week to prepare, Exeter got busy. The town hall flagpole was painted, bunting was hung throughout the downtown and town officials were occupied with the insistent demands of the secret service, because the day after the visit was announced Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled a gun on the president in Sacramento. Taking no chances, secret service agents visited every shop on Water Street. The shops could remain opened on the day of the President’s visit, but no upstairs windows could be opened. All personnel had to be cleared. Even the pewter tankard that would be given to the president as a gift had to be checked and x-rayed before the big event.

On Thursday, September 11th, the town was abuzz with excitement. Although we have a steady stream of presidential candidates visiting during election years, this was the first time a sitting president had made a visit since Harry Truman arrived in 1952. He arrived a bit before 7pm accompanied by the Governor and candidate Louis Wyman. The speech at the bandstand was brief, but well received by the townsfolk who attended. Regardless of political leaning, the crowd seemed pleased to be chosen for a presidential visit. Of the thousands who attended the speech, most remember the secret service more than the president’s speech. Most of the memories gleaned from a recent Facebook post were about the intense security:

“I remember his motorcade traveling past West Side Drive and Ford waving to all. The secret service guys were jogging alongside and ‘politely’ moving anyone who got too close.”

“I was standing along the road in front of what is now Serendipity. A SS agent grabbed a guy behind us because it looked like he was going for a gun in his back pocket. It was his huge ‘Goody’ comb.” 

“Just before Ford arrived downtown a bird flew through an upstairs window of the building on Water Street across from Town hall. My father was called in to replace the glass as the Secret Service would not allow any open windows on the street.”

“I was in Bob Shaw’s lawyer office watching through the big picture window, then went down to the street and tried to shake his hand as the motorcade drove off and got pushed down by a secret service man!”

The town, as a whole, was pleased with Ford’s visit, even if it didn’t help Louis Wyman. He lost the run-off election in Exeter by 90 votes, and statewide he lost by 27,000. Jay Childs remembered, “Ford got a better reaction than Wyman as I recall.” We don’t know what the president’s thoughts were on his New Hampshire visit. A week later he was again in California when Sara Jane Moore fired shots at him in San Francisco. If nothing else, at least no one in New Hampshire tried to kill him.

Images: Two young people hold a sign to welcome the President, and President Ford addresses the crowd from the Swasey Pavilion – or the Bandstand – on September 11, 1975.

Many thanks to the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Exeter, NH.” Those quoted include, David Butler, Michael Perry, Paul Titus and Jay Childs.

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