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12.19.11

Joe McQuaid: Union Leader Publisher Is GOP Kingmaker in New Hampshire

The man courted by every Republican presidential aspirant for his newspaper’s imprimatur has endorsed Gingrich, but says he expects Romney to win the state primary—then face a tough time outside New England.

The road to the White House—at least for the Republicans—runs through Joe McQuaid.

Few outside of New Hampshire  have ever heard of him. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. But as publisher of the Union Leader and Sunday News, New Hampshire’s only statewide newspaper, McQuaid is one of the more influential voices in American politics. Presidential aspirants regularly make the pilgrimage to his dark, cluttered office—décor: shabby unchic—at the paper’s low-slung headquarters building at the far end of a Manchester industrial park.

They try to charm and impress him, present him with their ghostwritten books, and otherwise hope to persuade him to look with favor (or at least fairness) upon their humble candidacies. That is, right up until Jan. 11, the day after the New Hampshire primary, when McQuaid’s magnificent coach turns into a pitiable pumpkin and nobody gives a toss what he thinks.

Until the next presidential election cycle.

“We like to see it as Brigadoon,” he tells me during a recent visit. He is a slightly built New Englander, in tie and shirtsleeves, whose sense of humor is about as dry and incendiary as kindling. “New Hampshire rises out of the mist once every four years and puts on a performance for the nation. And then we go back.”

He shows off some of his 2012 campaign mementos, stacked on his desk and various other flat surfaces. “We try to be very hospitable to the candidates. I’ve got Fred Karger’s Frisbee over there,” he says, mentioning an unknown Republican candidate and gesturing to a side table teeming with newspapers and press releases. He dislodges the plastic disk after a brief archeological dig. “I’ve got Newt Gingrich’s book in which he spelled my name wrong. I’ve got No Apology from Mitt. That’s the fourth copy. I got one from Pawlenty. I didn’t get a chance to read it before he was in and out.”

Then there are the incessant visits—sales calls, really.

“I’ve had several conversations with Jon Huntsman,” McQuaid reports, referring to the former governor of Utah and ex-ambassador to China. “He drops in unannounced. I like to talk to people, but it seems he’s listening much more to what he’s saying than listening to what other people have to say. He’s pretty full of himself.”

And Newt Gingrich isn’t?

“I went with the guy who knows he’s full of shit.”

The 62-year-old McQuaid is, by his own admission, a troublemaker. That, among other factors, prompted the Union Leader’s decision a few weeks ago to back the former speaker of the House—a front-page endorsement calculated to shake up the race, poke summer resident Mitt Romney in the eye, and make a splash in the mainstream media.

“The national coverage of our endorsement has been phenomenal,” says McQuaid, who likes to refer to one of NBC Universal’s cable news outlets, which provided wall-to-wall coverage of the Gingrich endorsement, as “PMSNBC.”  “Timing is everything, and we did it at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. There wasn’t a blessed thing going on in the world in terms of news. We telegraphed that we were going to be doing it, and Gingrich had already started his ascendancy.”

Not that McQuaid believes Newt is the perfect candidate—far from it. “I have a lot of qualms about him … I said he was a geek—only to find out from my dear friend Roger Simon [the Politico columnist] that a ‘geek’ is a circus performer who bites the heads off small animals.”

McQuaid figures that the Union Leader “may be able to sway a few percentage points in close elections” but little more. He points out that of the presidential candidates who have been fortunate enough to receive the paper’s imprimatur, well, “Sam Yorty [the late mayor of Los Angeles] and John Ashbrook [the late congressman from Ohio] went on to serve two terms each in the White House, as did Pierre DuPont [the former governor of Delaware] and my buddy Steve Forbes.”

Ditto Pat Buchanan, a favorite of the late publisher Nackey Loeb, whose support helped Buchanan nearly defeat the first President Bush in the 1992 primary (severely damaging Bush’s reelection chances) and trounce Bob Dole in the 1996 primary—prompting the Kansas senator to muse, “I should have bought the Union Leader.”

Nackey was the widow of legendary right-wing firebrand William Loeb III, who bought the paper in 1946 and later employed McQuaid’s father as well as McQuaid (who has been writing about New Hampshire’s primary elections since 1972). Loeb was notorious for front-page editorials that often employed a sledgehammer where a feather duster would do. After 1972 Democratic frontrunner Edmund Muskie famously stood outside the Union Leader building and wept (or, depending on who’s talking, got a snowflake in his eye) as he inveighed against Loeb’s attacks on his wife, Jane, Muskie’s candidacy cratered and Loeb was celebrated across the land as a treacherous bully.

“It’s interesting—this public versus private thing,” McQuaid says. “William Loeb was a very soft-spoken old-school gentleman. But if you read his tirades on the front page”—McQuaid whistles—“Katie bar the door!”

By way of illustration, McQuaid reads aloud from a long-ago Loeb editorial about then-freshman Sen. Joe Biden: “The voters of Delaware who elected this stupid, conceited jackass to the Senate should kick him in the rear to knock some sense into him.”

The day after the New Hampshire primary, McQuaid’s magnificent coach turns into a pitiable pumpkin and nobody gives a toss what he thinks.

We don’t often get that sort of bracing editorial writing anymore, I point out—let alone opinion pieces that encourage physical violence.

“It’s a shame,” McQuaid replies.

He notes that when Vice President Biden came to Manchester last month to give the keynote speech at a First Amendment Awards dinner hosted by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications—which owns the Union Leader and Sunday News as a nonprofit entity—Biden left a framed copy of  Loeb’s editorial. On it Biden had written: “He may have been right at the time.”

“Nice,” McQuaid says.

I ask him to handicap the current race.

“I think if Gingrich comes close in New Hampshire—say within 5 percent—then Romney’s going to be toast,” he says. “I would be surprised if Romney didn’t win. He’s unleashed the attack dogs. I wondered the other day if he was going to stick to conventional warfare or if he’s going to go with WMDs against Gingrich.”

McQuaid predicts that regardless of what happens in the Granite State, “Romney is going to have a tough time. New Hampshire and New England are very unchurched. There aren’t a lot of real devout followers up here. But outside of New England, in the South and the West, the Mormon thing is going to really hurt Romney.”

As for Rick Perry, “he was a big disappointment.”

Michele Bachmann “is nowhere.”

Ron Paul “has got his coterie, but he’s never going to get the nomination.”

Rick Santorum “has been out of office too long.”

Meanwhile, he misses Herman Cain. “I personally thought the guy was very easy to talk to and likable—and had no goddamn business running for president.”

McQuaid may have strong opinions, but he delivers them with a twinkle in his eye. He is unlikely to inspire the sort of biographical exertions that attached themselves to his long-ago employer and predecessor as publisher. One such tome was famously titled Who the Hell Is William Loeb?

Could he ever imagine someone writing a book titled Who the Hell Is Joe McQuaid?

“Not unless it’s me,” he replies.