The Legendary Publisher Whose Endorsements Could Make or Break a New Hampshire Candidacy Sounds Off

The Legendary Publisher Whose Endorsements Could Make or Break a New Hampshire Candidacy Sounds Off

The New Hampshire primary is on Tuesday, and it looks like Donald Trump is poised for another win on his way to locking up the GOP nomination.

But there is one bit of mystery left in the race — one that’s a reminder of an era when New Hampshire was the king of the presidential nominating process and when local media barons had enormous influence.

On Sunday, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the 161-year-old conservative paper that has operated like a Republican party boss for many decades, will issue its endorsement in the race.

Joe McQuaid,the longtime publisher of the Union Leader, was the critical piece of that operation. And he has lived and breathed New Hampshire politics and Union Leader history ever since he was a teenager and was pressured by his social studies teacher to back LBJ instead of the candidate who won his heart, Barry Goldwater. It may have been the last time anyone told him what to think.

When McQuaid took over as publisher in 2000, after the paper had been run since the 1940s by William Loeb and his wife Nackey, He became well known for blunt editorials that punched candidates in the face:

George W. Bush was “an empty suit.”

Mitt Romney was “plastic” and “desperate.”

Ron Paul was from “the island of misfit toys.”

In 2016 McQuaid wrote that Donald Trump was “a crude blowhard with no clear political philosophy and no deeper understanding of the important and serious role of President of the United States than one of the goons he lets rough up protesters in his crowds.”

Trump, who had originally courted McQuaid for his endorsement, returned fire by calling McQuaid a “real lowlife” and describing the paper as “a piece of garbage.’”

That relationship was never repaired.

In 2020, after his son Brendan took over as publisher, the Union Leader endorsed Joe Biden.

Joe McQuaid still writes occasional opinion pieces, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of New Hampshire politics and he is the ideal person to hear from if you want to understand the history of the state’s primary, especially on the Republican side.

We talked this week about whether or not Nikki Haley can win on Tuesday, if she’ll get the Union Leader’s endorsement, how things went so far south between him and Trump, and whether or not New Hampshire’s primacy in American politics has come to an end.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This year’s New Hampshire primary feels very different from previous cycles. There are no debates, Trump is sort of off the trail, and Haley seems like she’s not really engaging directly with voters in the same New Hampshire tradition that we have all come to expect. Do you think it’s the end of the New Hampshire primary we’re witnessing here?

I don’t think that’s true. I think the primary has changed a great deal. I think Trump and [Steve] Forbes changed that with spending all the money on paid media. I think if anything’s changed, it’s just that the national media spends so much time talking about the friggin’ horse race and saying things are over before they’ve even begun, such as in Iowa, that you don’t get the feeling of excitement.

So far the polls have come true, right? And yeah, the polls show Trump is going to win the nomination and it’s going to be him versus Biden. I think that has changed primaries more than anything. I can’t tell you a lot of the positions of DeSantis and Haley on the issues, because the stories are all about how they’re doing in the polls.

All right, so you don’t buy it. You think Tuesday is going to be interesting?

There’ll be some excitement. And I think there’ll be some on the Democratic side, too. I don’t think that Biden is going to get the turnout that his people hope. You got both U.S. senators and congressmen, all of whom are Democrats, pushing a Biden write-in.

I think there are going to be some independents who say, “If I’m going to vote, I’m going to see if I can make a difference on the Republican side.” The poor candidates, [Marianne] Williamson and Dean [Phillips] – Vermin Supreme has gotten as much coverage as they have.

Do you think that the coverage of Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson and their challenge to Joe Biden has been unfair from the national press? 

Yes. And the local press. They’ve just been written off before they began. But I think the press in general are unfair to the voter by assuming that the voters know where the candidates stand on the issues, which is not good for our democracy.

I was listening to Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who has a great podcast with Democrats David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs. And Murphy has been very bullish on Haley. But as a strategist, in one podcast, he was just not impressed with her ability to take this fight to Trump in New Hampshire. Do you share that assessment? 

I’m not sure how she’s going to do. I think there are an awful lot of people who don’t want Trump — they’re usually independents, so-called undeclared voters. And I think the Democrats are trying their best to get the undeclareds to vote a write-in for Biden. I think not so much for the write-in as they don’t want undeclareds going on the Republican side and voting in Haley, because I think it’s pretty clear that Haley would clean the floor with Biden.

If it’s not 40-below come Tuesday, I think there’ll be a good turnout on the Republican side, and it won’t just be diehard Trump supporters — there’ll be others. And New Hampshire has had a way of sending the kind of message that, “Now that’s not the way it’s going to be.”

And so, yeah, she has a shot here. And I’m sure she’s getting plenty of free advice from everybody about how she should be dealing with Trump. I think she’s better off to do the way she’s doing, which is, “He’s of a different era. He was OK when he was in, but it’s not the same anymore and chaos follows him, so vote for me instead.” We’ll see how that works.

You know, 2016, we have to talk about that because this is the turning point. 

Oh, Mr. Trump.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. You’re watching this guy Trump, like everyone else in 2015, and probably dismissing him. You called him a “crude blowhard.” How do you think the 2016 primary and Donald Trump changed New Hampshire? 

Before we called him a “blowhard,” he was seeking the Union Leader’s endorsement.

He had come up here in 2015, might have been in 2014. Neil Levesque, who runs the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and has a hand in something called Politics & Eggs—

A political institution in New Hampshire.

Yeah. Anyhow, Levesque calls me at my office and says, “I want you to come to Politics & Eggs. The speaker is going to be Donald Trump.”

And I said, “Levesque, I’ve got a perfectly good record. I’ve never been to one of your Politics & Eggs breakfasts. Why should I change that?”

And he said, Trump asked especially for you,”

And I said, “Yeah, bullshit. He didn’t.”

But then it occurred to me that my wife had said she loves to meet candidates. She was actually Pat Buchanan’s big helper up here when he won. She had said she’d like to meet Trump if he ever came to town, so I relented. Told Neil we’d come. My wife was ill. She couldn’t go. My daughter went with me.

We go to this thing. I’ve never met Trump in my life. He’s sitting at the same table with me. He gets up on stage. He doesn’t have a prepared speech. But every other sentence he’s pointing at me saying, “Am I right, Joe, am I right?”

And the lady next to me says, “How long have you known this guy?”

And I said, “22 minutes.”

But it occurred to me, I’m always looking for a speaker for the Nackey Loeb School’s annual First Amendment honors program. I asked Trump. And Trump agreed to come the next year. I knew then that he was going to run in 2016.

And he’s also made up this story that I didn’t endorse him because he declined to play golf with me. Absolute B.S. He had invited me down to Daytona a couple of times or wherever the hell his course was, and I couldn’t go. And then he calls up, he was doing a No Labels thing that weekend in Manchester, and he said, “You want to play golf? “

And I said, “You don’t have time to play golf, you gotta do this thing.” I said, “We can have lunch at the Derryfield Country Club,” which happens to be the municipal golf course in Manchester. So we ate there and he scarfed down a cheeseburger and all the fries. Took his picture with a bunch of people and left. Alright?

I don’t endorse him. He says, “He’s just mad because I wouldn’t play golf with him at his fancy golf club.” Just B.S.

What did Trump call you when you didn’t endorse him?

A “liar,” a “loser,” the paper was going out of business that year. The usual stuff.

Was there ever a moment that the paper considered revising its view of Trump as so many other conservative institutions have? 

No, sir. He demonstrated quite colorfully and accurately our view of him when we decided we were not endorsing him in 2016. He has no business being president of the United States. He’s a dangerous man and he has a lot of sycophants, and he has a party which looks at the world today in the political landscape and has determined that they must say nice things about him or they’re not going to get elected. So the people running for governor in New Hampshire this year have said they’re going to support Trump if he gets the nomination, even the very popular Sununu.

What do you think of that decision? You like Gov. Chris Sununu, right? 

I think it’s a political calculation that he’s made because to say, “No, I’m not and would never endorse him,” that would be used by Trump and the party against Haley, who Sununu knew is a long shot, but he’s trying to get her to make a difference in New Hampshire. But it’s still disappointing to me as an American citizen that people would say they’re going to vote for this guy.

I know it’s in your son Brendan’s hands now, but tell us about the process the Union goes through before it makes its endorsement?

You’re incorrect Ryan. There is no process and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there wasn’t an endorsement this year.

What do you mean, there’s no process? 

The process is always [that] the publisher makes the call, and for 40 years it was William Loeb who made the call. His widow was more collegial and got us involved but what she said went. And then after that, it was me.

There’s no editorial meeting where you’re sitting around and there’s a vote or something like that?

Nope.

Does Brendan work the same way? 

I don’t know. I think he reads and he makes up his own mind.

But surely he’s talked to you about this.

No, sir, he has not. That’s not the way it works. I got out, right? I could look at the paper every day and tell him and the editor at least 400 ways to make it better, because I know all. But that’s not what I do.

Who would you endorse if it were up to you?

I would endorse Nikki Haley. It would be a no-brainer because Trump, for the good of the country, needs to be stopped. I think he and Biden are the two most selfish guys in America for doing this. They should let somebody living and breathing with some command of sanity rule. They’re not going to. So this is the one place where somebody can stop him and that person is clearly Haley.

And Haley is not my idea of a perfect or close-to-perfect candidate. She has been rightfully accused of not being strident enough on Trump. But you look at the field and had she been more strident, like Chris Christie, she would not be a serious challenger to Trump in next Tuesday’s primary. So, yeah, politics ain’t beanbag, and she’s in it to win it.

You grew up with this paper in your blood. What are your favorite New Hampshire primary memories? 

I was one of the three reporters on the debate stage in Nashua, New Hampshire — Reagan versus Bush, while the candidates that he’d [Reagan] invited to be on stage — John Anderson, Phil Crane, John Connally, Bob Dole all standing there — and the Nashua Telegraph is “bullshit” because they’ve got a debate with just Reagan and Bush. So the other candidates all leave. And that’s where Spencer Tracy told Katharine Hepburn the truth.

This is when Reagan said, “I am paying for this microphone”?

I once went to the White House to interview Ronald Reagan. And before we went in, we were in Marlin Fitzwater’s office, the press secretary. And I asked Marlin if he knew if anybody had asked Reagan where Reagan got his, “I’m paying for this microphone” line, because, of course, Spencer Tracy had said the same thing in a movie in 1946, and I’m damn sure Reagan called up that memory and used it to his advantage.

But Marlin said, “No, nobody’s asked him. And if I were you, I wouldn’t ask him either.’

And I didn’t have the guts.

For people who aren’t familiar with the Union Leader as an important institution in New Hampshire and in the New Hampshire primary — how do you explain its influence?

The Union Leader had quite a checkered career in terms of successful endorsements, but was always mixing it up on one side or the other or both, most infamously, with Ed Muskie and something called the Canuck letter in 1972.

Muskie pulled a truck up in front of the Union Leader on a snowy Saturday and demanded that William Loeb come out and go mano a mano with him. Muskie knew damn well Loeb wasn’t going to be in on a Saturday, and Loeb didn’t live in the state anyways. And Muskie proceeded to choke up in the snow, and some news media reported that he was crying, and that was the end of his campaign. Our paper didn’t report him crying, just said there was snow in his eyes.

I had to call William Loeb to get his reaction to being called a liar by Ed Muskie.

Loeb said, “Well, if he gets upset about what a little New Hampshire publisher says, I wouldn’t want him in the White House with his finger on the nuclear button.”

And I took this down and put it in the story, not knowing that Loeb had pretty much done the same thing in 1960 with a candidate named Jack Kennedy, who had a big rally across the street from the paper.

But unlike Muskie, Jack Kennedy didn’t cry. Jack Kennedy said, “If there is a worse newspaper and a worse publisher in these United States than The Union Leader and William Loeb, I can’t think of them right now.”

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