Voices of White House Hopefuls

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)

New Hampshire long has been a place where presidential hopes are born, revived and, sometimes, die.

New Hampshire is where Edmund Muskie famously cried, Ronald Reagan let everyone know who paid for that microphone, Bill Clinton declared himself the “Comeback Kid” and John McCain rode his “Straight Talk Express” into electoral contention.

As voters there prepare for the polls again, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) – a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the WGBH Educational Foundation – this week announced the acquisition of a radio-broadcast collection documenting candidates’ efforts to woo voters in the first-in-the-nation primary.

The New Hampshire Public Radio digital collection – almost 100 hours of content – covers campaigns from 1995 to 2007 and features a wide range of White House hopefuls: among others, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Al Gore, Bob Dole, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Hillary Clinton, both as first lady and as a presidential candidate.

That material, along with other presidential-campaign content from AAPB, is showcased in a new online exhibition, “Voices of Democracy: Public Media and Presidential Elections.”

“We are fortunate to live at the epicenter of the political universe every four years. It is from this vantage that we are able to capture and keep some of the most memorable and historic moments in the past 35 years of our democracy,” New Hampshire Public Radio President and CEO Betsy Gardella said. “Knowing that this archive can now be tapped and used by anyone with Internet access is an extension of our public service mission realized. We are grateful for the AAPB.”

The AAPB preserves and makes accessible the most significant public television and radio programs of the past 60 years – national and local news, local-history programs, programs exploring religion, education, music, art, literature and dance.

In October, the AAPB launched its Online Reading Room, featuring 2.5 million inventory records and more than 11,500 audiovisual streaming files of content dating to the early 1950s.

“The geographic breadth of the material available on the website will allow researchers to help uncover ways that national and even global processes – gender equality, economic cycles and environmental changes – played out at the local level,” said Alan Gevinson of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, who manages the Library’s role in the project. “The long chronological reach, from the early 1950s to the present, supplies scholars, educators and the general public with previously inaccessible primary source material to document change over time.”

The New Hampshire material features presidential hopefuls announcing their candidacies, delivering stump speeches, submitting to interviews, hosting town halls and fielding questions from sometimes-skeptical listeners.

Obama, appearing on The Exchange call-in radio show in 2007, talked about “changing how politics is done in Washington” – prompting a listener to wonder if he was too “Pollyannaish” for office.

“I come out of Chicago politics – not known for being genteel,” Obama replied.

Bill Clinton, seeking re-election to the White House, staged a joint town hall with Newt Gingrich in 1995 – the first such event, Gingrich reckoned, ever to feature a sitting president and speaker of the House.

Before a delighted audience and a lone heckler, Clinton and Gingrich discussed balanced budgets, health-care reform, Medicare, four moose spotted on the road that morning and the pit stop for doughnuts Gingrich made before the event. “This is why you’ve done better with your figure than I’ve done with mine,” the speaker quipped.

“Voices of Democracy,” the online presentation created by Lily Troia of AAPB, features the New Hampshire material as well as interviews, speeches, debates, commentary and analysis spanning a much longer period, from 1961 to 2008.

Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy discusses proposals for the Peace Corps in 1960, human rights marchers protest the day before the 1964 Republican National Convention, Eldridge Cleaver speaks as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate in 1968, Iowa Public Television explores the role of the press in the primary process in “See How They Run.”

Some things change: All-white, all-male panels give way to more diverse groups, the clips of speakers smoking as they work gradually fade out.

But the concerns of voters, AAPB project manager Casey Davis said, largely remain constant, with the same issues coming up again and again.

“The material documents political process over the last 50 years at a time when people are getting ready to select the next leader of the United States,” Davis said. “We can look back at how these issues have been at the forefront of the voters’ consciousness for several decades now and at how far we have to go.”

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