One of the favorite things my father used to say was “the cemetery is filled with indispensable people.” For the longest time I thought this was an original thought on my father’s part. My father had a country boy commonsense about him, and he would often say little ditties that at first sounded weird to me, but eventually made me think.
My father’s point in this particular regard was whether we like it or not, we are all replaceable, so it would behoove us to plan accordingly. Which brings me to the matter of New Hampshire’s Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
I like Gardner and I know he is an outstanding secretary of state. The times I have heard Gardner speak it was clear he had a genuine love for New Hampshire, enjoyed his job and cared deeply about the integrity of our elections. Watching Gardner throughout my life I have found him to be humble and patient beyond all comprehension considering the political battlefield that is New Hampshire. For many, Gardner is seen as the sole protector of the state’s coveted “First in the Nation Primary” (FITNP). I know Gardner has played an extremely important role in this regard, but I also know many other people have also served as guardians for our nation’s first true strep to the White House. In fact, it can be said without any hesitation that, with few exceptions, protecting the FITNP is a role most New Hampshirites participate in.
I have publicly stated severally times I believe Gardner should step away from the role, not because he was not doing his job, but because no one person should be settled into such an important and powerful seat of government for almost half a century. Gardner was first elected as secretary of state in the year of our national bicentennial celebration, 1976. I was 15 years old, Jimmy Carter was getting ready to claim the presidency, Meldrim Thomson Jr. was New Hampshire’s governor, Apple computer and Microsoft were founded, the VHS tape was invented, and Rocky was the number one movie for the year. Today, Apple makes smartwatches and iPhones, Microsoft owns the business world, the VHS tape went the way of the Dodo bird, and the character of Rocky has evolved into the role of Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith’s character in Rocky). My point is that time marches on, and maybe now might be New Hampshire’s time to “reboot” the Office of the Secretary of State.
Now before people accuse me of ageism, please spare me. My concern has nothing to do with Gardner’s age, and more to do with the with the fact one person has held one of the most vital roles in our country for 42 years. Even more concerning is the fact for many of those years Gardner ran unopposed and no other person sought the office. There will come a day when we have no choice but to move on from Bill Gardner, and I mean no ill will toward Gardner, but as good as he is, he is not indispensable.
Additionally, the secretary of state position cannot be seen as a position for life, or a position of heredity, handed down from one heir apparent to another. Senior Deputy Secretary of State Robert P. Ambrose and Deputy Secretary of State David M. Scanlan may want the job upon Gardner’s departure, and Gardner may be grooming one or both men to ascend to the position of secretary of state. That would be unfortunate. If the position of secretary of state was supposed to come with a lifetime tenure, why did our state’s founding fathers require members of the N.H. House and Senate to elect a new secretary of state every two years, like every other elected state seat? We as a state have failed by not upholding the sacred intent of our state Constitution, not only in word but in deed.
The thing I fear the most is that if there has been one element of Gardner’s character that is vital, it has been his integrity and non-partisan approach to his position. Looking at the landscape of the body politic, not only in New Hampshire, but across the country, it will be hard to find an uncorrupted soul, someone who has not been tainted by the aggressive partisanship that has settled across our country.
I can assure you of one thing: former Democratic candidate for governor Colin Van Ostern is not that person. If we want the role of secretary of state to devolve into a partisan position, absent of balance, then by all means, elect Van Ostern.
Van Ostern’s motives for seeking the position are suspect and he does not possess the characteristics that have made Secretary of State Bill Gardner well-suited for that role.
If I sound conflicted, I am. I believe my father was right, no person is indispensable, a phrase originated by Charles de Gaulle (I doubt that is where my father first heard it). I believe New Hampshire has failed itself by setting the precedent that would suggest to some the position of secretary of state is a lifetime appointment. I am also disappointed that I fear there is no one who possesses the indispensable characteristics Gardner has graciously shared with New Hampshire for so many years. Yet, I know sooner or later we will have to try.