MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Joe McQuaid, the editor of the Manchester Union Leader, which used to be the meanest paper in America, is now insulted.
"And I am demanding an apology," he said. "And if I don't get one, I intend to sue."
It is difficult to imagine what would upset McQuaid so much. After all, his paper is not shy when it comes to insulting people. In fact, it specializes in reducing presidential candidates to tears, as it did with Ed Muskie in 1972.
On the day Ted Kennedy announced for the presidency in 1979 and flew to Manchester to begin his campaign, for instance, the Union Leader greeted him with the headline: "KENNEDY'S WATERPROOF WATCHES FOR SECRETARIES."
In case the subtlety of this escapes you, it is a reference to Mary Jo Kopechne and Chappaquiddick. Which the Union Leader considered not only fair comment, but so fair that it put the headline on Page 1. In bright red letters.
The paper has also run headlines like "JESSE JACKSON: THE COMMUNISTS' TOOL" and, just before the 1976 election, which featured Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter, the headline: "STUPID VS. SHIFTY." When Carter won, the paper carried the headline: "SHIFTY BEATS STUPID."
Every time I would come to New Hampshire, I would interview the paper's publisher, William Loeb, who possessed a biting tongue, gracious manners and a Charter Arms .38 pistol. Loeb died in 1981. His wife, Nackey, inherited both the paper and the pistol.
The paper, the largest daily in the state, still remains influential and unswervingly conservative, but media critics have noted that it has calmed down a lot and is much more responsible.
"Which is why I am going to sue," McQuaid said. "The New York Times said we were now engaging in 'mellow journalism,' and MacNeil/Lehrer said we were 'much more respectable.' I am not going to let them get away with that. I am going to seek triple damages."
But you are much more respectable, I said. The editorials are calmer and Nackey Loeb probably doesn't even carry her pistol.
"Oh, yeah?" McQuaid said. "Listen to this: It was in Ronald Reagan's first term, and he was going to be in Massachusetts, and he invited Mrs. Loeb to come down to visit him.
"So she goes down, and she has to go through a metal detector to see the president. But she uses a wheelchair, and that would set off the detector, so the Secret Service just waves her around the machine.
"She meets with President Reagan, she comes back out to her van, she gets in, she opens her handbag, takes out the pistol and hands it to her driver, saying, "I don't need this anymore, put it away." Now can you imagine that? She had a gun with her while talking to the president of the United States!"
I really don't think the point is that she got away with it, I said. I
think the point is why she felt she needed a gun while meeting with the president.
McQuaid shrugged. "I don't know why she carried it," he said. "Maybe she thought he'd say something she might disagree with."
Which is unlikely. The Union Leader has always liked conservatives. Which is why it endorses candidates for president not based on whether they can win, but whether they are the most conservatively correct.
"We don't really care how many votes we influence," McQuaid said. "That's why we endorsed Sam Yorty on the Democratic side in 1972, when he was the mayor of Los Angeles. We endorsed John Ashbrook over Richard Nixon in 1972. Ashbrook was a congressman from Ohio. We endorsed Pete du Pont in 1988, Pat Buchanan this time and Paul Fisher over John Kennedy in 1960."
"He invented a ballpoint pen that writes upside down," McQuaid said. "I think the astronauts used it."
There are a stunning 62 names on the New Hampshire presidential ballot this year: 25 Republicans, 26 Democrats and 1 Libertarian. But the name the Union Leader hates the most is that of George Bush.
To the Union Leader, George Bush will always be a liar and a wimp, which it routinely calls him. Though this is actually kind of mild compared to past invective. The Union Leader once referred to Bella Abzug as a "porcine-featured congresswoman from New York."
"I think we were trying to call her pig-faced," McQuaid said. Even so, every candidate except Tom Harkin and Bush has asked to appear before the Union Leader's editorial board for an endorsement this year.
Which is kind of embarrassing since the Union Leader does not have an editorial board.
"So when these candidates come in I have to go out into the newsroom and shout: 'Does anybody want to talk to these creeps?'" McQuaid said.
"And it's sometimes hard to get a quorum."
Tell me, I said, do you really hate President Bush?
"Oh, yes," McQuaid said.
But what happens if Bush, as is likely, becomes the Republican nominee? I asked. Who will you endorse in the general election?
McQuaid paused to think. "Probably John Ashbrook," he said.
But isn't John Ashbrook dead? I asked.
"So?" McQuaid said.