Governor Hugh Gregg 1917-2003, Tireless Booster of New Hampshire


  Hugh Gregg, Governor of New Hampshire, 1953-1955, the state house portrait.

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By DEAN DEXTER

One of the grand Old Lions of New Hampshire politics is dead.

Hugh Gregg, former mayor of Nashua, former governor of New Hampshire, always a campaign manager and confidante of presidents, and would-be presidents, guru to lesser office-holders – author, amateur historian, tireless political campaigner, booster of All Things New Hampshire, and lately Keeper of the Flame of the state’s First in the Nation Presidential Primary, passed away Wednesday morning, September 24, 2003 in his home town of Nashua at 85.

It is ironic that Hugh Gregg’s death came in the same year of the Old Man of the Mountain’s collapse from the ledges of Cannon Mountain just six months earlier, and at a time when the New Hampshire Primary, itself, is under attack as never before – with the rise in prominence of contests in the south, including a threat from the District of Columbia, no less, and all other places that highly envy the hot national spotlight that has been New Hampshire’s every four years since 1952.

Gregg, whose craggy features in profile, come to think of it, were not unlike those of the Great Stone Face, itself, was once the boy wonder of Granite State politics, having been elected governor in his mid-thirties, out-polling the popular Republican candidate for president, Dwight Eisenhower, in the 1952 state General Election. Later he chaired the ill-fated presidential campaign of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the early 1960s, forever labeling him a member of the 'liberal, moderate' wing of the party, although Hugh Gregg was more than that.

After serving as a youthful, can-do mayor of Nashua, the state’s second largest city at a time when economic crisis hit that community, Gregg was elected to one term as governor, leaving the Corner Office without seeking re-election to tend the family business after his father’s death. A comeback try for governor in the 1960 primary was unsuccessful.

In 1976 Gregg chaired the Ronald Reagan campaign in his challenge of President Gerald Ford, setting the stage for a victory for The Gipper four years later. But Gregg is most famous for his unceasing promotion of the first George Bush, who virtually made the Gregg residence in Nashua his second home during the 1979-80 primary cycle. Although Reagan won that primary and then the White House, Bush went on to serve as vice president, then, of course president. Many credit Bush’s impressive New Hampshire campaign under Gregg’s watchful eye as the key to his later successes.

As Gregg saw his son Judd’s political career rise – from governor’s councilor, to congressman, to governor, and now U.S. Senator, the old war horse kept his hand in the game as strategist to his son’s efforts – fading more behind the scenes with each step up the son took.

But Hugh Gregg eclipsed his son, moving on to become an elder statesman, joining other greats from his generation, like Senators Styles Bridges, Norris Cotton, and Governor’s Lane Dwinell, Sherman Adams and Mel Thomson, and Congressman Perkins Bass.

Although patrician and wealthy, Hugh Gregg never lost touch with everyday people. He wasn’t afraid to be seen around the state house without a tie or in scuffy shoes or big all-weather boots under his Brooks Brothers dress pants. He was outward, gregarious, fun-loving and sometimes loud. But always he was approachable. Always he was candid, with that matter-of-fact shrug of his. But he was very much the governor. Always the governor, in contrast to the reticent, low-key style of the son.

 

Dean Dexter, George H.W. Bush, Hugh Gregg, Laconia, N. H. June 1979.
 

The state house portraits of the two are a study in this contrast. There is the elder Gregg presented in a nearly life-size portrait, dressed in a gray business suit -- very 50-ish, arm out-stretched, looking off yonder, young and thirty-something. No wrinkles. The portrait of the son is different. Laid back, casual dress, open sports shirt, outside with mountains in the background, looking straight at you with a bit of a smile, kind of fortyish. Kind of Jerry Seinfeldish . Like maybe the mock-up of a cover for an outdoor sports magazine. Very much un-State House. Very new generation. But then, as the old man once said, sitting in his cluttered office in that little house next to his residence in Nashua, "Can’t argue with success, he went farther then I did…"

The last years of Gregg’s life saw him spark the establishment of the Museum of Political History at the N.H. State Library, dedicated to the role New Hampshire has played in Presidential politics. The author of two books and numerous articles on the state primary are part of his legacy, too.

He was tireless. Before the library, Gregg wrote a book,* a convincing case for establishing New Hampshire as the birthplace of the Republican Party under an abolitionist former N. H. Congressman and Lincoln friend, Amos Tuck at a meeting in Exeter in October of 1853. Some stuck-up editorial writers at the time scoffed and said "who cares" where the party was founded. Mostly they were from papers that always support Democrats.

But some New Hampshire pundits and editorial writers are even today writing "who cares" about the state’s First in the Nation Primary. They are few, but they’re still there. Maybe they’d believe differently if they owned television stations instead of newspapers, with the huge advertising revenues the primaries produce for the likes of Manchester's WMUR Channel 9, or maybe in the hotel or restaurant business like the Wayfarer or Bedford Village Inn, or in the business of being proud of New Hampshire and promoting it, like Hugh Gregg.

Hugh Gregg was one of those political animals that never let the bitterness and rivalries and petty egotism of the craft get him down. In the end he was always positive, up-beat, encouraging, like a football coach. He rose above the vindictive, personalize, scorched earth liberal vs. conservative struggling that is so much a part of today’s body politic to truly promote and celebrate the contribution New Hampshire has made to the national political debate.

That, and the care and pride he took in his family, is truly the story of a life well lived and a legacy that will be long remembered, and very much missed indeed.

Rest in peace Old Man, your life counted. Yes it did.

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*Book Review: Birth of the Republican Party

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Posted Wednesday, September 24, 2003, 11:30 p.m.

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