A poor man cannot run without taking money from a donor with whom he’s going to be beholden. It’s not possible to take that kind of money from a corporation and not feel that you have to serve him rather than those who elect you.
— Granny D, Capitol Eye (16 October 2007)
Granny D, you’re awesome!
— New Hampshire voter
In 2004, Doris “Granny D” Haddock ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate. With a boundless commitment to democratic ideals and frustration with “business as usual,” she ran a $200,000 campaign in New Hampshire against Republican incumbent Judd Gregg. She wanted to remind people, she says in Run Granny Run, that “Our country is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, and if that is not worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.”
Marlo Poras’ documentary follows the campaign more or less chronologically, from the moment Granny D decides to undertake it (after the abrupt withdrawal for presumed Democratic candidate Burt Cohen) to her defeat in the November election. On its surface, the film is sweet and innocuous, rather like first impressions of its subject, punctuated by montages that show Granny greeting supporters and walking along state highways. The walking provides the movie with a particular rhythm, not so much ambling as individual and deliberate (though the much-repeated old-timey piano theme is soon tedious). The walking is also a legacy from Granny D’s first campaign, in 2000, when she walked across the U.S. in 2000 to encourage voting (“The fact is 50% of the people in this country don’t vote and I want to do something about it”) and John McCain gave her a pair of sneakers. “In return,” observes Judy Woodruff in a TV spot, “She gave him a horde of reporters.”
As the film illustrates, the fascination Granny D holds for journalists and, as it turns out, many voters, is a complex phenomenon. For one thing, she appears to be “ordinary.” Her campaign strategist, Dennis Burke, suggests she should emphasize what makes her different from other politicians, namely, her likeness to her potential constituents, her ordinariness (Granny D worries this may make her look as is she doesn’t possess any requisite expertise, that she won’t be able to solve the intricate problems in Washington). But at the same time, she is so obviously exceptional: voters respond to her warmth and wit (“I am the angry grandmother of a New Hampshire family, come off my porch to ask young Judd what he’s thinking when he supports military misadventures…”), as much as to her “positions.” She’s liberalish Democratic, anti-Iraq war (“I don’t think the war will ever stop until we change the administration”), straight and pro-gay marriage (“I don’t think the government should be in my bedroom”), upfront about once smoking marijuana offered by Woody Harrelson at a pro-weed rally.
While Run Granny Run is most clearly a portrait of Granny D and presents her in a more favorable light than Gregg — who appears during clips from their televised “Granite State Debate” as a rigid and unoriginal thinker, wrapped up in his talking points and condescension toward his opponent. This portrait shows Granny D’s vulnerability (her daughter is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Granny D articulates the pain and guilt she feels, having decided to pursue her various campaigns rather than devote herself to her child’s care). And it shows sympathy for Granny D’s primary argument, that democracy is impossible in a system so dependent on and in thrall to money.
Her campaign runs into inevitable financing troubles, at which point they consult with Joe Trippi, wondering why the Democratic establishment — in particular, Howard Dean — won’t help her, with endorsements, money, or other forms of support. (Trippi notes that those who were once on the outside don’t tend to remember that once they’re inside.) She relies on her 69-year-old son Jim to help organize both big picture and details (officially, he’s her “road man,” though he notes that he’s supposed to be retired: “I have eight grandchildren and I’m following my mother around like I’ve got a ring in my nose,” he sighs).
When Granny D, Dennis, and Jim decide they’ll need to cut payments to staff workers in order to pay for a TV commercial, campaign manager Chris Kuwamoto quits rather than ask her employees to accept such terms. The camera follows her to the airport, where she checks in as her voiceover says, “I just couldn’t in good conscience go to the staff with a plan to cut $14,000. I really feel strongly that if she had been surrounded by a more feminine spirit, or by more sophisticated, enlightened men, that this could have been a true winning campaign.”
While the film doesn’t support this gendered analysis (no one other than Granny D appears on screen long enough or in sustained interactions that might grant such judgment), the point is worth thinking through, the extent to which the status quo that everyone pretends to be “against” is premised on gendered conditioning, good ol’ boy networking, aggression and competition in lieu of collaboration and compassion. The film doesn’t delve into the question or possible answers, only leaves it hanging as Chris departs, and Granny D laments her loss.
As it resists such systemic investigation and instead reinforces the image of Granny D as “inspiring” anomaly, the film can appear lightweight. But the truth is, Granny D does raise significant questions about expectations and fears, by running the campaign and by appearing in the film; her self-awareness as screen subject is admirable, a model of self-restraint and mutual exploitation. She articulates her potential function during the debate, exhorting voters to make use of her: “I am your monkey wrench that you can toss into the gears of the Washington bribe machine.” The sad part is, this “machine” is so entrenched that it appears no wrench can damage it.