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Former Gov. Thomson dead at 89

By Adolphe V. Bernotas,   Associated Press

ORFORD — Meldrim Thomson, descendant of Southern rebels and Boston Yankees, who kept New Hampshire in political turmoil as governor and leader of conservative causes in the 1970s, died Thursday. He was 89.

Thomson, who suffered three heart attacks in the early 1990s and a stroke in August 1997, died at his home in Orford at 10 a.m. He had been ill for some time; he also suffered from Parkinson's disease.

The political career of the ex-governor, farmer, lawyer, columnist, publisher and tax fighter was among the most turbulent of the century in New Hampshire.

His style ranged from that of a genteel soft-spoken gentleman who never quite lost his Southern drawl to that of a strident politician and evangelist.

Thomson, a one-time political science instructor in college who had an encyclopedic knowledge of political history, would deflect criticisms that he was stuck in the 19th century by declaring that his philosophy actually was grounded in the 17th century.

As governor from 1973 to 1979, he drew devoted support from ultraconservatives and outraged detractors with positions that included suggesting nuclear weapons for the state National Guard.

Thomson also drew both applause and disdain for seeking the presidency in 1980 because he found Ronald Reagan too liberal, jumping back and forth among political parties, setting records for legislative vetoes and calling Martin Luther King "a man of immoral character whose frequent association with leading agents of communism is well established."

Andrew Young, President Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, was a "one-world co-conspirator" to Thomson, while segregationist John Vorster of South Africa was "one of the world's great statesmen."

Even in political near-retirement, Thomson continued creating commotion. As head of evangelist Pat Roberston's 1988 New Hampshire presidential primary campaign, Thomson suggested sending troops to Haiti to end violence.

The troops, Thomson said, would help establish "a republic of black people, yes, but still a republic." Robertson's aides disassociated the candidate from the remark.

As a columnist for The Union Leader of Manchester, with whose late publisher, William Loeb, Thomson formed a political and private friendship, the former governor continued to fight the establishment.

In 1986, using a Right-to-Know Law lawsuit, Thomson pried from the state a list of banks in which the state deposits money.

Schools drew Thomson into politics, and his first public office was on the school board in Stony Brook, N.Y.

He continued to be active in school affairs in New Hampshire, where he moved in 1955. By 1959 he was elected to the Orford School Board but was beaten in 1962. He lost another school board election in 1964 as well as a race for the New Hampshire House.

But he won a seat to the 1964 state Constitutional Convention, where he battled for government reform. "I was known as an out-and-out liberal," he would recall.

By 1966, Thomson had become so vehemently opposed to big government that he helped persuade the Orford School Board to reject federal aid for a remedial reading program. His efforts, including a successful fight to block the closing of Orford High School, started to bring him statewide attention.

In 1968 he first sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination, trailing House Speaker Walter Peterson and former Gov. Wesley Powell. Peterson, a moderate Republican, became governor.

Undeterred, Thomson organized his followers into Taxfighters Inc., with "Ax the Tax" as their battle cry. The slogan referred to the required political sacrament in New Hampshire's gubernatorial campaigns to "take the pledge" to veto so-called "broad-based" taxes — general sales and income taxes.

In 1970, after losing the Republican primary to Peterson by about 2,000 votes, he ran as the candidate of the American Party, a third party organized by George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama.

Deserting the GOP appeared to finish Thomson's political career. But he rebounded in 1972 and seized the Republican nomination from Peterson, whom he painted as soft on taxes.

Moderate and liberal Republicans scorned Thomson and turned to Malcolm McLane, a Republican who ran as an independent. Similarly unhappy Democrats supported McLane rather than Democrat Roger Crowley, perceived as too conservative for a Democrat.

McLane and Crowley split 58 percent of the vote, and Thomson slipped by them into the first of his three two-year terms. In the irony of politics, the ultraconservative was elected by unhappy liberals.

"Thanks to McLane, I'm governor," Thomson confided to a reporter the morning after the election.

From the moment he stepped into the executive office, showing up an hour early and finding the Statehouse locked — then ordering the locks changed — political tumult trailed wherever Thomson trod, ending only when Democrat Hugh Gallen ousted him six years later.

One of Thomson's first gubernatorial acts was to have an aide search the tax records of political opponents. Despite the furor that followed, Thomson managed to get after-the-fact approval from the Republican-controlled Executive Council, which approves state contracts and appointments. When the state Supreme Court ruled the belated approval invalid, Thomson declared that he, not the court, would interpret the constitution.

Discovered making a similar foray into the files of the New England Organized Crime Intelligence System for information on New Hampshire politicians, Thomson said he simply was testing the system's security.

Thomson threatened to revoke the state charter of Franconia College because it was host to a conference on prison reform in 1973. In 1974, he accused a federal judge of endorsing "sexual perversion" when the judge declined to ban a homosexual student group at the state university.

Thomson yanked a $750 state grant from a literary magazine because he objected to a poem titled "Castrating the Cat."

When a Massachusetts driver, annoyed by Thomson's slow-moving limousine, passed the gubernatorial car and saluted with an obscene gesture, Thomson made sure the driver lost his right to drive in New Hampshire.

In 1973, Thomson vetoed a record 27 bills, including one needed for the state mental hospital to regain its lost accreditation.

When the Legislature reinstated the death penalty, Thomson said signing the bill made him feel "like John Hancock when he finished putting his signature on the Declaration of Independence."

His greatest disappointment as governor, Thomson would say, was not seeing the Seabrook nuclear power plant produce electricity during his tenure. A fervent promoter of nuclear energy, Thomson, dressed in military fatigues, swooped in by helicopter personally to order the arrest of 1,414 anti-nuclear demonstrators in Seabrook in 1977. Finished in 1986, Seabrook began operating in 1990.

One of Thomson's most unpopular moves was giving his all-out support to Aristotle Onassis when the Greek tycoon proposed but failed to build an oil refinery in Durham in 1973.

As head of Equity Publishing Co., which he sold in 1988, he published the laws of several states and territories. Thomson also used his presses to publish pamphlets on conservative issues and a book about his philosophy, drawing the book's title from the state's motto "Live Free Or Die."

During Thomson's tenure, "Live Free or Die" replaced "Scenic" on the state's license plates.

As a publisher, Thomson showed his disdain for unions, squelching an effort by The Newspaper Guild to organize the company. And when New Hampshire's Roman Catholic priests in 1975 came out in support of the United Farm Workers' boycott of Gallo wines, Thomson called a news conference at a state liquor store so he could buy the boycotted wine in front of reporters.

As the founder of the national Conservative Caucus, Thomson always wore his ideology on his sleeve, or ran it up and down the Statehouse flagpole. When events ran against his philosophical grain, he would order the flag lowered to half-staff in protest.

U.S. recognition of China, the Panama Canal treaty and the ouster of Taiwan from the Olympics were mourned by Thomson with lowered flags.

When 1960s radicals Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman spoke at the state university, Thomson not only called out the National Guard but had the student leader who invited the two arrested.

He fought constantly with state and federal governments, beating a federal attempt to place Lake Winnipesaukee under U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction. When New York came after parking and speeding ticket scofflaws in New Hampshire, he told residents to ignore the summonses.

Early in his first term, Thomson launched the "Lobster War" with Maine after a Portsmouth lobsterman was arrested in Maine waters. The controversy, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, was resolved when Maine offered assurances it would not move on New Hampshire's offshore gas and oil rights.

Thomson withstood a federal investigation in 1976 on charges that his administration had used federal funds for political ends. A former employee of the governor's energy office had said he spent 80 percent of his time performing political chores while being paid with federal money.

Thomson denounced gun control, amnesty for Vietnam war resisters, the Equal Rights Amendment for women and legal assistance for the poor.

At the state level, he issued an executive order forbidding women in state government from using the honorific Ms. He ordered state agency heads to ignore a federal equal opportunity survey of the ethnic backgrounds of state employees and list everyone as "American."

He tried to block federal money for New Hampshire Legal Assistance and demanded to know the political backgrounds of volunteers in the VISTA anti-poverty program.

Born in Wilkinsburg, Pa., the son of a Southern father and a Boston mother, Thomson grew up mostly in Georgia and Florida. His great-grandfather headed a Confederate group named Thomson's Raiders during the Civil War. Thomson attended 12 schools in 13 years in such places as Birmingham and Dallas.

He was graduated from the University of Georgia Law School in 1936 and practiced law in Florida.

He moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and got into the law publishing business. In 1938 he married his secretary, Gale Kelly, with whom he had four sons and two daughters.

Thomson established Equity Publishing in Stony Brook in 1952, moving it to Orford in 1954.

In Orford, the Thomsons lived on Mount Cube farm, a picture-postcard New England homestead. At the farm, Thomson's demeanor was the opposite of the ultraconservative world-traveled businessman and politician.

While national magazines often declared Thomson to be among best-dressed politicians, at the farm he would greet visitors in flannel shirts and boots and delight in showing off his pigs, cows, wood and manure piles and his bountiful vegetable garden.

Thomson often observed that "New Hampshire is what America was." He loved the outdoors and New Hampshires mountains and had climbed the state's tallest peaks. He cherished the role of the country squire at Mount Cube, seating his guests by the fireplace before charming them with sparkling wit and tales of political mischief.

He produced maple syrup at the farm, making Mount Cube syrup with his wife's pancakes a tradition at the official governor's residence in Concord. Several times a year the Thomsons would serve their famous breakfast to reporters, politicians and visitors.

During a testimonial 75th birthday dinner in Concord in 1987, then-U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, Thomson's state attorney general, summarized Thomson's political credo.

"If you believe it, you do it, whatever the cost. What you hold dear, you fight for," Rudman said.

Though Thomson is gone, his official portrait at the Statehouse reminds people what he stood for. In the painting, by Joseph Swan of Sanbornton, Thomson holds a bill, the first capital budget ever vetoed by a New Hampshire governor.

The background shows a plaque with one of Thomson's mottos: "Low taxes are the result of low spending," and a plaque given him by Loeb that reads, "Dont give up the ship."

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