March 26, 1979 12:00 PM

One of the quirks of the U.S. presidential primary system is the sudden importance every four years of New Hampshire as the key first crucible. It would be a charming, nostalgic interlude except for the simultaneous reemergence from regional obscurity of that other throwback, the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, with its scabrous vilification of candidates opposed by publisher William Loeb, 73. The attacks, often in the form of signed front-page editorials, have practically finished off front-runners, such as Ed Muskie in 1972 after Loeb accused his wife of heavy drinking. Although he is a granitic archconservative, Loeb doesn’t always draw partisan distinctions in his targets. Over the years he has in print labeled Dwight Eisenhower “a stinking hypocrite,” Eugene McCarthy “a skunk’s skunk” and John F. Kennedy “the No. 1 liar in the U.S.A.”

This month, with the state’s primary less than a year away, Loeb has drawn a bead on Republican candidate Philip Crane, an Illinois congressman whose political stance is, if anything, to the right of the Union Leader. But Crane made the mistake of challenging Ronald Reagan, who is Bill Loeb’s conservative choice for 1980.

Earlier this month the newspaper printed below-the-belt columns alleging heavy drinking and sexual hanky-panky by Crane and his wife, Arlene, quoting nameless sources. “For God’s sake, the guy [Crane] once told a friend he was committed in this life to bedding down 1,000 different women,” went one unattributed quote. Another, also anonymous, faulted the congressman’s attendance record on Capitol Hill, “because he was an inveterate partygoer with an enormous capacity for alcohol.”

Crane, who was campaigning in the state with his wife and eight children, addressed the 400-member New Hampshire house of representatives, indignantly denying the charges and accusing Reagan aides of feeding the stories to the Union Leader. In a unanimous resolution, the house apologized for the “scandalous attack” by its only statewide daily. Reagan, however, responding frostily to a letter from Crane, announced that “none of my staff is any way responsible.”

The man who started the lurid fuss was far from the tumult, on his 100-acre, ocean-front estate at Prides Crossing, Mass., 30 miles north of Boston. He has no regrets about the Reagan-Crane fracas. “I hate hypocrites,” Loeb says. “Crane stayed overnight at my house last spring. Here in the house he was the ail-American boy. He didn’t even have a cocktail. But, believe me, someone could patent his capacity for drinking. Later I sent my best investigative reporter to look into reports of Crane’s drinking and playboy ways. He hit 40 people. Of course you have to be skeptical, but 40 people can’t all be liars.” (Yet PEOPLE checked several knowledgeable Washingtonians, who dismissed categorically all insinuations that the Methodist Cranes were either sexual swingers or problem drinkers. The worst anyone said was that Arlene Crane was a rather racy talker.)

Bill Loeb has been stirring up tempests ever since he bought the Union Leader in 1946, with the help of a loan from his mother, who later sued him unsuccessfully for defaulting. (“She was dominated by my ex-wife and lawyers,” he explains. “She was becoming more and more senile at the time.”)

The ex-wife was his second, and Loeb was himself once jailed for a night on charges (by her husband) of alienating the affections of his present and third wife, Nackey. Still, he labeled Nelson Rockefeller a “wife swapper” in 1964. Says Loeb: “I make no claim to excessive virtue, but I had to get Rockefeller out of the picture. It was important that Goldwater win.”

Loeb rarely appears at the Union Leader. Each day one of his four secretaries comes from Manchester to work with him on the mail in his sumptuous office and to courier back as many as 150 terse memos to his staff. The sulfurous editorials are dictated over the telephone. Loeb and Nackey, 55, a Scripps-Howard heiress, used to spend much of the year on their Nevada ranch, but since she was paralyzed in a 1977 Jeep accident they almost never socialize or stir from Prides Crossing.

The son of William Loeb, Teddy Roosevelt’s private secretary (and later a wealthy, social-registered mining executive), Bill grew up in Washington and Oyster Bay, L.I. He went to impeccable schools (Hotchkiss, Williams, Harvard Law) before becoming a Hearst reporter. T.R., who was Bill’s godfather, remains his idol. “If we could bring modern medicine and some labor laws along,” Loeb reflects, “I’d go back to that refreshing period.” Indeed, the Rough Rider image is still with him as another primary nears. Bill Loeb warns the world: “I want to die with my boots on.”

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