Monday, November 01, 2004

Heading for Closure

This long, bloody political trench warfare called a presidential election finally comes to a close this week, one would hope. And I find it endlessly interesting and satisfying that so much of it will culminate right here in my backyard. Kerry holds an evening vigil rally tonight in downtown Cleveland (I plan to be on hand, with whomever of my nuclear family I can talk into coming along to witness some history), and just a few miles away First Lady Laura Bush is due to appear as well.

Here, in this struggling, morale-challenged corner of the American Rust Belt (a very '80s elocution that's unfortunately has some claim to being revived), where a recent #1 civic poverty ranking threatens to derail all the municipal image-boosting efforts of the last 30 years, much of the world will be watching closely to what happens. And I really do mean the world. During this election cycle, some serious commentators in other countries have begun suggesting that, since the American president in the 21st century often has more power over the lives of their fellow countrymen than their own nation's leader does, perhaps the entire world should get some kind of say in the matter of who sits in the White House. They have a point, however unworkable the electoral details might be.

If you've been too immersed in all the cable-TV chatter and the endless rounds of competing polls that so confidently pretend to a kind of scientific precision, just remember this salient fact: today's election-eve final NY Times/CBS poll calls it a statistical dead heat; the same election-eve poll four years ago called it a six-point margin for Bush, who actually lost to Gore in the popular vote. Try to forget the polls, my friends. They're an increasingly less accurate snapshot of reality, for a number of reasons you've probably been hearing and reading about.

Instead, amid all the coverage I see and read in the media and especially all the anecdotal experience I see and hear all around me--including a pitched verbal battle between Democratic and Republican Jews at my favorite breakfast spot only this morning--I sense a classic American awakening, not unlike that slow societal rousting we experienced in the 1940s, after we were attacked. Since 9/11, we have indeed been attacked. But it's not the foreign terrorists that so much concern me. Instead, it's this Bush-Cheney-Rove crowd of savvy disinformation specialists that has attacked our democracy and its very underpinnings with the kind of ferocious demagogic assault that will one day land them black eyes in the history books.

Just as in the '30s, our democratic institutions were slow to respond to those attacks, at least initially. The Congress got stampeded into very nearly repealing the Bill of Rights with near-unanimity. Much of, indeed most of, the media went along at first. All of this went contrary to everything we thought we knew about American democracy and its uniquely inspired series of checks and balances. But someone always seems to step up in this democracy which is now nearing one-quarter of a millenium. In the end, it was liberty-loving groups such as librarians--those often-lampooned ladies who shoosh you for talking too loudly--who had the brass balls that others lacked to resist the Patriot Act. Contrary to their caricature, they emboldened us all to speak up on behalf of protecting our rights.

It's a measure of how extreme and wide-ranging the Bush administration's sins have been that so many of its individual calumnies--which in themselves would otherwise merit so much citizen outrage--have been lost in the larger outrageousness. It seems almost unthinkable that the Abu Ghraib prison abuse episode, for instance, could go nearly unmentioned in this campaign. After all, it has injured perhaps for decades America's reputation for justice, the source of so much of America's vaunted "soft power" (the power of its founding ideals to move hearts and minds around the world and to give us the benefit of the doubt). And yet it just seems like one more count in an indictment overflowing with almost equally appalling outrages.

I won't bore you by recounting all of those individual sins and outrages. You know what I'm talking about. What binds them together is a kind of presidential arrogance that's begun to seem Napoleonic, and that may well be unprecedented in American history. It was perhaps best summed up by what Bush told Bob Woodward in his book Bush at War: "I do not need to explain why I say things—That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." Has there ever been a better summation of the Bush II governing ethos, or a philosophy more at odds with the concept envisioned by the Founding Fathers? And Machiavelli himself could learn something from the vicious, unprincipaled Karl Rove, who, as this profile brilliantly explains, tends to win most campaigns because there is almost nothing he won't do.

Because the incumbent administration went about so much of its work in ways that defied any historical precedent, they have given rise to some unprecedented responses. In its fabled 80-year history, the New Yorker magazine had never published a presidential endorsement. This year it decided to do just that, launching a powerful and eloquent volley at the Bush White House, calling for "America's mainstream restoration," a vote for Kerry.

Anyway, what I've been trying to say is this: I'm optimistic that on Tuesday, that classic American common sense and rough brand of justice and goodness will return, as it periodically does when storm clouds gather on our horizon. And that we will rise up and sweep away these arrogant, foolhardy people who have briefly hijacked our history. And that we will return to our levers of power a group of people who--while perhaps not the brightest or the boldest, maybe not the wisest or the warmest that America has to offer--are nevertheless at least far more in keeping with our national traditions and our proudly democratic temperment. May the Massachusetts sailor and windsurfer maneuver us back to the sensible center, and set a course more in keeping with our heritage as a people who are tempermentally unable to fear the future for more than brief, jittery moments. We've been a nation full of brass-balled folks for far too long to think about changing now.


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