Politics & Policy

Not the Best of Times, but Hardly the Worst

Perspective, perspective, perspective.

Three conversations on Election Eve:

One: A friend recounts a traumatic childhood event, prompting me to say something like, “Oh, that must have been horrible.”

“No,” he says. “Horrible was Auschwitz. What those children experienced was horrible.”

#ad#Two: Mary Ann Lindley, another friend, colleague and editorial page editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, tells me she’s just finished rereading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“On a single day in France, 52 heads rolled at the guillotine — numbed, accused innocents, impoverished, starved, beyond hope,” she writes in an e-mail. “They went to their death in the bloodiest of ways, some of them nevertheless saying that the sacrifice was worth it if it meant a France that would one day recognize a more generous definition of human dignity.”

Three: Blake, an African-American artist, is giddy with excitement as we discuss the presidential race. He is thrilled that his 99-year-old grandmother is alive to vote for Barack Obama.

Still sharp and active, she’s seen a thing or two in her lifetime.

From segregated movie theaters and “colored” water fountains — through bloody marches, hoses and dogs — to a moment when a black man could be president of the United States, she is among many who can’t quite believe what’s happening.

Perspective, perspective, perspective.

Or, as Lindley put it, “What a cupcake of an election.”

We Americans are so spoiled. Well-fed and -medicated, our biggest problem is that we can have everything. For the past decade, credit has been easy; tract mansions possible and new cars a staple. Mortgages were, almost literally, a dime a dozen.

#page#Granted, not everyone got to play “Monopoly,” but our hardships are relatively benign compared to what a majority of the world’s people suffer. And, obviously, one needn’t go to the extreme of conjuring gas chambers, guillotines and terrorists in white robes to understand that times have been worse.

But it helps on a day like today, when half the nation is angry and disappointed, that we are still the luckiest people on Earth. And this is still the greatest nation ever conceived by man.

#ad#Not by accident do these happy tidings endure.

We arrived at this historic moment through the sacrifices (and blood) of those who preceded us. Barack Obama’s ascendancy is testament to the audacity of the American dream — as well as to the enormous sufferings of men such as John McCain.

Though our political philosophies differ — and our dreams may be postponed — we have reason to be boastful today. Two men of extraordinary talents clashed not in the battlefield of strap-on bombs, but in the civilized arena of ideas.

We will survive this shifting of the guard. No one will draw a weapon on the Truman Balcony. No one will be kidnapped or beheaded as we slog through the difficult days ahead of necessary restraint. The rest of the world will continue to judge us at times harshly, while granting begrudging respect mingled with envy.


This too-long election season — combined with the relentless flow of information and analysis — has convinced us that This Is The Most Important Election Ever. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for; the tides tremble in anticipation; the planets applaud; stars wink “gotcha” across the constellations.

We are so special.

Well, yes, we are, though we might try to remember why. It’s not because we’re going to change the world, because we won’t. It’s also not because the next four years will be more momentous than others, because they won’t be.

We are special because we keep trying to get it right, and because our founding fathers made it possible to do so without violence.

Oh, sure, we have the random riot, the occasional bell tower loony.

Our history provides ample justification for shame and self-recrimination. But America’s essential good nature, contagious to all who arrive here, prevails even in the darkest times.

In fact, this election, though unique in ways by now familiar, was only another in a series. Others have been more important than this one; other political skirmishes have been far dirtier and the stakes higher than now. As for all that hope and change we’ve been promised, well, they’re not so new either. Rather they are eternal and central to the experiment we call America.

Viewed in perspective, it’s a pretty good gig, really. A cupcake.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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