The Final Stretch
The pace of the presidential campaign is accelerating, geometrically it seems, as election day nears . As typical for presidential elections in my life, everyone is weary of the two candidates. Many wonder how these two terribly flawed men are the best leadership that the world’s oldest democracy can produce. And the disappointment is not merely a product of campaign fatigue (although fatigue contributes to the perception), it’s also disappointment at the lost opportunity for intelligent political dialogue. Every presidential election that I remember has ended up with the weariness of disappointed expectations.
American elections of the last half century are a progression of media manipulation and increasingly empty rhetoric and character assassination . Empty rhetoric and character assassination are nothing new in our Republic but combined with mass media and increasingly sophisticated marketing tools and techniques, they have come to dominate political discourse over the past 50 years. And while, campaigns have not been wholly bereft of policy issues and proposed solutions, these important ideas receive little notice in the daily barrage of “who said what about whom and careening poll results” that leave even interested observers with glazed eyeballs and spinning heads.
This last week before the election is about the time I always feel most hopeless about American democracy. Even my preferred candidate looks worn and discredited after weeks of invective and misstatement. If I am feeling ambivalent about my choice, how can he possibly appeal to the disinterested, skeptical mass of voters? In that respect John Kerry is much like Al Gore. His long record of service to this country is minimized and parodied by the Republican disinformation network so that he is much diminished, reduced to a par with George W. Bush who has that magical likability that gives him a pass on matters of accomplishment. That’s why the race is a dead heat.
This idea that we are always voting the lesser of two evils is pernicious. John Kerry is evil only insofar as he is a conventional, corporate politician. But I believe that he has a strong sense of service to this nation. That sense will steer him through the difficult passages of the presidency. In the few moments devoted to describing his vision of American, John Kerry has presented a vision of a humane America that pursues its interests as a member of the international community. George Bush, on the other hand, is evil to my mind. He is a corporate shill who has no sense of duty to this nation. I’ve seen no commitment to the public in his short tenure as governor and president. Instead, he pursues policies that impoverish future generations, enrich his friends and wreck havoc in the world while doing little to protect Americans. He has squandered the goodwill of the world that was so evident after 9-11 and created an America that is feared and hated around the world. When it comes down to it, this election IS a choice between Flawed but Good and Evil.
My first presidential election was this same kind of choice. 1972, McGovern against Nixon. I thought Nixon was evil. He had not only failed to end the war in Vietnam despite the “”secret plan” he promised in 1968, he also extended the carnage with no real end in sight. The choice was pretty clear to me as a newly returned Vietnam vet. I proudly wore my “Veteran for McGovern” button and watched with dismay as this genuine war hero was derided and parodied as a bumbling, liberal do-gooder. Nixon was Evil to me but most voters did not see it that way and re-elected him by a landslide.
Much about Nixon was evil. He violated civil liberties, made overt appeals to racists and tied himself in the public eye to the traditional American values he ignored in his day to day governance. Meanwhile, his vice-president slandered honest opponents with invective even as he collected bribes in his office. But it took George W. Bush to refine evil, both in his electoral tactics and his administration. Nixon succeeded, at least for a while, because he also appealed to American aspirations for a cleaner environment and eliminating patently unsafe products from the marketplace. He signed numerous consumer and environmental protection laws that Bush would never sign, if they ever survived the corporate charnel house that is the US Congress. In retrospect, Nixon seems considerably better when viewed next to Bush.
While Americans bemoan their unappealing choices for president, I will happily vote for John Kerry. Not perfect. In fact, he is all too human. His humanity is what appeals to me. It’s something Bush will never have or understand.