Monday, October 25, 2004

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.

Electoral Nirvana

With Election Day just over a week away, I have reached a Zen state of mind about the outcome. I call it my survival strategy for living with the final results. Both alternatives offer opportunity and risk and, while I very much want to see John Kerry win, a Kerry loss will not be the end of the world. George W. Bush, in a second term, is likely to discredit his ideas and the Republican Party for years to come, a latter day Herbert Hoover, if you will. The disastrous results of his military adventurism and fiscal irresponsibility are only now becoming painfully obvious (the latest: 380 tons of very high explosives gone missing in Iraq right under America’s nose) but, lost in the presidential campaigns’s intense, final days, their import will not be noticed in time to affect Bush’s re-election prospects. Those results will, however, haunt a second term as the administration attempts to control an increasingly difficult military situation and economic chaos. It won’t be pretty but it may well destroy Bush and his neo-conservative ideologues.

These same circumstances could also destroy President Kerry. If he wins, he must perform and, for all his talk of “better plans”, those plans are only good if they address reality, which is often obscure and constantly changing. Kerry will need to be strong and forceful in order to extricate the US from its Mid-East quagmire. He will have a hostile Congress and the screeching heads of the Republican disinformation network challenging him at all turns. A Kerry victory on November 2nd (or whenever this election is settled) comes with some real risk. But it also offers opportunities for a more responsible government, better judges and economic policies that support and assist average Americans. As much as I want to see Bush go down in flames, I am not willing to deny my nation the benefits of better government, so I can live with a Kerry victory.

Reaching this Zen state comes at just the right time for me. The election is too close to call. Absent some major gaffe or event, the polls will continue to see-saw. Today’s lead will evaporate tomorrow only to return the following data. Never before have I had some much data available to me. I can find poll results, electoral vote talllies, predictions, trends, war chest balances, every thing but certainty. None of the data mean much anymore other than to say, “you can’t tell”. So, it’s best to be prepared for either outcome and hold on for the ride. I’ve already voted, so all that’s left to me is volunteer work, phoning, canvassing and whatever else the Arizona campaign needs in its final days. It’s actually fun at this point. I have a project, a goal and a deadline. I get to meet and talk to people and I am a small part of history. If we carry Arizona for Kerry, I am sure he will be elected president, so my efforts could well make a difference.

The Washington Post reports today on anxiety disorder (PEAD) that terrorizes supporters of both candidates. They simply cannot abide the idea that the Other will win. All they can see is chaos and destruction in their opponent’s victory. The possibility that the outcome may not be decided until after November 2nd terrorizes them further. I hope they can come to terms with their fears. I have. There are only a few things I can do to affect the outcome and I’m already doing them. I’m not going to stress myself about things I cannot control.

For perspective, I have Vietnam. I survived combat. I can surely endure the remaining days of this campaign and whatever it brings. The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail had it right. After losing his arm to Arthur’s sword, he said, “I’ve seen worse.” So have I. And like all horrors, this, too, shall pass.