Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Story of the Election

By Mitchell

The Democrats had won a decisive majority in the midterm elections, and after eight years of Republican rule, they sensed that their time had come.

The Republicans sensed it as well, as as the economy continued to stagnate toward a recession, they reacted accordingly, throwing most of their principles out the window. "Fiscal conservatism appeared merely gauche among Republicans desperte to retain power," the reporter wrote. The lame-duck president was, politically, "out of step," it was said, and Republican candidates maintained their distance. In "a city crammed with yes men and sychphants, no one . . . extended a word of support."

The Republican candidate won his party's nomination easily, but he was never truly accepted by a significant number of his party's faithful, and "even those most favorably disposed to him possessed their doubts." Both the conservative and moderate wings of the party harbored uncertainties. "The Right should have listened better," the same reporter wrote, for the candidate "never painted himself as a conservative." Rather, he was an internationalist, a progressive. He was also an enemy of the press, who took every advantage to highlight his faults and missteps, even when they hadn't really occurred, and contrasted them with the glowing achievements of his Democratic opponent. In the end, however, all would agree on one thing - that the Republican candidate had run a very poor campaign in the fall.

For all of the optimistic signs, however, the Democrats too were concerned. The nominating battle had been a bruising one, raising more than one hackle among committed supporters. And then there was the lingering uncertainty over the wisdom of the outcome. "[T]he Democrats" another reporter noted "were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate." In the end, though, it proved enough to win the nomination. "Charm could carry one only so far," but "it might yet carry one all the way."

The election was charged with historic external elements as well. "If I criticize anything he's doing," a candidate said of his opponent, "I'm supposed to be a bigot." And there was much to criticize, including rumors of fraud in voter registration. Money was reported to be changing hands as well - a lot of money. As for the bigotry, nobody was really certain how much of an issue it was, except for one thing: that the candidate himself, in ways both overt and subtle, made sure everyone knew about it, and he displayed a remarkable facility for portraying himself as a victim without suffering the weaknesses that often went with the label. The voters would not, could not, forget about the issue - not because it was important to them, but because it seemed so very important to the candidate and his supporters.

As we stand two weeks from election day, it seems as if we still have one chapter left to write, and though everyone thinks they know how it will end, the voting machines will tell the final story, honestly or otherwise.

However, the last chapter has in fact already been written, and for nearly fifty years we have known how it came out. For the story you have been reading, the story of the election, was not of this election, but that of 1960. The Republican about whom the conservatives harbored such doubts, the candidate who ran such a poor campaign and yet nearly pulled it off, was Richard Nixon. The movie-star Democrat - with "an undistinguished record (save for absenteeism)," who was described with words such as "[p]hotogenic, charismatic, charming, bright" - was John Kennedy. It was Hubert Humphrey, a man who probably didn't have a bigoted bone in his body, who was constantly having to deal with the onus of running (in the primaries) against JFK, the man trying to become the first Catholic president, and the Kennedy clan made sure that religion played an important role, even to voters who didn't particularly care about it.

The quotes all come from David Pietrusza's fascinating new book, 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon. It would be trite to simply say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It would be true, although only slightly less trite, to point out how often history repeats itself. However, it does bear repeating that the election of 1960, which was supposed to usher in a new generation of politics, was in fact the beginning of a great deal of misery and tragedy for this country, much of which we continue to deal with today.

Will the election of 2008 be the precursor of a similar future? Regardless of how the vote turns out, no matter who wins, we can only hope that the answer this time will be different.

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