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by Julia Sneden

It seems like an eon since the first of this year’s primary elections was held in Iowa last January. We are now entering the final weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, and it will probably seem like yet another eon before we get to Election Day on November 2.

Attacks and counterattacks, accusations and explanations, promises and predictions will be invading our living rooms (and bedrooms and kitchens and even our automobiles, along with any possible public spaces like billboards and telephone poles). Some of us will be so caught up in the furor that we’ll fall into the “us/them” mentality that causes rifts in friendships and families. Some of us will find our passions and patriotism making large inroads on our time and pocketbooks. Some of us will be crying: “enough, already!” and angrily switching from the evening news to the movie or sports channels. Some of us will volunteer to drive the poor or elderly to the polls; some of us will volunteer to help at the voting sites; some of us will be too lazy or too turned off to vote, let alone volunteer for anything.

Welcome to America. Our peculiar system stirs us up with predictable regularity. Why did the founding fathers choose a four-year term for the presidency? Benjamin Franklin thought it altogether too short a period to enable the incumbent to achieve anything substantial. Modern pundits have pointed out that our presidents spend the first year after their initial election appointing aides, adjusting to Washington, and learning the job. They have a working period of about a year and a half before they must start running for a second term. Oddly enough, this schedule seems to work. The government grinds on despite its administrator’s distractions, and certainly the swiftness of the four-year recurrence keeps the public caught up in the process of deciding who will govern. Maybe the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing after all.

It’s tempting to groan about the trash and flash associated with election years, and it’s tempting to think that each campaign is worse than the one before it. We imagine that today’s issues are more complex than the ones facing our ancestors, and that the country has never been more divided. A quick look at the past is instructive.

Do you think that the election of 2000, when the Supreme Court had to intervene, was the most divisive ever? How about the election of 1796, when we wound up with the Federalist John Adams as president, and his opponent, the Democrat-Republican Thomas Jefferson, as vice president? And if you think we have attack ads today, several accounts of that 1796 election note that the editorials of the day were plenty vicious about Mr. Jefferson, claiming that a victory by his party would ensure “the teaching of murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest.” While there have always been questions about the probity of Mr. Jefferson himself, history doesn’t record any massive immorality stemming from the election of the vice president, despite the predictions.

Or consider Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860. The country was divided by the debate for or against slavery, and that year there were four candidates to consider. Lincoln was the Republican choice, and Stephen Douglas ran as a Northern Democrat. The South had split from the Democratic Party and formed the Southern Democratic Party with John Breckinridge of Kentucky as its candidate, and in retaliation, the border states formed the Whig party, whose candidate was John C. Bell. Bell took the states of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, and Breckinridge won all the rest of the south (slave) states except for Missouri, which went for Douglas. While Lincoln received only 39% of the popular vote, he won a clear majority of the electoral vote thanks to his political savvy, savvy echoed in the campaigns of both President Bush and Mr. Kerry, who are concentrating on several “key states.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was among the first to realize the power of a different kind of campaign. Public appearances and newspaper coverage had always been the heart of presidential campaigns, but the growth of radio lent wider coverage, and an immediacy that Roosevelt put to good use. President Hoover had planned to stay in the While House, keeping his nose to the grindstone during the contest, but Roosevelt’s aggressive ads forced Hoover out on the campaign trail. President Hoover fought back, depicting Roosevelt as an extremist who would bring the country to ruin, but this defensive tactic actually worked against him. Roosevelt’s positive vision of a different future sounded mighty good to people suffering from the Great Depression, and he won by a landslide.

A few weeks ago, Tam Gray, who runs this site, put up a link to a site that plays commercials that aired on television in every election since 1952. It’s amazing to find that in ’52, Dwight D. Eisenhower was talking about the high cost of living (this when hamburger cost 25¢/lb? Of course salaries were concomitantly lower, too).

In 1956 Adlai Stevenson’s speeches for “a new America” spoke the disgrace of jobs being closed to women, to people of color, to those who had been denied a good education, words that have been echoed in virtually every election since then.

In 1956, Estes Kefauver challenged President Eisenhower’s ’52 stand on the cost of living, calling Ike’s claim that the Republicans could fix the problem “another broken promise,” since the cost of living had risen to the highest level on record. Seeing the ads for ’52 and ’56, I can’t help thinking of them as precursors to Ronald Reagan’s “Ask yourself if you’re better off now than you were four years ago.”

It’s instructive to look back at those earlier times. We tend to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and better informed than our ancestors, but it seems to me that as the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Back in 2000, after that bitter election, I wrote a silly poem (After the Fight Was Over (With Apologies to Clement Moore) about the night before Christmas in the Vice President’s mansion. I thought I was being fairly evenhanded in my satire, but soon after the piece appeared on the site, I received a scorching letter from a man who didn’t like what he perceived to be my politics. I thanked him for his letter, but noted that as far as I knew, this country still had a secret ballot, and I didn’t feel I needed to discuss my vote with him. He shot back, telling me that he knew very well where I stood. Not one week later, a woman wrote to excoriate me for being disrespectful of the other party. I can take the heat, but I’m ever more grateful for the secret ballot. I cannot imagine a true democracy without it.

America is much more than the sum of its political parties. We are at once hardier and more reasonable than we seem to be in an election year. Four years from now, when we’re again plunged into talk about red states and blue states, when we hear speeches full of slogans and cant and rigid labels like liberal and conservative, it may serve us well to remember that the things that divide us are not nearly as strong as the things that unite us. Election campaigns are necessary, but they’re a pain in the neck. They present a wildly inaccurate picture of our country to the rest of the world, and they don’t come anywhere near to telling the tale of America, except as living proof that in the land of the free, people can get away with all sorts of foolishness.


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