Jewish World Review August 28, 2000 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5760
Who will make your life better by August of 2004?
THERE IS A SWEET SUSPENSION of disbelief -- an uncharacteristic public
innocence -- that visits our country every four years. Now is the time for
that visit, and it is one that is seldom commented upon.
It has to do with the oft-stated national conviction that the election of
one person for president will change hundreds of millions of individual lives.
That is the underlying current behind every presidential campaign -- that the
identity of the victor will have an effect that is quite personal to each
American. That a life -- your life -- will be changed, depending on which
That is why, almost every presidential year, one party raises the question:
"Ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The party
asking the question is always the one with a vested interest in the assumed
answer -- it's one of those questions you don't ask without knowing what the
response is going to be.
But the conceit behind it -- and here is where the sweet suspension of
disbelief comes in -- is that your life -- you, you as an island, you as one
face in the mirror. ...
The presumption is that your life is profoundly affected by the identity of
the person in the White House. That your life is made better or is made worse,
depending on who wins.
It's seldom so. Make a list of the people who affect your life.
There's your family. Your friends. Your boss. Your co-workers. The lady at
the lunch counter who makes your sandwich, and puts an extra slice of tomato
on it because she knows you like it. The bus driver who always arrives on
time, even in the rain, and the neighbor who plays his music maddeningly loud
after midnight, and the ambitious fellow at the office who wants a promotion
and plans to get it by climbing over you, and the person on the street who
makes your day brighter with an unexpected smile, and the other person around
the next corner who makes your day more unpleasant with his incessant
foul-mouthed barks into his cell phone. ...
No attempt to be facetious here. This is simply pointing out that which is
There are a lot of people in the world who affect your life in ways that
you can feel. The president is usually not one of them.
There are big exceptions. Warfare. Economic depression.
But even those are often not affected as directly by a president as the
history books assume. Most wars are started by other people -- and while a
president's decisions in waging war are of such importance that mere words do
not give justice to the gravity of the task, the soldiers who come through
warfare seldom, in the years that follow, speak about the commander in chief.
Their lives were touched by the people around them -- the people they could
The same with economic troubles. What happens to the economy during a
president's watch has an undeniable effect on the citizens of the country --
but when things get very bad, the president and his advisers can seem as
powerless as the rest of us. We sense that forces far from Pennsylvania Avenue
in our nation's capital are in control -- and that it is up to us to hold on,
to do our best, until the inevitable swing back occurs. Franklin Delano
Roosevelt notwithstanding, most presidents seem more a captive of the economy
than its master.
So, four years from now, will your life be different, depending on whether
Al Gore or George W. Bush is elected president?
You can probably find the answer to that by asking yourself the same
question retroactively -- by asking yourself if your life is better or worse
today than it was four years ago, in August of 1996, because of the fact that
Bill Clinton went on to defeat Bob Dole that fall.
Your life may be better; your life may be worse. Your life may be just
about the same.
But it's a pretty good bet that -- unless you work on the White House
staff, or for a branch of the government that is altered by which party is in
power -- the people and things that helped or hindered your life in the last
four years have little to do with who won the election in November of '96 --
and that, by this time in the year 2004, the good and bad things that have
happened to your life will have little relation to the results of the contest
between Gore and Bush.
The sweetness of all this is that we choose to try to believe otherwise.
Always have; always will. It's one of our more attractive
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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