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Jewish World Review
July 8, 2008
/ 5 Tamuz 5768
A willful blindness
It's a time-honored ritual: The once bitter rivals come together and smile broadly for the cheering crowd. They're the very picture of unity. And maybe only the picture.
It's Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams making their gentleman's agreement in the election of 1824 ("You be president, I'll be secretary of state") although the Jacksonians preferred to call it their Corrupt Bargain.
It's Kennedy-Johnson in 1960. Why let a little difference in age, ideas, backgrounds and lots more get in the way of political victory?
It's Dwight Eisenhower and Robert A. Taft meeting at Morningside Heights in 1952 to bring a riven party together.
Now it's Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama acting like soulmates as they join forces in unity at Unity, N.H. Wouldn't you like to know what was going on in their minds as Dragon Lady and St. Barack made nice? On second thought, better we shouldn't know. A stable society requires public manners and private thoughts.
This year's presidential campaign, however weary of it we may already be, is only beginning, like some placid little stream winding its way through Minnesota before it gradually swells into the Mighty Mississip that can take out whole cities downstream when it reaches flood stage.
Alexis de Tocqueville a French visitor who had our number in the 1830s, and whose classic study may still be the best guide to Democracy in America compared an American presidential election to a great flood:
"For a long time before the appointed hour has come, the election becomes the important and the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated. ... As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement; the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present. Then, as soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled, calm returns, and the river that had been out of its banks returns to its usual level...."
That's a free translation, but it captures the spirit of M. de Tocqueville's psychoanalysis of an American presidential campaign. How little things have changed since the Jacksonians and Whigs were vying for power and pelf in the 1830s. They could be Democrats and Republicans today. What a remarkably continuous history we Americans have. (Never mind that unpleasantness back in 1861-65.)
Historians still cite the bitter election of 1800 (Adams vs. Jefferson) as a milestone of discord, but we tend to forget that, for all its ill temper, 1800 may have been the first time in Western history that political power was peacefully transferred from one faction to another by the ballot box. In 1876, the politicians had to strike another grand/corrupt bargain. By 2000, that function had devolved on the U.S. Supreme Court. But we held together. Somehow.
As our grand national fit comes over us again, I know I'll grow as passionate about the contest as anybody else. It happens every four years. When the fever hits, I'll have to go back and read Tocqueville's words about the rise and fall of the floodwaters. And realize that this, too, will pass.
The best guidance I know along these lines comes from another book, the "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius. Being a Roman emperor, and therefore constantly urged to do this or do that, or maybe everything or nothing at all, by anybody and everybody who could to get his imperial ear, the emperor adopted a simple rule that might come in handy election years. Or any time.
"Whatever is being said," Marcus Aurelius advised, "ask yourself: Why is this man saying this thing? What is his motive? But begin with yourself and examine your own motives first."
I really should copy that counsel and tape it to the wall right above my computer screen. Where I'll be sure to see it when zeal strikes. As it will.
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