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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2000 / 21 Kislev, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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After the storm -- WHEN A SPRING STORM begins to gather over the Great Plains, it's as if all the chess pieces for a gigantic endgame are slowly being moved into ominous place. The sun hides its face, the skies grow dark, the clouds assemble terrible as an army with banners. Dogs scurry and the cattle huddle as the wind mounts and the few trees on the prairie wave their branches in surrender.

Then, with the first pelts of rain, the lightning-shattered darkness descends on the face of the land. Dry creek beds become flash floods, rivers leave their banks, gully-washers and frog-stranglers cleanse the cities, topsoil washes away, the newly planted crop is gone.

But the greatest change is within; all is sodden there, too. In the mind the storm has a permanence about it; one cannot imagine anything else. It goes on.

And then, as majestically as it came, the great storm is gone. People wander out without slickers, wading in the mud, getting back to work under the novel warmth of the sun. The cycle has been completed.

An early and acute observer of this Republic described a presidential election on these shores as a regularly scheduled national crisis (''the whole nation glows with feverish excitement'') that abates as mysteriously as it came (''calm returns, and the river, which had nearly left its banks, sinks to its usual level'').

Only two things about our presidential elections puzzled Alexis de Tocqueville: why they should so excite us, and why they should so calm us.

The answer is: That is our cycle. Much like the dramatic rhythms of nature on this awe-inspiring continent. When Americans divide, we divide. When Americans unite, we unite. And the whole experience is meant to be as natural, as clarifying, and as renewing as a great storm followed by a great peace. We come once again to see what we always had. And possibilities shine once again.

This year the country had not one but two presidential elections, one at the polls and one in the courts. The first ended an aeon ago. (An aeon, we now have learned, lasts precisely 36 days.) And then, Wednesday blessed night, our long national turbulence was over. There had just been a longer pause than usual between the storm and its end. And our flag was still there.

Having been given the finest of introductions an hour earlier by Al Gore, George W. Bush took the rostrum at the Texas state house with all symbols in place. He was presented by the Democratic speaker of that state's Democratic house. He quoted Lincoln, as any good Republican should, but the president-elect-at-last wisely took his text from the founding father of the Democratic Party.

It was Thomas Jefferson who, after another and even more divisive election, took office with the reminder: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.'' The names of the parties have changed since, but not the spirit that must attend every contest, like the renewal that follows every storm.

Honest differences honestly expressed, if for too long, now can give way to a new Era of Good Feelings, if we will let it dawn. That hope ran through every sentence of the next president's first address to the nation:

"Republicans want the best for our nation. And so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes.

"I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation. The president of the United States is the president of every single American, of every race and background. Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests, and I will work to earn your respect.''

George W. Bush comes into office on little cat feet, and needs to. His was a tone less victorious than chastened, and it needed to be. An American election not only elevates, it should humble.

In a way, both candidates delivered concessions this year. That is not a bad thing. Concession speeches have always been more revealing than claims of victory. Anybody can celebrate victory; it takes character to make a great concession.

(A note for future reference: Why not run presidential campaigns backward? Have each candidate record a concession speech before the race begins. It might lend perspective before the curtains open and all the sturm und drang descends in our quadrennial national opera.)

As the president-elect spoke about "common ground, common courtesy and common goals,'' one realized that, for the first time in 36 days, issues were being discussed, not just who would decide them. And one realized anew that no great issues separated these two candidates, at least in the perspective of American history. This had not been Lincoln-Douglas in 1860 (thank God) or even Reagan-Carter in 1980.

The goals George W. Bush mentioned, Al Gore could have, and did, during his campaign:

"Together, we will work to make all our public schools excellent, teaching every student of every background and every accent, so that no child is left behind.

"Together, we will save Social Security and renew its promise of a secure retirement for generations to come.

"Together, we will strengthen Medicare and offer prescription drug coverage to all of our seniors.

"Together, we will give Americans the broad, fair and fiscally responsible tax relief they deserve.

"Together, we'll have a bipartisan foreign policy true to our values and true to our friends. And we will have a military equal to every challenge and superior to every adversary ... .''

The devil will be in the details -- and the egos. But there is nothing on either candidate's wish list for the country that Americans cannot accomplish together.

First on the country's list, because the campaign must precede the administration, would be better, clearer elections. Let's clean up all this chad, make voting hours uniform from coast to coast, and finance the quickest and most reliable voting systems in every state. Let's put this behind us.

This election should have taught not just the candidates a little humility, but The World's Greatest Democracy. We need to re-earn that title. Together we can. To paraphrase Mr. Jefferson, we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans. The storm is passed, and it is time to get to work.

For his part, Al Gore was more than gracious. His was a classic concession, one that will be shown to future generations alongside Adlai Stevenson's in 1952.

The vice president did everything right, especially the touches of humor at the beginning and end: "Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States, and I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time ... . And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go.''

Best of all, throughout his address Al Gore touched the mystic chords of memory, national and filial, and brought us together again. All wish him well. The only small problem with his exemplary speech was that it came 36 days late.

"There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/ Omitted, all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and miseries.'' Who would have guessed it would be a low tide Al Gore missed 36 days ago? But he has taken it now, and one suspects that, in his political saga, this is not The End but only an intermission.

Both these gentlemen proved themselves gentlemen Wednesday night. And patriots. Across the country, storms still raged as they spoke. But the morning after, the sun was shining on the Potomac.

Let us not waste it.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate