BALLOTS vs. HATE Democracy: It looks quite dreary in this election, but you have to have seen the alternatives to appreciated it.

November 03, 1996|By Hans Knight

Mark Russell, my favorite singing satirist, had a good line about the impending elections. One thing is certain, he said -- "One of them is going to win, but cheer up -- one of them is going to lose."

Of course, I couldn't help chuckling. This one is hardly Abe Lincoln vs. Franklin Roosevelt. And although I came to this country as an (entirely legal) immigrant 48 years ago, I have long since metamorphosed into a true-blue American.

Thus, I patriotically shoot off my mouth about the flaws of my adoptive home with a fervor rivaling the jaundiced pundits who get paid for it.

And yet a weird thing happens to my psyche at election time. Show me a voting boot and I get this absurd urge to salute the nearest U.S. flag.

I have even been known to whistle a few bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner," ever so softly.

I can't quite fathom this sudden, jingoistic frenzy, but I have some clues.

Way back, I happened to live in a beautiful little town in Austria called Moedling. On April 10, 1938, they held an election there. Strictly speaking, it was a plebiscite set up to show the world how much the people loved the Anschluss, Hitler's annexation of the country.

The voting was conducted in a school gymnasium. It was crawling with smiling Brownshirts. Hoping for some excitement, had sneaked in there and, because I was a kid, nobody paid attention to me. The election officials had thoughtfully removed the voting curtains, and the people (Aryans only, of course), simply dropped their ballots into open boxes.

"Der Fuehrer," I overheard a genial Brownshirt explain, "does not need secrecy."

Of 12,707 eligible voters, the local newspaper Moedlinger Nachrichten proudly reported, all but 27 had voted "Ja." The paper did not mention that most of the nay-sayers were beaten up the same night. It was not exactly Dachau, but it was a start.

Forty years ago, I watched the arrival at Camp Kilmer, N.J., of thousands of weary men, women and children who had escaped the communist terror in the revolt-torn streets of Hungary.

It was said at the time that they had voted with their feet. No voting booths for them and those they left behind.

Much closer to home -- and more recent -- "black and white together" put lives and limbs on the line to open the voting booths to all citizens down South.

These are the things that haunt me whenever our elections come around. When I hear somebody say, not without some justice, "a plague on both our houses," I have trouble forgetting I might be one of the tenants too.

So, with all respect to Mark Russell -- may we long laugh along with him -- I shall put my political lethargy on ice for a day and go vote. Some candidates may be incompetent, phony, even corrupt. But perhaps some are not. The worst are better than the best Nazis, commissars or club-wielding bigots who ever drew breath.

Maybe it's just that I like hearing that curtain snap shut in the booth. To these ears, it's the sound of music.

Hans Knight is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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