President Bush doesn't get much praise in this space. He hardly gets any at all, actually. But last week, the president indulged in a single, simple gesture that made me proud, for it symbolized what real democracy is about.
The president picked up the telephone and called Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to congratulate him on his effective victory as the Democratic Party's nominee for president - that is, for the right to run against Bush in this year's election.
American freedom and liberty are much bally-hooed in support of many causes, from war to religion and many other enterprises, some decent, some not. Often the rallying call is misused, abused even. But when the leader of the most powerful nation in the world calls his opponent in what is likely to be a close and passionately contested race, and the opponent graciously accepts the call, you know you're living in a special place. The concession call is traditional. I don't think the prefight call is.
In some countries it does not work this way. In many, in this hemisphere, in Asia and in Africa - even in a few countries in Europe - the opponents of entrenched regimes and their leaders hide in the darkness, fearful for their lives and the lives of their families. They don't get calls from the leadership to congratulate them; they get a thump on the head, or worse.
Some of the leaders of these tyrannical regimes are our friends: the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the leadership in China and Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf - our great ally in the war on terrorism. Some are not considered our friends, such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the military junta in Myanmar, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Fidel Castro of Cuba.
(It is one of the great mysteries of American leadership that our presidents - Republican and Democrat alike - count China - still nominally Communist and armed to the hilt - as a friend, but not Cuba. With China, the argument goes, a good social and economic relationship will encourage democracy. But for Castro's non-nuclear, broken country, friendship for some reason doesn't work. )
Making a gesture to the opposition is the sportsmanlike thing to do. Debaters do it. Rival team captains do it before sporting events in which they maul each other. Boxers do it before a fight. "Gentlemen, shake hands and come out fighting!"
Now that Bush has made the gracious gesture and Kerry graciously accepted, the question is, will this be a clean fight? Will these two guys who want to lead America (keep leading, in Bush's case) play in a way that helps us all know what they really think and why they think it, what they believe is good for America and why? It would be a grand thing to have a campaign in which the two candidates are talking about issues and not distracting the voters with shots that hurt but don't help America.
America is deeply divided these days, troubled by uncertainty and insecurity. The nation is at war. The deficit is surging toward astronomical figures. Too many Americans are unemployed. Americans who are about to retire are being told they may have to wait longer to do that and to expect less when they do stop working. The public education system is not working as it should. The private education system is practically unaffordable. America's cities are dangerous and endangered. The environment is endangered, too.
Of course, there's more. The preceding catalog is not meant to be a criticism of Bush. It's just a list of some of the serious issues America faces today. Many of them existed before he came to office.
The trouble with American presidential campaigns is that they reach for the lowest common denominator for images, slogans and utterances that sound bright or important, sometimes nasty, but don't mean much in the larger scheme of things.
Just to use one example that fits both candidates: the "Bring it on" bellow is getting really tiresome. Bring what on? Americans don't want any more "on," they want problems to get "off."
Last week, Bush launched his first TV advertising of the campaign. These ads featured images of the tragedy of Sept. 11, designed to make the president appear strong, decisive and comforting in the face of this attack on America. Some Americans, including relatives of the victims of Sept. 11, have complained that the Bush campaign is exploiting their grief to get re-elected. I do not recall other wartime presidents visiting the ruins of war to attract votes. Did Franklin D. Roosevelt get a campaign photo-op at Pearl Harbor during the war?
On the other side, there's this portrait of Kerry looking very dashing in his Navy dress whites during the Vietnam War. This is designed to remind us that Bush may be a wartime president, but he was never at the front of the war of his generation. Well, yes, Bush stayed in America and served in the Air National Guard, as far as he can remember. So did a lot of Americans. If you were not part of the regular military, you really had to be a little crazy to want to go to Vietnam.
If this is how it's starting off, it'll probably get worse. There'll be talk of old lusts and boozey times. Just what you want to know about the man who will run your country for the coming four years.
But Bush's call to Kerry was such a classy gesture, I couldn't help hoping it might herald the opening of more meaningful, responsible and responsive campaigning. There's still time. Keep hoping.