How can our nation be reunited on the morning after?

October 31, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - And finally, the showdown is almost here. After a campaign that feels like it has run for a million years, voters go to the polls Tuesday. Then the lawyers go to court Wednesday, and presto, just four to six short weeks from now, we'll know who's going to lead this country for the next four years.

Unfortunately, that's only the second-most-pressing question we face. The first, for my money, is simply this: What happens next?

I'm not talking about Iraq, Afghanistan or health care. I'm talking about us. About we, the people.

The nation has seldom been so torn and angry, rent by such a jagged divide. There is a cultural element to it, of course, the defenders and opposers of gay rights and other hot-button issues squaring off over what ought and ought not be considered acceptable.

But even given that, it seems to me the division ultimately has little to do with our broad national goals. Those we agree on.

Stabilize Iraq and get out? Definitely. Press the war on terror? Without a doubt. Health care reform? Good idea.

What is in contention, then, is not so much the what, but the how and the who.

Therein lies the rub. The two men vying for president have engendered so much raw anger that it's difficult to imagine the supporters of whoever loses simply accepting the defeat with grace and moving on. Even absent or apart from any allegations of election fraud, one is hard-pressed to envision the entire country uniting behind him or just accepting him as president of us all.

The anger toward George W. Bush is, of course, a residual effect of the 2000 election dispute, which many believe resulted in the presidency being handed to a fortunate son of no great intellectual rigor. The fact that the self-professed "uniter" immediately took a sharp turn to the political right and revealed an unerring instinct for flip-the-bird unilateralism certainly didn't help.

The anger toward John Kerry is a newer phenomenon; most Americans couldn't have picked him out of a police line-up before this year. But a sophisticated GOP campaign to "define" the senator has made up for lost time, painting him as an effete and foppish man of no discernible principles or backbone who lied about his service in Vietnam.

I would argue, though, that the origin of the antagonism matters less than its effect, which has been manifest in a brand of electioneering stunning in its vindictiveness and breathtaking in his pettiness. We're talking about the theft of lawn signs, the defacement of bumper stickers, people fired for supporting a candidate the boss does not, the opposition party's signed voter registration cards mysteriously winding up in the garbage, allegations of voter intimidation that sound like something out of Alabama, circa 1956. We're talking, in other words, about behavior better suited to some backwater dictatorship than to the world's flagship democracy.

There is a bacchanalian quality to all of this, a sense of rules suspended and license granted and everything permissible and victory by any means necessary.

But as the old song says, there's got to be a morning after.

Whether it is President Kerry or President Bush who begins his term in January, the challenge he and we face will be the same. To find a way back to common cause, a way that we can all be Americans again.

There is no guarantee we can do it or that we will even try. It will certainly not be easy. The rifts are real, the cuts deep. And if we fail, what happens? What does the future look like then?

Or does anybody even care?

The bacchanal is in full swing. Heaven help us when the morning comes.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column often appears Sundays in The Sun.

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