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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 12/2/20

Greetings,


As you may have known (and as these Musings confirm) there is an inner nerd inhabiting vast swathes of my mind. Some might say the nerd isn’t that hidden, but, whatever…


MY FIRST ELECTION


When I was the ripe old age of 12, I established my earliest memories of elections. I loved following them, for the horse race, for the policy, for being a witness to history, for the excitement. I devoured Teddy White’s “Making of the President” (and its sequels). I read history of elections and presidents voraciously. Among my favorite board games was “Mr. President,” which I played with my cousin Chris so often that the cards began to fray.


The first election in my lifetime occurred shortly before I was born, with one decent person, Dwight Eisenhower, defeating another, Adlai Stevenson. Then there was the JFK/Nixon election of 1960 (the first TV debate), when the election was much about temperament as about policy (there are some who maintain that in many ways, Nixon was the more liberal in this pairing). 1964 brought a landslide for Johnson, for reasons that should seem obvious.


1968 was my “first “election. Nixon and Humphrey were duking it out for the presidency. The rioting at the Democratic convention was frightening to me and Johnson continued to escalate the war in Vietnam. Nixon seemed a steady hand who would end the war (which eventually happened, “peace with honor,” but later than anticipated). To the 12 year old me, Nixon actually stood as a moderate alternative between the racist Southern Democrats and the violence of Chicago. If one forgets about Watergate (how can one ever forget Watergate?!), he was a pretty effective leader. He presided over a relatively stable economy, ended the war (albeit far too late), opened China, strengthened the Atlantic alliance, and sent a play in to the Washington Football Team (formerly, the Redskins). Most notably, people tend to forget that the social safety net grew more under Nixon than under any other president before or since. History justifiably may not be kind to him; I think it may, however, be more kind to his administration.


Back to the nerd. I followed everything about the election, visiting the local “election headquarters” of both candidates. On the “big night,” I stayed up all night to follow the returns. When my parents got tired, we retired to their bedroom, where I sat on the floor watching the black and white cathode ray TV on their dresser. Long after they both fell asleep, I was rapt (my recollection is the result wasn’t “in the books” until early morning). It was invigorating and exciting and it set me on a course of study that included history, philosophy and law.


Once the election was over, it was over. There wasn’t jockeying for position post-election, throwing out vicious attacks to restrict the accessibility of voting, challenge the ethics of those who counted the votes, or the spewing of ridiculous, unproven theories about “widespread election fraud.” There was a sense of propriety. In considering an election where there were serious, legitimate, claims of fraud, one need only look to the 1960 election in which JFK bested Nixon. Claims of voter fraud were reliably alleged in Illinois and Texas, where Kennedy won by the slightest of margins. It was generally accepted at the time that these claims were perhaps legitimate. And although Nixon considered pursuing recounts, here is what he had to say to a joint session of Congress after he lost, with 49.6% of the popular vote to JFK’s 49.7%:


“In our campaigns no matter how hard they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win.”


ARE WE OKAY WITH WHOEVER WINS?


As a worried 12 year old during the 1968 election, I asked my father whether we “would be okay” if Nixon lost. He pointed out Humphrey’s strengths and those of Nixon and said, “Whatever the result, we’ll survive. We’ve survived many presidents in the past and both of these guys would do fine.” And, of course, he was right. We survived the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Carter presidency. Up until 2016 I believed we “would be fine.” Until now.


IT WAS ALWAYS ROUGH AND TUMBLE


Candidates often were harsh in describing their opponents. When Ronald Reagan was running for office, he was portrayed as likely to usher in disaster, as a dimwitted and militaristic boob—a dangerous charlatan of far-right ideals. He would cripple the Supreme Court. That said, his three approved Supreme Court nominees were O’Connor, Scalia and Kennedy—all beyond reproach (whether or not one agreed or disagreed with their rulings or judicial philosophies). Many, including many detractors, would argue his presidency was successful and his demeanor and rhetoric was inclusive and comforting.


Bill Clinton was often characterized as an unprepared womanizer—yet today many Republicans long for that moderate presidency. George W. Bush snuck in by the narrowest of margins and was characterized as being unintelligent—yet he did more to eradicate disease in Africa than any other president. And I won’t even go into the horrible things said about Barack Obama. But my father’s message held true—we survived it all—and likely would have survived the alternatives, had they won. And, while there were plenty of missteps by all of them, they did their best, governed from a position of inclusiveness, and were generally successful. Until now.


From today’s vantage point, elections from the 20th century and even earlier this century seem like quaint memories of a gentler time. And rhetoric aside, even with the highly politicized nature of that era, campaigns were vaguely civil and the alternatives didn’t seem so stark. Until now.


THROWING THE COUNTRY DOWN THE STAIRS


Today we are in dark times. Sure the election is largely in the rear-view mirror. But the damage to our institutions will take long to fix. Unless action is taken to further trust in the process, our elections—sacred endeavors that have delivered a clear winner and a conceding defeated candidate—will be viewed as mere precursors to the “gamesmanship” of securing electoral votes. This time no state legislature or Secretary of State or election board caved to relentless attacks and demands. But that may not be the case next time.


No longer will the vote of the people be deemed to yield a final result. Rather, it will be merely one of a several factors for states to consider—along with the “feelings” of the defeated, the political climate, and the anger of the political parties and their minions of lawyers. That is, unless states start cleaning up their rules for the designation of electors.


The Trump Era mercifully should draw to a close on January 20th. Mr. Trump will be enriched by those who contributed to his “defense fund,” now with 75% of the take going to him. He will maintain his megaphone and he will announce his run for reelection, but he will increasingly become what he most dislikes—irrelevant.


Eliot A. Cohen says in The Atlantic on November 15, 2020 better than I ever could:


“Trump will undoubtedly bleat from the sidelines, but the country will move on. What it cannot move on from, however, are the underlying syndromes that gave him his extraordinary success. The cultural condescension and economic hard-heartedness that mobilized his followers, the obliviousness to issues of character that enabled traditional conservatives and devout believers to throw in their lot with a despicable man, the hostility toward facts and evidence that led to an insane opposition to mask wearing during a pandemic, and the belief in winning at all costs to include the undermining of democratic norms—these remain with us. And we still do not have more than a superficial understanding of them, of whence they came, how they flourished, and what we can do to remedy them.

The sorry tale of Trump, then, is almost behind us. The difficult tasks of understanding, reflection, and reconstruction are before us, and will last far longer than his appalling strut across the stage of American history.”

Hopefully our government will move forward to clean up this mess so that it can’t happen again…


Warmly,


Glenn

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