For a while now I’ve had a play in my head called “Three Presidents” that, not being a playwright, I haven’t had the wherewithal to think through. The third and sixteenth presidents of the United States meet in front of the White House and introduce themselves. Number 16 knows all about Number 3, of course, while Number 3 is at once charmed and slightly disconcerted that in its selection of presidents like Number 16, the country has become so populist, so …Jeffersonian. After remarking on how the White House is rather less approachable than in their own times, the two men eventually file through security into the West Wing, and finally are escorted into the Oval Office. This in itself captivates them, since the Oval Office as we now know it is less than 80 years old.
I’ve told this story before in one venue or another, but I think that—72 hours after the election—it’s good for one last recounting before I retire it. Two and a half years ago, I was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York when the woman in the next seat picked a fight with me about the Affordable Care Act, which was on the verge of passing the Senate. She and I had gotten along well enough until then, though our interaction mostly entailed me helping her find the outlet to plug in her laptop; peering over my shoulder, however, she surmised (not incorrectly, it should be acknowledged) what my position was based on the website I was looking at, and she wanted to set me straight. “You know what the difference is between us?” she finally concluded about 15 futile minutes later. “I’m a responsible person and you’re not.” I confess I didn’t know what to say to this other than what I didn’t ask, which was whether she had children, who rather exponentially up the responsibility quotient of one’s life; I didn’t ask because I knew the answer, and I also knew that, as a woman, she was of an age when this could be a profoundly painful matter. I couldn’t bring myself to win an argument at that cost. It may also be that it was as unfair of me to assume this was someone for whom responsibility was something she took only for herself as it was of her to assume it was something I didn’t take at all.
Character is destiny, said the Greek philosopher Heraclites—a romantic, maybe, since the implication is that sooner or later the good guy wins. It’s probably a character flaw on my part, indicative of smugness, to assume this maxim will be tested tomorrow on Election Day in terms of both the two presidential candidates running and the country itself. Such an assumption implies that the good guy’s identity is evident. This may not be the first time in our lives when a national election is about nothing less than the meaning of America. More than 1968 or 1932, however, the views and values of both sides are so distinctly different that what’s unsettling isn’t each side believing the other represents the forces of darkness and that the future of the country is at stake; everybody believes these things during a heated campaign. What’s unsettling is that, for once, these things may be true. This is what makes tomorrow such a dreadful crossroads and what makes after tomorrow such an inevitably daunting path.
From the beginning, this presidential campaign has been about discontent with the incumbent versus distrust of the challenger, and about which would trump the other less than two weeks from now on Election Day. Clearly Governor Mitt Romney’s shambles of a summer—during which unease grew over a wealthy nihilist disinclined to reveal anything credible about his finances or beliefs who is contemptuous of half the country at the other end of the economic and social spectrum—was offset for some voters by 90 minutes in early October when the Republican Party nominee forcefully berated a debate opponent who dithered between bemusement and narcolepsy. To what extent in that first debate the President of the United States’ performance sucked all light and gravity out of the surrounding cosmos, as breathless punditry would have it, is now irrelevant. I remain struck by the fact that, three weeks later, no one can remember a single brilliant thing spoken that evening by Romney or a single calamitous thing said by Barack Obama, but then I’m still of the view that Pluto might be a planet. The famous John Fordian formulation about legend displacing truth is more apt in politics than anywhere else.
Twenty minutes into the debate between the president and his challenger last week, I sent a friend an email: “Romney is winning this thing.” So I’m quite literally on the record as agreeing with the consensus view about the debate before I knew there was a consensus. Or rather, I should say that I did agree with the consensus—that Barack Obama didn’t do well—as it existed so long ago (six days) that now it seems like the Dawn of Man. The current conclusion, to the extent I can keep up with it, is that it was the worst debate performance in the history of rhetoric. In a fashion typically frenzied when it comes to politics, the consensus has fed on itself and gotten worse by the moment, helped along in no small part by people who claim to be the president’s partisans.