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For Moments Like This, I Love This Country

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Despite, if not because of, its quirks

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower,
We come on the ship that sailed the Moon,
We come in the age's most uncertain hour,
And sing an American tune.

I'll say! (Paul Simon sang.) Talk about uncertain hours. And yet, you gotta love it. Here's an election with everything America has to offer--choices, arguments, laughs, gaffs, screw-ups, recounts of recounts, old people with placards, chaos without penalty and--God bless 'em--lawyers. I love this country. Thanks to moments like this, I know it's there.

I heard a nitwit on a cable-TV news show say this mess is bound to discourage the younger people from believing in the political process. Discourage? If the young have been paying attention, they'll be singing their heads off.

Democracy is an odd and perverse little duck; it insists that you exercise your civic identity so that you can enjoy your individual identity. And that's what we do most of the time. There are occasions, such as wars, depressions, Lucky Lindy heroics, the deaths of great figures that beckon us back to the unified entity. Generally, though, we are the United States of Solitude--private celebrators of Emerson's self-reliance who, like the melancholy lady, vant to be alone.

This is why it is so hard to make coherent sense of the place. Every time we "all come to look for America" (another Simon lyric) , we end up staring at ourselves. Old Whitman sang the confusion: "Males, females, immigrants, combinations, the copiousness, the individuality of the States each for itself ... O lands! all so dear to me--what you are, (whatever it is), I become a part of that, whatever it is."

The individuality of the states, indeed. If presidential elections weren't about the states, we wouldn't be in this fix. The Founding Fathers created a clever structure of the whole where everyone is free to be you and me. Everything in the design of the Union tugs away from the Union, which may be why the Union tugs back from time to time.

This is what's happening in this most uncertain hour, when not only do we feel like a single place but also experience a useful sense of calm in the middle of lawyers. For that we can thank the Founders for inventing a constitutional structure that provides a safety net for the uncertain hours. And the country is held together by will as well. On TV, the handlers of the two candidates continue to warn against fistfights in the halls, but they are the only ones likely to throw a punch. The rest of us--perhaps because the election is so close, and not in spite of that--are imperfectly content to see whoever emerges emerge. America has one great ghost in the attic, who whispers the name America in the middle of the night, to remind us that--evidence of individual competitiveness and self-interest to the contrary notwithstanding--somewhere in the unconscious heart, a nation comes together. If that were not so, we could never make it through times like this with such blithe self-confidence.

On Comedy Central's Daily Show, which has provided coverage of the election at least equal in substance to most of the straight news shows, filmmaker Michael Moore proposed to host Jon Stewart that teams be sent from Burundi and Peru to monitor our election, under the supervision of Jimmy Carter. Ralph Nader appeared on another show to say that he thought the reputation of his Green Party had been strengthened by this election. On yet another show, Pat Buchanan felt moved to say that it was a time for nobility and healing. I love this country.


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Cover Date: November 20, 2000

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