WASHINGTON — This is the strangest, saddest Thanksgiving week since 1963. I well remember how unsettling it felt to sit down to "celebrate" Thanksgiving that year, only six days after being in the motorcade in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
We lost a president then, but immediately acquired a new one, with Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office from Judge Sarah Hughes aboard the same Air Force One that carried the coffin of his murdered predecessor back to Washington.
Between that dark Friday and the Thursday of Thanksgiving, the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been shot dead by Jack Ruby while a horrified nation watched on television. But after the two murders came the pageantry of Kennedy’s state funeral and the outpouring of emotion captured for all time by my colleague Mary McGrory in her reporting for the old Washington Star. By the time Johnson led the nation in Thanksgiving prayers, our grief had been expressed and simple exhaustion had brought a certain calm to the land.
This year, it is not a president but the presidency that may have been lost. The spectacle that has been unfolding in Florida may not have the shocking impact of the bulletins from Dealey Plaza and Parkland Memorial Hospital. But the loss is nonetheless palpable.
For two weeks, the key to the Oval Office has been tossed back and forth between George Bush and Al Gore and their teams of lawyers as if it were the football in the pickup game the young people play on Thanksgiving afternoon to burn off some of the extra calories they just acquired.
Whatever dignity may have been attached to their pursuit of the presidency has been stripped away. The sad thing is that the campaign itself was, if not ennobling, at least satisfying to most Americans. Despite the belittling comments from too many in the media, the voters recognized — as Andrew Kohut reported in last week’s Pew Center poll — that substantial issues affecting their lives were being discussed, and they came away thinking they had the information they needed to cast a reasoned vote.
Given that generally positive climate of opinion, the closeness of the election verdict was not in itself a threat to the legitimacy of the process or the acceptance of the eventual winner. All that was needed was an agreement between the rivals on how the tie would be broken.
But that never happened. The necessary phone call was never made. Instead, both of them immediately began deploying the unholy trinity of contemporary American politics — lawyers, campaign consultants and media advisers — and set out to win it for themselves. Meantime, the fourth horseman, the fund-raisers, sprang into action.
The result has been a double disaster. The machinery of American elections — involving the collection of votes, the vote counts, and the ballots themselves — has been shown to be less than 100 percent reliable. That does not come as a surprise to most political activists, but under the merciless media spotlight on Florida, these inevitable and usually inconsequential flaws have assumed epic proportions, causing many citizens to wonder about the basic fairness of our elections.
And the candidates for the highest office have been discerned — correctly, I am afraid — as being more interested in exploiting the gaps in the election system for their own advantage than in restoring public confidence in the fairness of the outcome.
In that relentless search for victory, good people have done really bad things. Gore supporters have charged that Florida officials who favor Bush intentionally disenfranchised people, comparing it to the abuses of the pre-civil rights era. Bush supporters have set out to blacken the reputation of local canvassing board members, accusing them of willfully invalidating votes cast by American soldiers and sailors serving overseas.
The hope expressed by many people as this is written is that the Florida Supreme Court will provide an authoritative interpretation of the confusing state election laws and a clear direction on how the final count is to be assembled and certified.
But it is not certain that even such a ruling would rescue the situation. Suggestions have been made that this court — all of whose members were appointed by past Democratic governors (though one had the concurrence of the Republican governor-elect, Jeb Bush) — cannot be trusted to be impartial. So another part of the governmental system — the judiciary — may yet be demeaned.
The cost of all this is heavy indeed, and makes this the saddest Thanksgiving in 37 years.
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