It was just another morning.
I drifted into the purgatory between sleep and
NPR, my bifurcated mind struggling towards
daylight as Cokie Roberts explained with
patronizing certainty to a gratingly cheerful
host why the system was still under control and
why Ralph Nader would prove to be no more than a
mild case of political heartburn.
I slipped back into a dream. Things were
happening of the sort that don't hold news
conferences. The sophisticated corruption of one candidate
and the frat boy corruption of the
other were deeply eroding voter interest in
either. Supporters and news commentators didn't
help with their implications that the pair
enjoyed sovereign moral immunity -- telling
voters that "everybody does it" when really only
a small handful could get away with it.
There had also developed what a psychologist
might describe as the obverse of mass psychosis,
a biologist might call a virus of virtue, or a
physicist might call a phase transition of the
soul. If you were in none of these professions,
however, maybe it felt most like those moments
when you turn the car around in a driveway,
finally admitting you have taken the wrong road.
More and more Americans had that feeling.
Where it began, nobody knows; there were too many
bubbles when the pot started to boil.
There was, for example, the bar where a voter first said the words that would become an
election year fad -- a beer glass lifted to the
toast, "This one's for us" and everyone at the
table responding in kind, first with their beer
and later at the election booth.
There were the union leaders who publicly toyed
with the idea of endorsing Nader as a way of
putting pressure on Gore, but whose temporary
political tactic had become a lasting political
principle in the minds of many members.
There was the farmer looking at the box of cereal
in the supermarket and realizing how little some
other farmer had received for what went into that
There was the teenager who would say later: "I
told my friends, like let's start a revolution and they were
like 'nah, we've got too much
homework' and then one day someone was like
'how?' and so we started."
There were the posters cropping up at colleges
around the country announcing post-election
parties with popular bands, the admission to
which would be a ballot stub or a "I Voted"
There was the Christian fundamentalist who
realized that it was sometimes better to disagree
with an honest politician and than agree with a
There was the black mother who had voted
Democratic all her life realizing that it was
Democrats who had taken away her income support
and sent her son 200 miles away to a privatized
gulag for a minor drug infraction.
There was the liberal who had listened to
Democrats tell him for eight years that Clinton
was the best president their political party
could ever hope for. And so he left the party.
There was the man who told a reporter, "I guess
my apathy just ran out."
There was the couple who wrote the Green Party,
"Our families have been union organizers, civil
rights activists, peaceniks, all our lives. . .
and we voted the Democratic ticket. We agreed
with Mr. Nader, but believed 'he can't win.' . .
. It needs to change and the change begins with
us, so after all these years, we will vote the
Green Party ticket. Every journey begins with
that first step."
There were the voters tired of being called
Clinton-haters simply for expecting their
president to play the game straight.
There were elections elsewhere that weren't meant
to happen, leading to a leftist-led united front
in London and a rightist-led united front in
Mexico. In Mexico, the campaign appealed to the
jodidos, which is to say, those who have been screwed.
The phrase made its way north into the
Nader campaign. In London, the new coalition
included a woman who used to chain herself to
buses and a man who once went to court dressed as
a gorilla after refusing to pay a bus fare.
It also included a former Tory candidate for
mayor and another former opponent who warned the
new mayor that if he did not put London first,
"we will, I promise, kick your ass."
Things weren't meant to
happen quite like this in the
Third Way about which the media wrote
incessantly, but as the Nader campaign was
learning, perhaps there was a Fourth Way as well.
Or maybe it was really just the First Way back
again. A way with real if uncomfortable
coalitions of mutual interest rather than with a
false consensus created by the pornography of
Nader and the Green Party somewhat belatedly
noticed that the crowd running ahead of them was
their own campaign. They came to realize that it
wasn't so much a better platform they had to
offer, but a better way of thinking about and
dealing with such things, a way that had once
been a natural part of American democracy but
which had been systematically destroyed by a
politics maniacally devoted to creating anger,
division, and demons.
Americans didn't want just the right answers but
a better way to discover them. Alone among the
candidates, Nader had the courage, decency,
honesty and imagination to help it happen. Alone
he was trusted. He found himself becoming less
and less the didactic instructor and more and
more the dependable relative helping to put the
family together again.
It wasn't that issues weren't important, rather
that they could not be resolved in a country in
which there were only winners and losers, pariahs
and power-mongers, the badly defeated and the
totally unrestrained. Nader repeatedly promised
not to trim his arguments, but he also promised
not to use divisive, manipulative and corrupt
means to accomplish what his arguments could not.
He started turning up in all the wrong places,
sometimes quoting the Brazilian Archbishop Helder
Pessoa Camara: "Let no one be scandalized if I
frequent those who are considered unworthy or
sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be
alarmed if I am seen with compromised and
dangerous people, on the left or the right . . .
My door, my heart, must open to everyone,
absolutely everyone." He also quoted Thomas
Jefferson: "The care of human life and happiness,
and not their destruction, is the first and only
object of good government."
When a reporter asked him whether he wasn't too
radical for America, Nader described himself as a
moderate of a time that America had been long
promised but which had not yet come.
As the campaign went on, America slowly began
rediscovering itself, feeling better about
itself, and being less angry with others. It was
no longer obsessed with hidden dangers but began
thinking about long-concealed possibilities. It
could even think of the future and smile.
The voters didn't agree with Nader on many things
but he was the one in the race who had kept the
country's faith throughout his life and even,
when in the wrong, hadn't used lies to get there.
To more and more, Nader was only a first step but
an absolutely necessary one.
And so on election day America gave itself
another chance, using nothing more revolutionary
or sophisticated than a change of heart, and a
trust in instinct over propaganda, self-interest
over spin, decency over power, and a vision that
now saw the future as a frontier rather than as a
mandatory sentence . . .
It was just another morning.
Cokie Roberts was gone now and the gratingly
cheerful host was interviewing a sports writer
about baseball and I lay there wondering whether
anyone would go to the stadium if ball games were
as predictable as politics, if Cokie Roberts
could explain to us just exactly how they would
turn out, if the system always won.
I reached back and tried to retrieve my dream
from the purgatory between sleep and sound. As I
picked up the pieces, I noticed something
different about them -- different, say, from the
time when, in my morning mind, I had blended a
traffic update and Silvia Paggioli's report and
saw Serbians advancing down Connecticut Avenue.
This time, my fantasy was totally without
fantasy. All it required to be true was for
people to think something they had not thought
for a long time, to decide that the past was
over, to refuse to be hustled and cheated
anymore, to try a new road, to think and dream
for themselves -- just as was supposed to happen
in a democracy -- and then to tell others what
they had thought and dreamt, giving the others
courage to try the same thing . . .
It was just another morning.
I got up and wrote it down so I could pass it on.
The news said the weather would be variable.
Maybe politics still could be as well.
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Editor: Sam Smith