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COLUMN

America At the Brink, As Usual

Eric J. Plosky

The election of 1800 marked the first American change in presidential ideology; that the government remained intact following Thomas Jefferson’s defeat of incumbent John Adams was proof positive that our young constitutional republic would endure. In 1900, reluctant imperialist William McKinley was re-elected, affirming once and for all America’s ascendancy to the world stage. Will the contest of 2000 be as epochal?

Legendary candidates we don’t have; no statesman Adams nor genius Jefferson, no fiery William Jennings Bryan, no brash young Theodore Roosevelt on the ticket. Passion and ideology have taken a back seat to numbers-griping and gaffe-watching, and our expectations are so lowered that we celebrate the barest shreds of coherent speeches, platforms, plans. Times are quiet and complacent -- no struggling new nation ours, neither a demonstrative adolescent first venturing beyond its backyard. Problems old are but problems new again and ever, unsolved and lamented; insoluble and mourned.

But on rolls the Great American Experiment, democracy’s grandest endurance test, and Tuesday’s results will do more than anything else to draw its direction. Millions of citizens will depart from their daily routines to go to polling places, stand in line, and pull levers indicating their preference for president. Tens of millions, who have decided that a smirking oilman favoring the super-rich is their man, will no doubt nod, unaware that they have been bamboozled, as they vote for George W. Bush.

Perhaps it should not then be frightening that most of age will not actually vote at all. When the public can be so easily convinced by blowsy rhetoric and folksy shambling, when the best choice for national leader is a mediocre career politician whose strength is the dubious status quo, we all surely lose.

America at the wheel sallies forth turned, bickering at the kids, not paying attention to the road. As always we stand on the cusp of a new future, and we must steer toward the promise, away from the pitfalls, as a nation, together. We need strong, principled leaders, a civic life that teaches us community and shows us how our lives are stronger intertwined. This year we may not have an ideal choice for president, but let us not make the wrong choice, for it will be much harder for us to find our way if we start down the wrong path.

In 1800, we celebrated America’s emergence from infancy; a century later, its new adulthood. In 2000, let our nation announce that it has caught its second wind -- and that retirement is still a long way off.