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Urban Rhythms

The Great Divide

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 11/15/2000

I'm a cynical old man of 47 years and, brother, let me tell you--the ugly, uncertain, and potentially divisive outcome of the 2000 presidential election ain't nothing. It's par for the course, a fitting denouement to three decades of rancor.

As I write this on Nov. 10, both the Democrats and the Republicans seem determined to drag the election into the courts, regardless of how the final tally in Florida turns out. If one candidate decides to concede in order to spare the nation a possible constitutional crisis--which is what I believe will occur--his followers are sure to feel bitterly betrayed. Whatever happens, our next president can look forward to a difficult four years.

Suddenly, just as we've been congratulating ourselves on an era of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, we find ourselves face to face with the deep, gaping, nauseating divisions in this country. Suddenly, we learn that we've been walking wounded for some time.

Why are we so surprised?

In my lifetime, we've had one president assassinated, another drummed out of office, and a third impeached for lying under oath about illicit sex with an intern. I myself opposed the presidency of Ronald Reagan so passionately that I used to tell my toddler sons that he was the real-life equivalent of Skeletor, the bad guy on the old Masters of the Universe cartoon. And I know that folk on the other side feel the same way about Bill Clinton.

Things seemed to fall apart on Nov. 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin working for person or persons unknown. I was 10 when that murder occurred, yet it is burned in my memory as a turning point for our society. Before the assassination, the prevailing image of America was one of youth, optimism, and energy. Television was full of old movies showing brash young American GIs rescuing the Old World from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. We were racing to the moon. We were building suburban homes. JFK and his huge family played touch football on the White House lawn.

All that turned dark after Kennedy's death. The pall over America began with the inability of the Warren Commission to satisfy public suspicions that the president had been killed by more than one person. The civil-rights movement pulled the sheets off America's self-image as a kind, gentle, and generous nation. Then came 1968, another watershed year, which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, urban riots, police violence at the Democratic Convention, and, finally, the election of Richard Nixon.

Even young folks know what happened next: the anti-war protests and the violent response of National Guard units, the Watergate conspiracy and the investigation and hearings that led to Nixon's resignation, the economic chaos of Jimmy Carter's presidency, and the backlash that led the majority to embrace Reagan's pledge to take the country back.

Reagan's presidency was the most divisive of all, although the majority refused to listen to dissenters. Clinton's presidency was virtually paralyzed by an endless string of investigations--many of them specious--that his opponents launched almost from the moment he took office. People sneered at Hillary Clinton's contention that "a vast right-wing conspiracy" was out to get her husband. Well, from where I sit, Clinton's legion of enemies was vast and right-wing, and they weren't sending him valentines.

Considered linearly, the events of our recent history seem to have led us directly to this moment, with Congress almost perfectly divided between Democrats and Republicans, state legislatures showing a similar symmetry, and swarms of lawyers descending on Florida, briefcases at the ready. If the ugliness of it all takes your breath away, let me ask you this: In the past three dozen years, when hasn't our political climate been breathtakingly, stupifyingly sordid? There are two Americas, and both seethe with anger. This pot has been at a roiling boil since the Civil War.

I know that ours is not the only generation to live in adventurous times. My parents lived through World War II, segregation, the Cold War, and the civil-rights struggle. Their parents endured two world wars and the Great Depression.

In fact, their experiences give me hope.

Beneath the rage, and despite the politics of red meat, we are quietly growing as a country. I look at some of my neighbors and acquaintances and know that they just voted in a way I deeply disapprove of, for reasons that offend me greatly. Yet they would never have been my neighbors at any other time in our history. And between Election Days, we find we have an awful lot in common.

Thus I speak now from the lofty height of my two score years and seven, having lived through a period of seemingly endless tumult. The republic will survive the crisis of Election 2000. It has weathered worse than this.

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