Between Hope and Despair Over Who Will Define Nation's Identity

I got my one and only puppy in 1976, the year my father died and Jimmy Carter was elected president. The three events are oddly connected, considering that I was a boy living in Lebanon at the time and didn't know Plains from Chevy Chase.

My mother and I used to attend church in a rest home run by unusually kind nuns. Their solution to my losing my father was, bless their heart, not to infomercial me with faith, which was proving pretty futile about then, but to accept their gift of a bastard puppy. Here's where it got weird.

The nuns had already called him "Jimmy," in honor of the president-elect, who had them all giddier than Catholic schoolgirls at a Ramones concert. So it was that the first American election to directly impact my life dates back to that November, as was my first affirmative reaction to an election: I promptly renamed the dog (no, not Geraldo) precisely because, even then, I'd gathered enough to know that Carter deserved more than a dog's life.

He wasn't that lucky. I moved to the United States permanently in the summer of 1979 when Carter was hostage to a halting economy and to those student militants in Tehran who were holding 52 Americans captive. New York City, where we lived, was all "Saturday Night Fever"-grime-and-graffiti, and supposedly crime-ridden. Compared to where I'd come from, to me it all looked wonderful, safe, ridiculously prosperous and energetic. If this was what New World crises were made of, there really was very little to worry about.

Then came Ronald Reagan. The guy's improbable gallop from the fringes of right-wing confabulation to Carter replacement suggested, as his pivotal debate performance eight days before the election did, that the country really had a way with suspending disbelief all the way to the White House. "For some brief periods," The New York Times had written of Ronald Reagan hosting the dedication of Disneyland for ABC in 1955, "the ceremonies took on the aspect of the dedication of a national shrine." It's no exaggeration to say that Reagan, who gladly let others do his own enshrining, made America his Disneyland for eight years. Americans, whose sense of reality had come undone in the rice paddies of Vietnam anyway, were grateful. With alternatives like Walter Mondale, Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis, who could blame them?

Fantasy was the new patriotism, government the monster in every pot. Forget the Soviet Union. The walls Reagan was tearing down were those Roosevelt and his successors had built with the Jeffersonian cement of liberalism (let's define the word: liberty, equality, progress, opportunity). To Reagan, government was the enemy no matter how representative or progressive. Besides, badgering government, like badgering the media, cost nothing and whipped up electoral votes. It was strange, this business of a serious democracy so smugly laying waste to its own democratic institutions and calling it a defense of freedom: Even at home, it was about destroying the village in order to save it.

The first Bush years had their moments, the Clinton years had a few better ones, but those dozen years were like stretched out versions of the Ford administration: In-betweeners that missed their chance. The latter-day Bush seized his, with a little help from Osama bin Laden, though his 22 percent approval tells me I don't need to tell you what that seizure has done to most of us. The astounding thing is that Bush's terror-mongering, his scorn for government, his economic Darwinism, his with-us-or-against-us posture with allies abroad or Americans at home, isn't so washed-up after all. It's the centerpiece of his heir's campaign (when a centerpiece can be found amid the flails and slanders). I doubt even Reagan would recognize this brand of fantasy, as many blue-chip Republicans no longer do. When George Will calls your act "faux conservatism," it may be time to measure the drapes in your assisted living facility.

But there's still Tuesday. Whatever the polls say, I've spent the last three months lurching between hope and despair, usually a few dozen times a day. I can't help it. I've always taken presidential elections personally, because whoever is president disproportionately defines the nation's identity, and therefore mine as an American. It's an identity I cherish more protectively than whatever is left of my ancestry or the family and creed I was born into, which were never a choice.

Being an American is, and proudly so, though for too many of the last 30 years the blare of conceit and belligerence, the offensive divide between "worthy" and "unworthy," "loyal" and "disloyal," even "legal" and "illegal," made pride in this country more difficult, and certainly less just, than it should be. It's different this time. The belligerence is receding. The noise is dying. The pride isn't -- pride in a country that could produce a candidate as radically at variance with the nation's tainted history yet as perfectly representative, as perfectly American, as Barack Obama. An America so divided couldn't have pulled it off.

An America on the mend very much could, because it's what the country at its best has managed to do. This is the America of my dreams. On Tuesday, I hope that it'll be no fantasy. I despair that somehow, it may yet be.

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