"I SAW MANY SIGNS in this campaign," said Richard Nixon the day after he was elected president in 1968. "But the one that touched me the most was one that I saw in Deshler, Ohio, at the end of a long day of whistle-stopping…. A teenager held up a sign, 'Bring Us Together.' And that will be the great objective of this administration at the outset: to bring the American people together."
Nixon had started using the phrase "Bring Us Together" a couple weeks earlier, after one of his aides spotted the youngster with the sign. Some of the campaign staff were so enamored of the slogan, William Safire later recalled, that they wanted to make it the Inauguration Day theme. The desire to see an incoming president as a unifier, a healer of the national breach, is an old American tradition, especially in times of acrimony and political conflict.
But Nixon, needless to say, didn't heal the breach. If anything, American life grew even more fractured on his watch. And looking back at his presidency today -- at the White House "plumbers" and enemies lists, at Spiro Agnew's ire and the campaign-trail dirty tricks -- who can regard his "Bring Us Together" pledge as anything but a cynical sham?
Will something similar be said of Barack Obama?
Unlike Nixon, Obama didn't wait until two weeks before his election to run on a platform of reconciliation. From the outset, his pledge to elevate the tone of public dialogue, to defuse the anger and rancor that have made modern politics so toxic, was a central theme of his presidential campaign.