"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.
"I don't want to pit red America against blue America," Obama assured an enthusiastic Iowa audience in November 2007. "I want to be the president of the United States of America." One reason he was running for the White House, he told Boston Globe editors and reporters in January 2008, was to repair a political system that had gotten "stuck in this deeply polarized pattern." He promised a new tone: "I'm not going to demonize you because you disagree with me… I don't think the Democrats have a monopoly on wisdom." In a vaunted speech about race that spring -- a speech titled "A More Perfect Union" -- Obama offered Americans a choice: "We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism…. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say: 'Not this time.'"
Time and again, Obama promised what Nixon promised: to bring Americans together. That pledge -- less animosity and partisanship, more cooperation and goodwill -- went to the essence of his candidacy. And on the night of his election, before a vast crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, he underscored it: "Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."
Yet far from resisting that temptation, Obama has rarely bypassed any chance to indulge it. The would-be uniter whips up envy and resentment, demonizing those who disagree with him, and aggravating the nation's racial, class, and party tensions.
Granted, Obama has faced fierce political opposition. And the GOP is not without its cynics and zealots. Yet presidents have a unique role in American life; the tone they set affects the whole political culture. That is what makes it so unfortunate that the candidate who embodied hope and bipartisan civility is just a memory now. In his place we have a president who summarizes the Republicans' economic plan as: "Let's have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance." The candidate who understood that his party had no monopoly on wisdom now smears those whose agenda differs from his for their "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that is "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity."
From urging Latino voters to "punish our enemies and … reward our friends" to snidely telling voters "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth" to rebuking the Cambridge police to bashing insurance and oil companies, Obama has repeatedly taken the low road. He has widened the fissures he promised to close, and lowered the political tone he promised to elevate. With Nixonian bile, he fans the flames of grievance. Nixon was re-elected; maybe Obama will be too. But Americans who imagined in 2008 that they were voting for a healer-in-chief aren't likely to make that mistake again.