The calm between two storms

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Nov 08, 2006 12:01 AM
The calm between two storms

To everything there is a season. There is a time to campaign and, thank goodness, a time to cease campaigning.

Maybe you noticed it when you went out for the paper yesterday morning: a peculiar stillness, a momentary return to sanity. Up and down the street, the yard signs still announced their allegiances, but they no longer seemed to shout. It was if they knew their days — no, their hours — were numbered. The campaign had wound down to its last day, its energy spent. The only tremors left would be aftershocks. The storm was over.

It would be a blessed 12 hours before the storm after the storm hit — the flood of election results, the victory speeches and concessions, the still undecided races hanging on contested ballots, the claiming credit and casting blame….

But for one precious day there was an almost holy peace, a truce in man’s never-ending race for power. It was a day to be seized, its rituals savored at polling places and while driving past intersections that had sprouted all these people waving different campaign signs and SMILING. But they would soon be gone, too.

There has always been something special about an American election day. One day the campaign is plowing ahead full speed, complete with brass bands, all stops pulled out, and the next you know, the whole thing is over. The fit has passed. Partisanship has been suspended, at least briefly. A strange, unaccustomed quiet descends. Great fun, elections, and greater relief when they’re done.

Which is the real America? The crossfire of raucous debate and dueling ads, the glittering grandiloquence of the candidates and their surrogates, all the razzmatazz and Moment of Decision oratory? Or the sacramental quiet of the voting booth, with its confessional air, where at last everything boils down to the single citizen alone at last.

A free election is both, of course, the melee and the pause, The People and the individual soul. The two merge during the campaign, then separate in the voting booth. That is what gives election day its Janus-like quality of looking both backward and forward, outward and inward.

The long, quiet day is a surreal, 12-hour pause between two political explosions — the long campaign and what everyone hopes won’t be the long count.

How I hated to see that evening sun go down. Because then the truce would end and the brouhaha return. But for a few brief hours, reason seemed to reign, not the madness of crowds.

Outside the polling places, all across the land, Americans waited patiently to cast their vote, do their duty, make their choices. … One Norman Rockwell scene after another unfolded. The American flags came out to be unfurled and displayed. The VOTE HERE signs were unwrapped, like Christmas ornaments, and displayed at every precinct, whether fire station or school or church.

The old and younger, able and disabled, native-born and immigrant, black and white and other, waited patiently. All took their assigned places in the quadrennial pageant. It was as if the line of voters extended clear across the continent and beyond. Our differences no longer mattered, for they are only outward differences, like party or region and all the rest. On election day it’s as if the American people line up for a group portrait-to see how we’ve grown. For one day, we are indeed one nation indivisible.

The death of civility, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated. The poll workers are helpful, friendly, doing their patient best. The waiting voters talk about the weather or anything else except how they’ll cast their secret ballot. Respect reigns. After months of public posturing, a healing reticence and courtesy emerge.

Somewhere, one could be sure, there were disputes and demagogues waiting to break loose again, but at your typical red-white-and-blue polling place, this was still a republic, not a circus. Amid all the attack ads and ordinary rancor, sometimes we forget there’s a difference. But not on election day, when this mass democracy stops swirling, the great herd parts, and everything comes down to one citizen casting one vote.

Election Day no longer has all the elements that once set it apart, what with early voting and electronic voting machines. But the day still has its magic. It still has an air of political communion, of a ritual that removes the stains of the campaign, and lets us all start clean again. It’s a spirit to hold on to as all the pre-election predictions become post-election explanations — or excuses. It’s a spirit to hold onto long after the day is past.