On Nov. 7, 2000, I went to bed nauseous, despondent and jittery. On Nov. 8, I woke up feeling worse. A butterfly ballot had flapped its wings in the Sunshine State and blown Al Gore out of the water. By Dec. 12, when the U.S. Supreme Court had installed George W. Bush as president of the United States, I had come down with a malaise that I still haven't kicked.
Six years on and with midterm elections approaching, it was timely that at last week's lecture at UNC, Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter characterized the 2000 race as a "defining moment" in presidential history. That election was also a watershed for world history, whose pages must now be rewritten to add yet another war, to list the moot points of the Geneva Convention and to explain how the U.S. Constitution became as useless as a gum wrapper.
Alter, whose work for The New Republic and Newsweek has earned him a reputation as a "liberal" journalist, nonetheless charitably compared Bush's come-to-Jesus moments to those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Both men faced serious midlife crises that reshaped their worldviews, Alter noted. FDR contracted polio at 39; GWB stopped drinking at 40. That's right, Alter compared a man whose serious illness largely confined him to a wheelchair to a souse who went on the wagon.
FDR's 1933 Fireside Chat emboldened a Depression-era nation to put its faith and its money back in banks. It did. GWB stood at Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001, and imitating his days as a Yale cheerleader with his megaphone, he blared through a bullhorn: "The people who did this to us will be hearing from us very soon." Five years later, only 22,000 troops are stationed in Afghanistan, which harbored the 9/11 terrorists, compared to 138,000 in Iraq, which did not. While many al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed, Osama bin Laden remains at large. To the person who did this to the U.S., uh, go Bulldogs.
FDR launched his New Deal to resurrect the country from the Depression; GWB has foisted his Raw Deal on America. His plans to privatize Social Security break the social contract, one that Alter described as being "embedded in our DNA that we are one country and we can't fail those who are in trouble."
But those in trouble are consistently failed. While Wall Street muckety-mucks rattle their jewelry over historic Dow Jones Industrial highs, the buying power of the pocket change known as the minimum wage is at its lowest in 50 years. Forty-six million Americans—20 percent of them children—are uninsured. And at no time has the schism between the haves and the have-nots been more evident than during Hurricane Katrina. Unfathomably, Alter remarked that after Bush's speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square—complete with stage lighting that was extinguished after the president exited the podium—he believed the promises made that day: "I took him at his word."
I'm uncertain if it was naivete, ignorance or apathy that landed us in this mess of a presidency. Maybe the midterms will be a turning point, not only for the Bush administration, but for America. Maybe on Nov. 8, America will awaken reinvigorated by a new day, a new deal. Or maybe not. I think I feel a chill coming on.