Ending On a High Note

by Robert Butts | 11/5/04 6:00am

A funny thing happened this Wednesday. An unexpected thing. An amazing thing, even. The 2004 presidential election ended well.

I mean "well" in a sense that goes beyond the specific outcome. After a full year of acrimony, blunders and spin, camps Bush and Kerry can both be proud of their conduct on the election's final, telltale day. It was a brief flash of conscience and clarity to cap a campaign season notably devoid of those qualities.

As it became abundantly clear that he had lost Ohio and thus the presidency, John Kerry found the strength to do the right thing. I'd bet my tuition that on Wednesday morning, Kerry was surrounded by True Believers who begged him to protest, to litigate, to contest the results -- to do anything that might stop Bush. But Kerry was a better man than that. He accepted that the American people had spoken and he accepted that he had been beaten. He accepted that trying to reverse the electoral result and nullify Bush's 59 million popular votes would have driven any legitimacy out of this election and a wedge further into this divided nation. So Kerry did the hard but right thing to do and conceded; this Wednesday he put his country before his political ambitions, and showed that he was a class act.

Kerry concluded an election clouded by the specter of litigation by telling his supporters and all America that "the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process. [ I]n an American election, there are no losers, because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans. And that -- that is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on earth." While I did not agree with much of what Kerry said during this campaign, on Wednesday he was clear, he was humble and he was right. For that, I salute him.

As victors, Bush and his campaign lacked the opportunity for selfless sacrifice of a similar magnitude, but they too summoned an air of graciousness that was noticeably absent during the long campaign. On Tuesday night, even with a hall full of excited supporters calling for an appearance, Bush declined to rush for the podium and declare himself the victor. Rather, he waited for Wednesday, allowed the events to play out, and gave Kerry the chance to concede on his own time and terms.

When he finally did speak, Bush joined with Kerry in calling for their factions to unite behind the nation's common purposes: "I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent:To make this nation stronger and better I will need your support, and I will work to earn it.I will do all I can do to deserve your trust.A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation.We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us." Right now those are words, and only actions can make them a reality as we go forward, but on Wednesday Bush struck the chords of reconciliation that America needed to hear.

It is a sad comment on this just-concluded election that Wednesday felt like such an anomaly. For over a year, Bush and Kerry -- a pair of political veterans -- had managed to stumble through two of the most amateurish campaigns in recent memory. Both failed to find a consistent voice, to communicate any positions beyond the vaguest of generalities, to tamp down the vicious hyperboles that True Believers on both sides tossed around like so much ideological confetti. Kerry turned a blind eye to the caustic actions of the extreme anti-war left in exchange for its energetic giving and support. Bush hitched his wagon to public anti-gay sentiment to bring his evangelical supporters to the polls. In their mad scramble to pander to every special interest in sight, both men promised more programs and giveaways than either could possibly deliver. And, as the race drew to an end, it seemed inexorably pulled towards a spiral of lawsuits and recriminations that would only prolong the ordeal.

For a moment on Wednesday, though, all the focus-grouped facades and pre-spun trappings fell away, and the two candidates stepped forward as real people. I won't say that they saved their best for last. But it did seem like, on that final day, circumstances aligned to let their best peak through for a moment.

It was a welcome sight.