AS THE NATION'S ELECTORAL BRAWL drew to a close, I thought about a question posed by ABC's Martha Raddatz to vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan during their debate in Kentucky last month. She quoted "a highly decorated soldier" who was "dismayed" at the tone of the campaign. "The ads are so negative," the soldier had lamented, "and they're all tearing down each other rather than building up the country."
Raddatz challenged the candidates: "What would you say to that American hero about this campaign? And at the end of the day, are you ever embarrassed by the tone?"
A campaign cartoon in 1884 mocked the Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland, for fathering a child out of wedlock.
Biden and Ryan sidestepped the question, resorting instead to their rehearsed arguments and talking points. Which was too bad, for that soldier's grievance deserved a response.
I wish the candidates had reminded him that the vitriol of US presidential competitions didn't begin with Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. In 1884, British historian James Bryce described the battle for the White House between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland as a "tempest of invective and calumny," and the nastiness of presidential campaigns was an old story even then.
Yet those campaigns end in what can only be described as a miracle. For months we fight over the most emotional, consequential issues in American life. The stakes always seem enormous. The hopes and fears of millions of voters are invested in the outcome. In much of the world and for most of history, only bloodshed could resolve disputes so momentous. But everyone knows how this election will end. The losing candidate will deliver a graceful concession speech; the victor will peacefully take the oath of office in January.
Yes, the meanness of these campaigns is regrettable. Politics isn't pretty anywhere. But here it ends with amazing dignity, in polling stations across the country, as a mighty nation calmly effects the transfer of power and authority. If that isn't one of civilization's wonders, what is?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is www.JeffJacoby.com).
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