It's Mourning in America

The Ohio debacle and the death of our civic life

No matter what claims George Bush makes to another term now, we can't know without seeing Ohio's provisional ballots what voters here intended to say. By law, those ballots can't be counted until 11 days after the election.

Already the pundits are calling for John Kerry to let it go, to pull back from seeking a full accounting. There's a very good chance that even if the provisional ballots—perhaps 250,000 in all—are counted, Bush will still have won re-election by a very small margin. Two or three percentage points in that single state will probably have made all the difference. And if Bush manages to pull it out—maybe he won't—in the next four years a thousand theories will bloom about what factors might have made those few points fall his way instead of Kerry's.

Here is one that you probably won't be hearing on CNN, rooted in my reporting of the last two years.

It begins with the figure of Minister James Dobson, the radio preacher and the mover and the shaker behind the outfit called "Focus on the Family." Dobson has devoted his recent broadcasts to the proposition that a certain bill Senator Edward M. Kennedy wishes to pass, with the intention of providing federal penalties to thugs who beat up people for reasons of sexual orientation, is actually an opening wedge to anti-Christian pogroms. Dobson and his cohorts have been railing that is not just a step but a giant leap down the same slippery slope that found a Swedish minister named Ake Green sentenced to prison for preaching against homosexuality from his pulpit.

Here's a version of that line, from the Maryland Family Values Alliance, which claims—and the claim is typical in evangelical circles—that passage of Senator Kennedy's bill "would literally throw open the door to attacks against people of faith, who could be prosecuted with federal monies for expressing their views on homosexuality!"

Or Google a text entitled "The Freedoms Christians Might Lose in This Election," by Dr. John Ankerberg. It is one of a nearly limitless train of sermons that tie a vote for John Kerry, the bill from Ted Kennedy, and the fate of Ake Green into a single, smoldering, horrifying knot.

Now go to senate.gov, type in S. 966 after clicking the tab reading "Legislation and Records," and read Kennedy's bill. Read it forward, backwards, sideways, inside out, and see for yourself that it says nothing of the kind.

Think about the fact that George Bush has relied on the diffusion of lies like this in order to win his majority tonight; that he couldn't win without the widespread diffusion of such lies.

This is what I have learned these last two years. That the tragic thing about our public life is not that we are led by liars. It is that they have turned us into a nation of liars. For every time a leader whom ordinary, decent people want nothing more than to trust as a source of authority—a president, a minister, a leader of an outfit like the Maryland Family Values Alliance—says something untrue, it gets repeated by these decent people as truth. That feels like civic death to me.

How many points in the popular vote is a lie like this worth? If it's more than two—I think it's reasonable to surmise that it is—that means that without outright inventions like this, breathed life by "trustworthy" leaders and taken in like oxygen by God-fearing followers, George Bush would not be gliding toward his second term.

Tell me if that's not enough to make you want to sleep for a very, very long time. I'm ready to head bedward to do so, thankful only for the fact that John Edwards has just appeared on my TV screen—2:30 a.m., an hour after I typed the first word of this essay—and promised that they will continue to fight. Then comes the news that Bush might stake a claim to victory, maybe before morning breaks. It's more than I can stand.

Postscript: Just before 6. a.m. Eastern, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card announced that the Bush campaign was "convinced of its victory." The president would be making his own statement later on Wednesday, Card said, but had "decided to give Senator Kerry the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election."

 
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