At sometime after midnight, Richard Nixon put on his pajamas, brushed
his teeth, and went to bed. He had just won the election to be
president of the United States, arguably the most powerful political
position in the world. But there were no security troops massed around
the White House. There was no Air Force unit at the ready at Andrews
Field. Both airfield and city were quiet; it was what is called a
peaceful transfer of power, a procedure operative in only a modest
minority of the world's nations -- if nominally a model for them all.
In truth, this week's election night wasn't that quiet. Not that the
streets were crawling with police patrols, or special units were
charging about the city arresting opposition lawmakers in their beds.
What disturbed the traditional peacefulness was a state of excitement
due to the simple fact that we'd had a major national election -- but no
knew who had won.
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A solution to the problem could, of course, be found in the nation's
schoolbooks. It is what is called the "Electoral College." But,
personally, I'd be surprised if even 10 percent of the people who voted
this week even knew how the Electoral College works. Here they thought
they'd voted for president, after all, but it seemed they'd voted for
someone called an "elector," whose name they didn't even know. For it
had been in fact an "indirect" election, not entirely unlike the
elections they used to have in Mexico.
Mexico? A historically corrupt country like Mexico? But in actual
fact, corrupt or not, democratic elections of any sort don't go that far
back in history. In George Washington's time, we had property
qualifications for voting -- a fact not often remembered by
traditionalists. (We couldn't allow the country's future to be
determined by street sweepers, could we now?)
At the time of the First World War, and for a generation afterwards,
the world was swept with a whole new lexicon of political movements,
many what we might call today "post-revolutionary" -- the forms of
government that in the West succeeded traditional monarchy. Getting
well into the 20th century, all kinds of "isms" still abounded -- and
were often present on electoral ballots. At the time I first voted, I
don't know how many labels were still present on national ballots of
major Western countries ("Communist," "Socialist," "Anarchist," etc.).
But far from the comparative peacefulness we're witnessing in the U.S.
subsequent to last Tuesday's ballot, the overwhelming majority of
countries presented with a choice (some 90 percent in France for
example) voted as if their lives depended on it. For elections in
People's China (which I've also witnessed), I'd have to invent a whole
Since, despite all the brouhaha about weak election "turnout" (only
some half the American population voted), and since a large portion of
the country's votes were cast for what I'll call the "opposition," I can
only conclude that a great many people in this country were dissatisfied
with the electoral results. There have consequently been numerous
protests against a
"misleading" ballot, plus protest gatherings against its contents (only after the election by the way).
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But for people who think they've witnessed a population truly disturbed by the results of an election (as in Latin America for example), I can only tell these patriotic Americans they haven't seen anything. And that if they want to see populations truly dissatisfied with elections, and detached from their governments in consequence, they should go to the Balkans. There's dissatisfaction for you.
By contrast, here in the U.S., we have Richard Nixon, who after the 1960 election, with its shady results in Illinois and Texas, said selflessly, "The country can't afford the agony of a constitutional crisis and I damn well will not be a party to creating one just to become president or anything else."
For what is sometimes the myth of national unity is important to Americans. President Kennedy and Nixon met during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 and after the catastrophe of the Bay of Pigs. In April of 1961 Nixon and Kennedy met for perhaps a half hour. On leaving the meeting, Kennedy said, "It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle." How many people care, he said, "if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 compared to something like this?"
Indeed. And, as with Cuba, we don't always see a grave national crisis coming. The unity of the country must be preserved precisely for such an emergency.