Friday, August 06, 2004

Ballots in a Time of Bullets

Soon enough we're going to start reading and hearing the presidential election of 2004 compared to other war-time elections. And this will reveal the deep rift in modern America in yet another way.

To those who think the "War on Terror" is a sham, or else think the war is genuine but the attack on Saddam was a bad wrong turn in it, Bush will be compared to Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968.

To those who think the War on Terror is a real and dangerous fight, and Iraq is a crucial battleground, whether it was necessary or not, the look-back will be to Lincoln in 1864 and Roosevelt in 1944.

Some comparisons will jump out: Lincoln, with meager military experience and a less-than-majority victory four years before vs. a man of solid military attainments in George McClellan. Yet Kerry has nowhere near the status among the active soldiers that McClellan had. Like McClellan, Kerry will emphasize the military leadership blunders of the incumbent, and emphasize a diplomatic solution to an ongoing war that seems to have no end in sight.

In 1864, the Republicans carried the vote of the soldiers, many of whom received a furlough to go home for voting. Other soldiers received their ballot in the field at makeshift polling stations. The military vote wasn't much debated at that time because both candidates presumed they would secure the soldier vote.

The 1944 vote was less dramatic. The outcome never was in doubt. If anything, it illustrats how far politics and political reporting have come from what they were. Imagine the media treatment today: Mistakes had been made on a colossal scale, botched camaigns killed tens of thousands of American men, and dark mutterings were afoot about the Pearl Harbor "surprise."

The Republicans, running New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, wisely avoided that divisive tactic. They did try to portray the president as soft on communism. As it turns out, there was some truth to this, but it took a generation to reveal it. [The road to McCarthyism began with Roosevelt's deliberately turning a blind eye to Soviet spying in a bid to win the trust of the Russians.] The GOP also pressed the issue of Roosevelt's extended term in office, and suggested he sought to be a dictator. But neither of these issued found much traction with the voters.

Dewey and his party also took up the only really legitimate tack they had: calling attention to Roosevelt's failing health. But the press in that day generally respected elected officials, and the reporters loved Roosevelt, who treated them well. For more than a decade they had been actively involved in the conspiracy to hide his handicap from the public. When 1944 came along, reporters and editors failed to distinguish between Roosevelt's lifelong handicap and the president's genuinely deteriorating physical condition.

The president stayed off the campaign trail in the early going, however, and the Republican stories about his health got louder. Roosevelt then put them to rest by hitting the trail hard and emphasizing his experience (which Dewey obviously couldn't match). The newspapers emphasized Roosevelt's vigor on the campaign trail, and the "Roosevelt is dying" stories died down.

The press failed to really inquire into the president's condition. In fact, Roosevelt was dying, and the final campaign push probably hastened his end. He won the election handily and died six month later.

But Timothy Perry and Michael Rosen think this year's election bears comparison to the campaign of 1904.