Day(s) the Democratic Process Died
by Kevin Ormsby
Friday November 22, 1963: I was sitting in my sixth grade
classroom on that mild autumn afternoon learning about the
Andes Mountains and the gross national product of Chile. Then
One of the eighth grade honor students that our school principal
employed to carry messages from her office to the teachers
knocked on our classroom door. The upperclassman handed a
slip of paper to my teacher, Sister Mary Gertrude. As the
good sister read the note the color drained from her face.
She turned to the class and said: "President Kennedy has been
shot. You'll be dismissed one hour early. Please go home and
pray for the president."
We didn't speak as we packed our book bags and prepared to
head home for the weekend…a weekend we couldn't possibly know
would figure so prominently in the life of the nation. That
Friday-to-Monday was to include the murder of our president,
the murder of a Dallas police officer, the murder of the accused
assassin and the burial of President John F. Kennedy. Somewhere
during that four-day time span much of what was good and great
about America was bruised and battered beyond recovery.
The class of eleven-year-olds walked home that Friday afternoon
and returned to school the following Tuesday to find that
the world had forever changed. Something had been terribly
altered in America with the murder of John F. Kennedy. Something
had drained out of the United States over those four days
just like the color leaving the face of the good sister as
she read the principal's note. We eleven-year-olds were made
to understand on November 23, 1963 that bad things do happen
to good people. We discovered that death is real and that
evil has a face you can watch on the evening news.
I have lived through the assassination of a beloved president,
John Kennedy the assassination of a great civil rights leader,
Martin Luther King Jr. and the assassination of a fine public
servant, Robert F. Kennedy. I grew up watching the Vietnam
War being played out on the nightly news and I looked on with
a mixture of horror and fascination as that conflict stole
the collective political virginity of our nation. I was attending
college when Watergate broke and I watched Nixon and company
fall from lofty heights into a resignation-sewer of their
own design. The murders of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King
along with the Vietnam War, and Watergate all left indelible
scars on our democracy. These tragedies left us filled with
a haunting mixture of fear, helplessness, and dread.
And so it was on Election Night 2000 that this same free-floating
discomfort crept over me as I watched the presidential election
play out. After the extended election fiasco was completed
with the Supreme Court coup d'etat the free-floating discomfort
that had been planted on Election Night had blossomed into
outright revulsion at what had been perpetrated on America.
No, the election of George W. Bush had not left a man dead.
Putting him in the White House hadn't kicked off a war or
put our soldiers in harms way, but nonetheless I instinctively
knew that something was dangerously out of kilter. Watching
the weeks of legal wrangling over the Florida vote had left
me feeling as if I was witnessing a fatal auto accident in
slow motion: An accident that was impossible to stop.
On Election night I sat in our living room with my eleven-year-old
son as he cradled a US map and a pair of red and blue markers
in his lap. Together we waited for the various states to be
called for Bush or Gore. The map and the coloring exercise
was part of my son's sixth grade class assignment planned
by his social studies teacher: "Color the map as the states
are won and at the end of the night you'll see how our next
president was elected," Mrs. Vitello told the students. She
had the best of intentions.
As the election night progressed my son held that map and
those two markers tighter and tighter, his frustration growing.
By the time Florida was given to Bush and then to Gore and
then finally, and mysteriously, morphed into "too close to
call" my son had nodded off. Somewhere between Dan Rather's
reference to frogs having side pockets and the umpteenth look
at Tim Russert's cute little "tally board" I woke my son and
sent him off to bed. Through half-awake eyes he asked, "Who
won?" I told him the election was too close to call and guessed
that by morning things would be cleared up. Well, as we all
know, that wasn't to be.
My son wanted an election that an eleven-year-old could understand.
An election where people vote, votes are counted and a winner
is named. That was the election all of us wanted. But didn't
get. As I watched my son over the next few post-election days,
and eventually over those next six weeks, I could see his
interest in the voting process waning and then finally failing.
I was left wondering just how much damage the 2000 presidential
election had caused for our nation's young people.
Just as I remember where I was and what I was doing when
those tragic, and or, history making moments in our nation's
history took place - Nixon's resignation, the Vietnam War
declared over, the murder of our national heroes - I will
forever recall where I was on election night 2000. I was sitting
on my couch in front of the television struggling to explain
the democratic process to my young son.
Will we ever know exactly how the 2000 presidential election
was stolen from the American voter? I think we will. Eventually
the truth will come out. And maybe, perhaps years from now,
it will be one of those young social studies students who
was sitting in front of their television on election night
- red and blue markers clutched innocently in hand - that
will bring that truth to light.