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The Day(s) the Democratic Process Died
May 22, 2001
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 it happened.

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.

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