Barbarians in the Rose Garden

Jul 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

Virtually every battle of World War II was long ago turned into a major Hollywood epic, but nobody has ever paid much attention to a fascinating challenge that war posed to our democracy.

During the most intense phase of combat, with V-2 missiles (what we today call Scuds) raining on London and amid deep worries that the Germans would produce an atom bomb and find some way to hit America, we held a presidential election.

We did so with 12 million men in uniform, most overseas. Most of them were not able to vote, though some did. The party out of power (in this case the Republicans) sharply criticized the conduct of the war.

The Democrats never called them disloyal for doing so. The election went off without a hitch; it was relatively close, but the party in power was re-elected, and everyone went back to concentrating on the war the next day. Great Britain and Canada called off their regular elections during the war.

But we didn’t even think about postponing them. Our whole system is based on the idea that the people get to pick their leaders at regular intervals, no matter what. We even held a presidential election in 1864, during the Civil War, when it was entirely possible all throughout that year that the Confederacy might overrun Washington.

Nobody suggested postponing either of those elections. But George W. Know-Nothing wasn’t the puppet president then. This month, we’ve actually had members of his administration seriously talking about finding a way to postpone elections, just in case a terrorist attack might occur.

The Homeland Security Department (a name only George Bush and George Orwell could love) reportedly asked the Justice Department what steps would have to be taken to cancel or postpone a federal election. This is pretty scary stuff, when you consider that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft probably doesn’t like elections to begin with, as he lost his last one to a dead man.

However, news of this leaked out, and though the news media was as timid as usual, there are still plenty of members of Congress in both parties who have actually read the Constitution and care more about it and this democracy than they do Halliburton’s balance sheet. That quickly ended the discussion of finding a way to turn America into an imitation Guatemala.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, remember, quickly learned that he wasn’t emperor when, basking in a wave of somewhat justified post-Sept. 11 popularity, he suggested that he be allowed to stay in office past the end of his term.

He got a reception that made the shoulder of the wife he had just dumped look warm. So much for hero Rudy. By the way, can you imagine how we would feel if it were Oct. 30, the polls say (as they should by then) Kerry 51, Bush 42, and the White House has the option of postponing elections?

Nobody would believe that the White House wasn’t involved if a terrorist strike did take place.

There is at least one country where the rulers tend to void elections or call them off if the results aren’t in the interests of “national security.”

We’re talking about Myanmar, formerly Burma, and I would by no means oppose George W. Bush’s moving there. They don’t have baseball, but surely his daddy’s friends could find him an import-export company to mismanage.

What we really need in this nation is more voting, not less. Forty years ago this summer, three college kids, two of them white, one of them black, went to Mississippi to try to register people to vote. Mississippi at the time was an authentic terrorist state, far more of a threat to our democracy than al Qaeda could ever be, even with all the help George Bush has been to it.

They were tortured and brutally murdered, but they did not die in vain. Their deaths helped lead to the passage of the civil rights and voting rights legislation that, for the first time in our history, allowed people of color to vote everywhere. Their names were James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Almost nobody remembers them, but everybody should. They did more for democracy than most generals.

Yet it was all for nothing if you don’t vote. Political correctness requires that well-off white liberals refrain from criticizing the black community. Too bad. Black voter turnout in our elections is a scandal and a disgrace, especially to the memory of James Cheney, who happened to be black.

Yes, they still do make it somewhat harder for poor and black folk to vote than for white folk, but thanks to those three young men, you no longer can be lynched for trying to register.

And, yes, they don’t always count all the votes properly.

Yet the undisputed fact is that if there had been equal turnout in Florida in both the black and white communities, George W. would be picking his nose in Crawford, Texas, today, a pariah in his own party for having blown the election.

Had blacks voted in the same percentages as whites, we wouldn’t be in this crazy war in Iraq; John Ashcroft would be a Trivial Pursuit question, and we wouldn’t have as many new enemies in the Arab world.

Interestingly, the Republicans know this very well. Johnny Pappageorge, a fairly low-wattage state representative from Troy, openly said so the other day. He was quoted in the Free Press as saying his party needed to “suppress” the turnout in Detroit. Doesn’t that sound special? How does he suggest doing that?

Martin Luther King lamented elections in which African-Americans had nothing for which to vote. But this time, they surely have something to vote against. They might want to, while they still can.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]