A Day to Rethink This Campaign -- Cont.

Washington Matters

A Day to Rethink This Campaign -- Cont.

Seven years ago, I was a reporter for the Gannett newspapers covering Congress. I was about to leave my home for Capitol Hill when the second plane struck the World Trade Center towers and I bolted out the door for my downtown bureau instead.

We all carry images and feelings from that day with us. The most indelible one for me wasn't of the devastation, but a moment near the end of the day. Members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol -- a probable target eight or nine hours earlier of the one hijacked jet that did not find its target. After brief speeches by the leadership, the gathering was breaking up when several voices could, just barely, be heard singing "God Bless America." Within seconds, all of those on the steps had regrouped and were singing, "...stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above."

And when I look back and think about that moment and the defiance, courage and hope it conveyed to a nation in terrible need of all three, and look at the presidential race now, all I can say to myself is, "What the hell happened?"

That summer I had begun to work on a running series looking at the role of moderate senators in a chamber that was equally divided 50-50 and struggling to get things done. I was following four, in particular: Jim Jeffords of Vermont, still a Republican at the time, Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., John Breaux, D-La., and freshman Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Two or three days after the attacks, I had to call their offices and say the project was dead for the foreseeable future. My contact on Jeffords' staff said, "Of course. Everything's changed. We're all moderates now."

That, too, turned out to be wishful thinking. Attempts at consensus and working toward the center stopped before the year was out. By 2002, the parties were at each other's throats again. In fact, Jeffords grew so frustrated with what he saw as extreme partisanship by his own party and president, he left the GOP and shifted control of the Senate to the Democrats.

I see a similar dysfunctional pattern in this campaign: a well-intentioned pledge is taken in good faith by the two sides to seek consensus and put country before party, only to be broken because they have fallen prey to the same partisan pressures that split apart those voices of moderation and unity that sought God's blessing and guidance for a shattered country.

I won't repeat Mark Willen's lament over the course of the campaign since the conventions. I will only add my voice to his in saying that events of seven years ago showed that this country has the ability to rise above partisanship and pettiness. That it failed then and appears to be failing now does not have to be a case of history repeating itself. That may very well happen, but it will be out of choice, not destiny. John McCain and Barack Obama have shown they have the temperaments and strength to promote unity over discord and substance over pettiness. Like Mark, I'd like to think that the nature of today's ceremonies and the events behind them will sober up both men and their campaigns. I don't think any of us want to get to November and look at those two men and think, "What happened? What the hell happened?"