End of the Nightmare

“It’s amazing what one honest man can do. One honest man and a cause.”

General Lo Armistead

“I don’t think on that too much anymore. My only cause is victory. This war comes upon us as a nightmare. You pick your nightmare side. Then you put your head down and win.”

General James Longstreet

I’ve had the Longstreet quote above running through my head the last few weeks, unable to recall where I’d heard it. Today I was finally able to retrieve the context from my aging brain. When I located the entire passage from the 1993 movie Gettysburg, I realized the complete exchange was even more pertinent to the entire 2016 election, now coming mercifully to a close.

In the movie, a group of Southern generals are discussing the excellence of Robert E. Lee, while their commander General James Longstreet is reflecting instead on the brutal nightmare the Civil War had become in its third bloody year. The ultimate result of the Civil War was largely decided at Gettysburg, just two hours drive from where I sit in eastern Pennsylvania. In the event that Trump pulls off a surprise upset tonight, Pennsylvania will likely be a key part of his victory.

This entire election cycle has been a nightmare. Asked about their feelings on the final day of the campaign, voters most often identify anger, fear, and depression. Those negative feelings are especially strong among independents, a group with which I find myself identified for the first time. Most Americans have picked one of the two nightmare sides, and are hoping their side wins.

Our national angst at the election contest derives in part from the bitterness and divisiveness of the rhetoric on both sides, but even more from the absolute lack of confidence in the nominees of either party. These are the two most disliked candidates of my lifetime. Despite the apologies of partisans on both sides, I believe that dislike is entirely deserved, again on both sides.

During the Civil War, Americans literally killed each other, in numbers never equaled in any other conflict. Yet the fighting men of both sides were able to recognize the excellence of their opponents, their courage and commitment, despite the fact that they were fighting to the death.

We seem to have lost that ability. The bitterness of this election divides friends, families, communities. How is it possible that our ancestors at Gettysburg could treat each other with respect immediately after slaughtering each other by the tens of thousands, yet our candidates today are unwilling even to shake hands before a debate?

A central reason for the partisan divide is that we have lost the very idea of virtue in public life. This process really began in the 1990s, during the first Clinton Presidency. Conservative William Bennett wrote The Book of Virtues, desiring to instruct children in those qualities of character necessary in a democratic society. Democrat Ben Wattenberg responded with Values Matter Most, a book asserting that such liberal priorities as education or affirmative action should form the core of a more elevated national conversation.

The problem, of course, is that values are something that you are not likely to share with your opponents, especially if values are defined in narrow partisan terms. Virtues, on the other hand, are affirmative qualities of character and soul that you can recognize even across profound partisan, cultural, national or religious divides. At Gettysburg Union General Winfield Hancock, gravely injured, brought water after the battle to his dying Masonic lodge brother, Confederate General Lo Armistead. He loved his friend, even though they fought on opposite sides of the most divisive question in American history, whether men might hold other men as property.

This year, the nominees of both major parties are individuals of poor character. Both have lied about issues of material importance. Both have a history of treating ordinary people with brutal indifference. Both have ignored the law, the rules, and common decency whenever necessary to advance their own interests. Neither candidate possesses any visible humility or ability to admit error.

We once shared the belief that good character was a necessity in any candidate for high office, and we celebrated such character in the lives of great Presidents like Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Truman. The choice of these two individuals, Trump and Clinton, to compete for the world’s most important office represents a betrayal, not just of a commitment to character in our leaders, but also of the central values of each party. The Democrats chose someone who has used political influence to accumulate a vast fortune, mostly through relationships with powerful financial interests and authoritarian foreign governments. The Republicans chose a crude man with no understanding of American history, Constitutional principle, or the necessary limits of government power.

Both parties have failed us, in fundamental and obvious ways. Each party’s voters believe that a victory by the other party’s candidate poses a fundamental danger to the health of our democracy.

So my wish is that both parties, regardless of the outcome of today’s contest, will recognize the damage done, in choosing their standard bearers, by abandoning a commitment to basic decency and to the principle that the public interest must take precedence over personal gain . Out nation needs, and our history and principles demand, a better class of candidate next election cycle.