12 July, 2004

Don't Celebrate Yet

Nation Weekly magazine, July 12-July 18, 2004

The presidential election in November will be the mother of all election battles. Democrats sound confident of victory but it may be too early to celebrate

July 4th is an American holiday that doesn’t mean much to a Nepali passing by. But this year, as I watched fireworks explode over Lake Champlain near the Canadian border, I felt it. July 4, 1776 was the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, it laid out reasons why the Americans were finally sick and tired of the British king. As America goes through “extraordinary times” with a president who often seems more nominated than elected, that document takes on special significance.

I have been in and out of America for a dozen years, and have clear memories of only two 4th of Julies, giving a hint about how important the Declaration of Independence was in my scheme of things. One is the time when I was sitting in a bar in Juneau, Alaska, eating a plate of the most delicious, smoked, barbequed, and sauced ribs of—cow meat. The second time was halfway around the continent, in a small town next to Providence, Rhode Island. As I walked down the crowded streets, my friend spotted the mayor and rushed over to shake hands with him. This was no ordinary mayor, but Mayor Vincent Cianci—a cult figure who has managed to rule Rhode Island like the Godfather for three decades. Cianci was a popular and charismatic man—not only did he clean up downtown and bring in Venetian style gondolas to float down a once-abandoned waterway, he also featured in a television series called “Providence” and even started his own brand of pasta sauce that sold well in the heavily Italian immigrant community of Rhode Island. But like the Godfather, Cianci had his darker side—it was common knowledge that he was heavily corrupt, and he had once arranged for thugs to beat up—and torture with a lit cigarette—a man who had slept with his wife.

The rule of Cianci appeared never-ending. Like all leaders in power who are known to be corrupt but who still sustain approval and followers due to the magic of power, Cianci kept on getting re-elected, in spite of overwhelming evidence of kickbacks and bribes in his government. Studies have been done about the psychology of people who blindly follow a charismatic leader. Hitler was one of those charismatic creatures, albeit in a twisted way. This is the factor—charisma—that worries me when I think about the upcoming American election in November. The liberals, I feel, are too smug about their forthcoming win, too sure Bush will be ousted. America is a strange can of worms, and I wouldn’t celebrate the end of President Bush—just yet.Take the man who drove me from the airport. He was a good, honest, God-fearing man. He had worked all his life at a medical insurance company, and had six children who he had put through school. All of them were hard workers, except for the middle son who was unemployed. He was retired, he said. He didn’t need the money, but still worked part-time driving the van. “Are you going to vote for Mr. Bush?” I asked. He looked at me and for a tiny, infinitesimal moment, sensing the irony of “Mr. Bush,” he nodded, “Yes, I am going to.”

“And I will tell you why,” he said. “Mr. Bush is a good Christian man. He had the guts to stand up to Saddam Hussein and call his bluff when nobody—not the United Nations or Europe—were willing to touch him. I respect his courage.”

It wasn’t that this man was uneducated, or unintelligent. Far from it. He was, in fact, frightening like the mass of Americans—good, hard-working, middle class Christians, who would form the majority of the Middle America voting bloc.

It was too late in the night to argue about the harm Bush had done to America, and the world—the billions of dollars that were cut from education and healthcare to wage a costly and bloody war against Iraq, a country already beaten down with sanctions and a tyrannical ruler; the war against terror that had become a war against immigrants and the poor; the countless ways in which the law was suppressed, information was hidden from the public, and the constitution ignored in order to further the oil-grabbing schemes of a clique of powerful millionaires. I paid my money, thanked the driver and let him go.

Not all tyrants last forever. Especially in America, the clear-eyed respect for the law is written in black ink in the Declaration of Independence, and comes back to catch men who thought they had committed the perfect crime. Cianci was accused of running a criminal enterprise from City Hall that collected more than $2 million in kickbacks and bribes in exchange for contracts, leases and city jobs over a nine-year period. An FBI probe collected enough evidence to convict Cianci of racketeering conspiracy and send him to a federal prison in New Jersey for five years and four months. The world waits with bated breath to know when this process will catch up with Mr. Bush. But the Democrats, it feels, are too confident about winning. This will be the mother of all election battles where charisma and Christianity (the evangelical kind), blind faith and ideological divides will rule the day. It may be too early to start popping open the champagne. If badly timed, the world may have to wait four more agonizing and destructive years before they get to drink it.

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