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The House that Lincoln Built


by Paul VanDevelder

A week has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision naming president-select Bush as our nation’s 43rd chief executive. It doesn’t seem like a week. Out here in America, among the arboreal cathedrals and wind-swept mesas, gathered as we are behind brightly lit kitchen windows in small but well built homes that rise beside frozen stubble fields, silent whirly-gigs and idle eight-bottom plows, the past ten days have felt more like a ride down a thousand mile gravel road with a bad tooth in a pick-up truck with no springs. Not much fun. There are undoubtedly curses greater than this one, but I am a stranger to them.

If we could make two snapshots of holiday shopper’s on Main Street, America, one taken on November 15, say, and another yesterday afternoon, we would probably be hard pressed to find traces of national angst in the faces captured in either image. Do not be misled by this. If you are journalist or a politician whose immediate reality is shaped by the fun-house mirror of Washington D.C. , do not be seduced by the apparent equanimity in the visages of strangers you meet at the bank or greet on the sidewalk.

Let me frame this another way. On a cold rainy day last February, we buried a friend named Jason after a vicious little tumor chewed its way through the vital wiring in his head and put his lights out for good. A week before Jason died he looked, and acted, absolutely normal. Sometimes you can’t see the thing that is killing you.

Yesterday afternoon I stepped up to the counter at our local library and offered the middle aged woman behind the desk my dog eared library card. She wore her hair in a bun and regarded me distantly through wire rimmed glasses as she scanned my bar code.

“How are you today,” she finally inquired, forcing a smile.

I must have heaved a heavy sigh. “I’ve been better.”

That’s all I had to say. Her eyes froze in their sockets. Her chin rose slowly to level a gaze livid with repressed rage.

“If you mention the election,” she whispered hoarsely, “I’ll start screaming.”

In half a breath she had spoken for millions.

As I watched events of the past five weeks unfold between waves of euphoria and rage, surrender and hubris, it occurred to me that the ‘little people’ of this land, people like my grand parents and neighbors and aunts and uncles, were once again being asked to pay an inflated price for the privilege of citizenship. Too often in our nation’s history we have asked the ‘little people’ to do the heavy lifting. They usually bend to the task without complaint. They usually come through in the end.

I’m not so sure they’re eager to ante up this time. I’m not convinced that they’re all that anxious to forgive and forget, to surrender to tired platitudes about ‘national unity’ and ‘healing.’ Sure, they’ll move on in some metaphorical sense because that’s what our mythology of origin has taught them to do, to put one foot in front of the other. But the footsteps will be heavier, more wearisome, and there will be little joy in the lifting. Their eyes and their voices tell me that something has shifted in the soul of this nation. Bones are knocking together that had never before touched. Kind, gentle people want to scream. There is a sense in the land that something is killing us from the inside out.

(Hatfield) Republicans (genus: democraticus) and Democrats alike have told me in recent days that they sense a foundational principle, one paid for in advance by their ancestors at Bunker Hill and Gettysburg and Omaha Beach, came into play in this post election battle. It didn’t start out that way. It commenced as a contest over who would live in the White House. Sometime during the second week the battle over ballots became a war for the soul of the nation. We mostly agree that no one won that battle. We mostly agree with Justice Stevens that we all lost. Along our tortured path to ‘conclusivity’, five U.S. Supreme Court justices managed to accomplish the unmanageable by disenfranchising the voices of tens of millions of citizens.

I am not bitter about the outcome of the election. The bloody particulars will sort themselves out soon enough. They always do (in this case, aided by Florida’s Sunshine Law). On the up side, it was a remarkable exercise in neo-democracy in a constitutional republic. On the downside the sanctity of the right to have one’s vote counted, the only act that secures an American identity for millions of little people, was severely damaged. Mr. Rehnquist, Ms. O’Connor, Mr. Scalia, Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Thomas, saw fit to suspended my not-so-inalienable right to loose. In the same stroke they denied Texas Gov. George W. Bush the privilege to win. It was a double whammy that provoked a deeply felt, confusing, and complex anger. If my vote did not count, in the end, neither did anyone else's.

In time, this supreme intervention may be viewed by historians as one of the greatest crimes ever committed by a branch of government against the rights of the little people. In his eloquent dissent, Justice Bryer warned the majority that they had needlessly squandered the nation’s sacred trust by torturing legal logic to achieve a transparently political end. There is no going back, no recovering decades of mindful, painstaking work. It is too late for that. The Rehnquist court is stuck with this legacy. Together and apart we crossed the Rubicon.

No one has run a finger along the fault line that divides our house of democracy more astutely than University of Oregon law professor, Garrett Epps. In a recent essay entitled ‘A House Divided.’ Epps gives us a brilliant metaphor for understanding our present conundrum by observing that ‘...our Constitution resembles an old country house that has been renovated, expanded and redesigned’ numerous times over the past two centuries. The house we live in looks very different from one window to the next, depending on which wing you live in.
The main house, our original republic, was designed to sidestep the inherent messiness of democracy by protecting the interests of elite white male property owners, men who were notoriously contemptuous of the little people. They commonly referred to us as ‘the mob.’
The power elite of that early day asked us to spill our blood to secure their political and economic objectives against outside aggression, but they never suggested that we would share their power or their wealth(any more than women should vote or black people should be free). In the original mansion, men of high social status selected members of the House of Representatives, state legislators (a bone to appease the untrustworthy) selected the senators, and disinterested electors chose the president. It was a tidy house, with a separate entrance for the tradesmen, and guards at the door to keep out ‘the mob’.

When the Constitutional convention adjourned in 1787, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton knew that a great crisis loomed. The struggle for dominance, between states and a powerful central government, would eventually lead to a bloody reckoning. Today we know that reckoning as the Civil War. Historian Gary Wills has observed that Abraham Lincoln, in a two and a half minute speech delivered at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, elevated the Bill of Rights over the Constitution as the articulation of principles that would henceforth frame and empower the exercise of freedom in the American democracy (the term greatness doesn’t begin to apply). In those brief transcendent minutes, the Kentucky rail splitter built an enormous new wing on the house of democracy, a wing that dwarfed the original mansion. It was a wing of the little people, by the little people, for the little people.

Lincoln’s addition to the original mansion was erected on the foundational principle that all citizens would exercise the right to vote, that the president would be selected by their will, and that all of the citizens would share the power equally. From that moment forward we have been two nations, two peoples, struggling to accommodate the contradictions between two constitutions that lead to two dramatically differing views of government.

To put these conflicts in context, consider that the ‘conservative’ jurists on the high court proceed on the assumption that Mr. Lincoln made an enormous mistake. In another time, their ideological predecessors upheld the constitutional guarantees protecting slavery, in Dred Scott. No where, argue justices Rehnquist and Scalia, does the Constitution grant citizens the power of the vote. On the other hand, argue ‘liberal’ justices Bryer and Stevens, no where does the Bill of Rights give the high court the right to preempt the lawfully expressed will of the people.
Different wings. Different constitutions. Different nations.

As a whole we may appear to gravitate toward some abstract political center, but I submit that our center is split by a profound fault line. Unless we claw our way toward some reconciliation of these conflicting constitutions, that fault line, under pressure, will continue to spew fireworks and boil with a rancor that in time will inevitably undermine the foundation supporting the house we all must live in.

Just because tanks did not roll into the streets of Tallahassee, just because we have refrained (thus far) from spilling each other’s blood, does not mean not that ‘the system’ worked, or that all is well. For many of us ‘the system’ buckled under the load and failed utterly. All is decidedly not well. Millions of Americans have been disenfranchised. Kind, gentle people want to scream. We are embittered by daunting divisions and stubborn contradictions. As we peer into the glass darkly, from the canyon lands and high deserts and coastal ramparts, ignoring as best we can the hollow words about bi-partisanship from all the usual suspects, what we know for certain, now that the smoke has cleared, is that God has given us torments greater than hurricanes and plagues.

She has given us each other.

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