Incivility aside, Americans are the big election winners

The vagaries of the newspaper business (i.e. deadlines) being what they are, I'm required to write this column before the outcome of the presidential election is known. At least, to me.

It is the fate of newspapers today to be overtaken by the electronic media, which can flash results on the TV screens and over the airwaves while newspaper presses are still gearing up to go.

But if TV is the medium of instant images, newspapers remain the medium of depth and reflection, where readers can explore the meaning of what they have seen and heard. Gene Roberts, an old friend who was managing editor of The New York Times, once told me that after any major news event covered live and in full on TV, the next day's circulation of the Times went up, not down, as readers sought to better understand the meaning of what they had already seen. Walter Cronkite once perceptively pointed out that all the words delivered on a prime-time network TV report would fill less than half a page of your average newspaper.

While you, the readers, probably know who the next president will be, I, as I write, do not. So this column will be heavier on reflection about the campaign past than prognostication about who won it, and the future.

A few reflections:

Was it, as some have suggested, the most important election in the history of Western civilization? Goodness, no.

Clearly there were significant ideological and philosophical differences. But the nation will proceed on an even keel. The new president will seek to unite, not divide. He inherits an economy in expansion. Retailers are looking forward to busy holiday sales, with two more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve than there were last year. Ho, ho, ho.

What changes should we make in the campaigning? It goes on too long and costs a ridiculous amount of money. This one generated a lot of heat but not a great deal of light. The debates give a close-up of the candidates' body language, but the verbiage is often repetitious. Two presidential debates instead of three would probably suffice and we could abandon the vice presidential one.

Who came out on top? The American people. They got involved. They registered to vote. This huge, diverse, and powerful nation chose its next leader in orderly fashion at the ballot box, not by the bayonet and with tanks. Hurrah for democracy!

But weren't there hateful divisions? There's nothing wrong with robust championship of political views. But there was a disturbing militancy in some of the letter-writing to newspapers, and some unpleasant name-calling and questioning of candidates' motives and integrity. We could do with more civility in our public discourse.

Was there too much religious intrusiveness? No. Both candidates, while explaining how they applied their respective faiths to their decisionmaking, were careful to affirm that they were not imposing their beliefs on others. We need to understand the moral dimension they bring to important issues ranging from same-sex marriage at home to preemptive military strikes abroad.

Did these important issues get satisfactorily aired and understood? Despite the length of the campaign, probably not. Terrorism and the war in Iraq dominated. Popular journalism is much more focused on personality and confrontation between celebrities rather than on discussion of more esoteric problems.

So what was missing? Some serious talk about an energy policy that would make the US less dependent on foreign oil. Instead of argument about raising or lowering taxes, some realistic discussion of serious income-tax simplification. Some solution-oriented thinking about an AIDS epidemic that threatens to wipe out an entire generation in Africa. Beyond how the US gets out of Iraq, a debate about how we bring hope and healing to the next angry Arab generation in the Muslim world.

What should we hope for? A president who will bring a healing touch to the country's political wounds. A president with a strong moral compass who will gather allies in the quest for security and peace. A president who will preside over a steadily strengthening and growing economy.

As for his constituents? From our politicians: optimism and decisiveness rather than negativism and procrastination. From aspiring 2008 presidential candidates: Give us a break. From the business community: more integrity in high corporate places. From Hollywood: more tastefulness in the picture it paints of our society. From journalism: more depth. From all of us: more civility.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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