Two days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Abraham Lincoln spoke from a White House balcony to a crowd of thousands. Among them was John Wilkes Booth.
"When [Booth] heard Lincoln endorse enfranchising blacks," Sidney Blumenthal wrote recently in Newsweek, "he turned to his co-conspirator Lewis Powell and told him to shoot the president as he stood in the window. Powell refused. Afterward, Booth and Powell paced around Lafayette Square across from the White House. "That means n----- citizenship," said Booth. "Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."
Today, 147 years have passed since Booth assassinated President Lincoln — and 155 years have passed since the Dred Scott decision, in which a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court held that no African-American could ever be a U.S. citizen. Chief Justice Roger Taney asserted that the Constitution's authors believed blacks were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
One of my favorite (if likely apocryphal) stories from the 2008 campaign told of a Barack Obama volunteer walking a precinct in rural Ohio. At one house, the woman who answered the door yelled up the stairs to her husband: "Who are you voting for?"
The response was swift. "Tell him we're votin' for the n-----!"
Upon hearing that, I knew Obama would win. Even racists were voting for him, so insignificant had race become. Sure, sophisticated polls show that a majority of Americans harbor racist views, but Obama won anyway.
Current polls suggest a repeat of 2000, decided by a few hundred voters in one or two swing states. Is it possible a few hundred unrepentant Klansmen could carry Virginia, Florida or even Colorado for Mitt Romney?
Sure it is — just as it's possible that a few hundred dissident Mormons in Nevada could clinch the state for Obama, or that a few hundred discontented Latinas in New Mexico could decide the presidential outcome.
We're an angry, fractured, divided nation, all the more so because of the election. Our quadrennial exercise in democracy is like a family reunion gone bad, with drunken fistfights, weeping women, screaming children, snarling dogs and broken beer bottles. Nothing the cops can do — we'll have to sort it out ourselves.
Can we? On a national level, I doubt it. If Obama is re-elected, does anyone think Paul Ryan and House Republicans will be less ideological, less obstructionist? And if Romney prevails, will Hillary Clinton and Democrats wait one day to start the 2016 campaign?
Not so many years ago, local politics were unrelentingly nasty. Remember when Douglas Bruce, the Gazette, Amendment 2 and James Dobson defined Colorado Springs? Now it's Jim Daly, John Weiss, Amy Stephens and the Independent — quite a change! Even the fiercely contested state House race between Pete Lee and Jennifer George doesn't have the venom of yore. If we ignore the PAC-financed attack pieces, the choice is between two accomplished attorneys with distinguished records of public service.
A few weeks ago, I ran into Lee, walking my precinct with Laura Luckett.
"Have you seen [our mutual friend] Jill lately?" Laura asked.
"Yeah," I replied. "I saw her with Jennifer George the other day."
"Oh Jill," Laura said, smiling. "You know how she is with Republicans!"
What happened to good, old-fashioned Colorado Springs nastiness? Shouldn't Laura have said, "May she rot in hell!"
It's simple: Once again, we're early adaptors. We reveled in bitterly partisan politics long before the rest of the country, but we've had enough acrimony and anger. The new Colorado Springs may be less hospitable to the ideologues of division, and more interested in simple competence.
Want proof? Amy Lathen instead of Douglas Bruce. Amy Stephens instead of Charlie Duke. Jan Martin, Tim Leigh, Brandy Williams, Val Snider and Merv Bennett instead of Bruce's "reform team." And most of all, last year's mayoral runoff, pitting Steve Bach against Richard Skorman. We couldn't lose.
America, are you watching?