Don't Take the Bush-Obama Handshake for Granted

By Jim Wallis 11-12-2008

The campaign was filled with backstabbers, liars, and cheats. Entire books were created out of thin air to defame opponents. Editors of newspapers received payments from the opposing campaign to influence their writing. One candidate was accused of being ready to hand off America to foreign powers as soon as elected. That's right, ladies and gentleman, the political battle of 1800 was a dirty one. 2008 was pretty bad too.

When I saw the pictures of President Bush and President-elect Obama standing side by side and shaking hands at the White House, I had to pause in amazement. Let it sink in. One reporter cynically commented that there was "no news" from the White House event. He was wrong. This is news-very good news. Here in the United States, we are for the most part accustomed to a peaceful transference of power. In the broader context of human history, even protracted court battles and frustrating recounts aren't as bad as guns. Death, war, and destruction have been far more common tools to change political leadership-and still are the method in too many places around the world.

At the end of the election of 2008, two leaders who are diametrically opposed in political ideology were extremely gracious to one another on Monday, both wanting this transition to work as well as possible-for the good of the country. And I've noticed how even most of the media commentators, whose outrageous diatribes against the opposing candidates were so maddening to me just one week ago, are now being quite magnanimous, polite, and civil toward both the election's winner, Barack Obama, and the loser, John McCain, since the election (except for Rush Limbaugh of course).

The election of 1800 was the first presidential election after major political parties had formed. The direction and future of the country was hotly contested, and the fate of a young nation hung in the balance. Even with month-long news delays between continents, countries across the world waited in anticipation. The campaign was long and dirty, and when the vote among the electors (the Electoral College was quite a bit different back then) came out a tie, the election went to the House of Representatives. It took a total of 36 ballots before the tie was finally broken and Thomas Jefferson declared the winner.

After all of the chaos of the election, would John Adams, Commander in Chief of the American military, give up his office to his hated rival Jefferson just because an election had said he should? This kind of voluntary abdication of power was unknown to the world at that time. But on January 20th,1801, John Adams made history and set a tone for the nation when he boarded a coach before dawn and headed north to home. And it's been the same ever since.

President Bush and President-elect Obama sitting down to talk after the gloves had been off for 18 months is a reason to be proud. Our democracy is far from perfect, as you hear from me, on the blog, on a regular basis. But on Monday, we saw again why our democracy is a reason to celebrate.

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