Note: This is a column Elie Wiesel wrote for the Miami Herald in 2004. He died Saturday at age 87.
This clamorous and alarming election campaign, which should inspire and mobilize - on both sides - all that America has to offer in the way of political courage, open-mindedness and vision for a bright future . . . well, I must sadly admit that it disappoints and depresses me. Has it always been this way? Have we always had adversaries hurling insults at each other rather than allowing debate and analysis to influence undecided voters? Should we be afraid to trust the public to comprehend the issues in depth? One could almost say that the goal is not to inspire but to incite, not to inform but to dumb down.
I'm not talking about the candidates themselves. I have deep esteem for one and great respect for the other. They represent two political ideologies, two philosophies for this society, and each of us is free to choose the one with whom we identify. But why the disagreeable, offensive tone that emanates from this event?
I've been living in this magnificent democracy since 1956. As a foreign correspondent for some time, I had the opportunity to watch the two parties campaign in a number of presidential races: John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater, Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford. I have watched the elections of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
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Too much hatred around
In every case, the supporters and spokesmen of both the incumbent and the opposition expressed themselves with ardor, conviction and dedication. But never with such violence as we see today.
Too many Democrats feel hatred - yes, hatred - for President Bush, and too many Republicans fail to hide their contempt for Sen. John Kerry. These two sentiments should be excluded during electoral contests.
Politics was once a noble pursuit. Working for the polis, the city, the republic or the community signified a desire to give back what one had received. One had to be worthy of this honor. And many leaders were.
Nowadays the word politics evokes at best a contemptuous smile. We usually say it with a smirk. We suspect politicians of every sin, of any kind of scheme, of all sorts of manipulation. We consider them somewhat deceitful, a bit hypocritical, more than a little egotistical and certainly consumed with ambition.
But politics is like money or love: Everything depends on what you make of it. For some, it's a matter of arrogance and power. For others it's more of a passion for justice, sacrifice and generosity.
Why this need, among people on both sides, to let nastiness and ugliness dominate the discussion? Why don't they listen to the voices calling for an end to this slide into the gutter? Do we care about what our children think as they watch this on television? What are they to make of the exchanges, insults and attacks? Why, once they finish school, should they choose public service, which not so long ago was a praiseworthy endeavor?
Of course political campaigns in the past had their share of verbal onslaughts, unfortunate remarks, and regrettable, simple and even crude comments. Politicians talk a lot, often too much; they say things they later regret. But these were the exceptions, not the rule. Abiding by unwritten laws, candidates and their colleagues sought to appeal to all that was decent, civilized and cultured in their rivals, not to that which made them ugly.
Why shame one another?
We don't ask that they be prophetic orators, linguistic goldsmiths or inspired moralists; we simply ask that they not take voters to be ignorant or barely civilized. To get us to reject this or that candidate, it would suffice to show us their flaws and weaknesses. Why, in personalizing the conflict, do they try to shame one another? Why do they all but deny the past of one candidate and negate the honor of the other?
This presidential campaign is bursting with verbal violence, debasing rather than elevating the debate. Instead of examining the serious problems of a society in crisis, it's treating them superficially. Rather than comparing one philosophical doctrine with its counterpart, the campaigns are succumbing to propaganda - propaganda that is striking for its excessive anger and its lack of elegance, generosity and even simple courtesy.
Many wounds await healing
The two candidates are right to call this election one of the most, perhaps even the most, important in recent U.S. history. What's at stake is more than the victory of one party, and even more than the resolution of the situation in Iraq. What's at stake is the kind of world that will be shaped by the vote of Americans in November.
So many questions await their response, so many wounds must be healed, so much anguish weighs upon humanity. The whole world agrees that international terrorism represents a mortal menace for many countries and cultures. How do we proceed to uncover it, isolate it and conquer it? How do we understand its roots? Is poverty the cause? Is it nationalist or religious fanaticism?
America is waiting for an authentic and superior national debate on all these points. How long must we wait?
Elie Wiesel is a humanities professor at Boston University. (This column was translated from French by Zofia Smardz.)