Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer E Pluribus

Pushing the envelope expands the contents for everybody.

By Jackson Baker

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Anybody who witnessed the modest protests that occurred during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia or the more energetic ones that erupted in Los Angeles, where the Democrats met, is aware that uniformity of opinion is not a real possibility in America.

It is not even a desirable option. All of us intuitively know that the health of our political system depends somehow on all the trash talk that occurs during an election cycle. It is no accident that the impulse has been instituitonalized in such television programs as the aptly named Crossfire.

It is one of the hoariest -- but truest -- cliches in our lexicon, We Agree to Disagree. In general, that is a blessing, but it can also be a curse -- both when the disagreement becomes so virulent as to infect the governmental process itself and, contrariwise, when the poles of disagreement are so close that the system lacks for real creative tension.

Some would argue that the latter situation exists in the current campaign year, when both the GOP's George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative," and the Democrats' Al Gore, the apostle of "peace and prosperity," stand so clearly for a centrist, don't-rock-the-boat sensibility. In which case, the demonstrators of both left and right are there to remind the politicians of unfulfilled agendas and blatant hypocrisies.

But an even greater benefit comes from the steady absorption into the American mainstream of formerly excluded strains, a phenomenon which is summed up in the national slogan, E Pluribus Unum (One Out of Many).

In Philadelphia three weeks ago, we saw retired General Colin Powell, an African American and a man who in 1996 might have had the presidency for the asking, scold the elders of his party for their coddling of special interests and their reticence to pursue Affirmative Action programs boosting the chances of minorities. That same convention witnessed an onstage parade of ethnic diversity that was unprecedented for a Republican convention.

In some ways, the Democrats in Los Angeles last week pushed the envelope even further.

Although the major old-line networks missed the point by deigning not to televise the event live, the intermittently stirring Tuesday-night address by Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. made it unanimous: Both parties in 2000 put forth African-American keynote speakers as their faces to the world.

But the real sea change came with Al Gore's naming of a running mate -- Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman -- who thereby became the first Jewish candidate (and an Orthodox one, at that) for national office on a major party ticket.

There was some holding of the breath as this observer or that cautiously pointed out that, just as with black candidates for major office, adverse reaction to the choice might be so subliminal as to pass under pollsters' radar. But the point was: Americans seemed to approve of Lieberman, both on personal grounds and on that of his faith, which seemed less exotic than reassuringly traditional.

Speaking at a breakfast of the Tennessee delegation in Los Angeles the morning after Lieberman's well-received acceptance speech, state senator Steve Cohen of Memphis recalled how, as a politically ambitious child, he had dreamed of running for the presidency, even picked out a target year, and thought up a fanciful slogan, "First Jew in '92."

The year came and went and no 42-year-old Jew named Cohen was elected president. But eight years later, a somewhat older one named Lieberman has a chance of being elected vice president, and Cohen, echoing remarks by Jesse Jackson, observed with both pride and emotion how that fact empowered everybody, not just American Jews.

As Lieberman had said when he took the stage at the Staples Center Wednesday night, "Is America a great country -- or what?" Nobody doubted what he meant.

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