Column: Election Day Reflections

Ulysses S. Grant was a great general and a mediocre president. After the abysmal performance by Andrew Johnson, the vice-president under Abraham Lincoln who served out the four years for which Lincoln had been elected, Americans wanted an unequivocally decisive leader to get the country back to business. Grant, like most military leaders elevated to the presidency, had little insight into the workings of the giant, political machine he was designated to manage. As Lieutenant General of the Union Army, he could get missions approved and financed with little more than a nod from his boss, Honest Abe. In the chaos that still prevailed in local and national politics after Andrew Johnson was kicked out of the White House, Grant was out of his element.  The United States in the 1870s was anything but united, and the government was packed with charlatans intent on enriching themselves.

Our country needed an able and ethical administrator to help rebuild a devastated South and help the millions of citizens in both the North and the South that had been displaced, disabled, or simply ruined by the Civil War. The leading candidates in the1876 presidential election were Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden got the most popular votes, but neither candidate got the requisite number of electoral college votes. The Constitution required that the election be taken up by the House of Representatives and therein occurred what would subsequently be known as the “Great Betrayal.”

Hayes was an experienced lawyer and Civil War hero. He had been wounded five times while serving in the Union Army and was elected to the House of Representatives and was also Governor of Ohio. He supported gradual Reconstruction of the southern states that had seceded from the Union. He campaigned on a platform that involved the continued presence of Federal troops in the southern states. Unfortunately, he needed the support of Representatives from the South to get the votes to be President. Twenty  electoral college votes from southern states were needed for him to win the Presidency, and that was precisely the number of votes Hayes needed to beat Tilden. A deal was cut and promises were forgotten.

Despite numerous campaign promises and well-advertised commitments to continue the Federal presence in the rebellious South to assure the fair and equal treatment of all its citizens, including those who had been slaves, Hayes allowed his ambition to squelch his integrity. He agreed to end Reconstruction, withdraw Federal troops from southern states, and re-install leaders of the rebellion in positions of authority. Slavery was given new names but was a persistent reality for most of the southern states’ Africa-Americans, and the antebellum status quo spread like a cancer throughout the South. A century later, people of good conscious in both the North and the South are still trying to extinguish the racial discrimination and cruelty reignited and reinforced by the Hayes administration.

We vote for people, not policies. The candidates may assure us that they will cut taxes, limit spending, save the planet, and end war, but when they get into office they are as likely as not to raise taxes, increase spending, trash the planet and start wars. There is no accountability. We are so accustomed to hearing about elected officials involved in practices that they campaigned against that we do not even pretend to be shocked. After 250 years of little betrayals by and lame excuses from our elected representatives, we, the people of the United States, have become desensitized. We expect little from the people we elect, and they know it.

In the upcoming election, many candidates have reduced their credentials to simple phrases.  Even those of us with short attention spans could tolerate a little detail in the candidates plans and a mechanism to assure that they will do what they promise to do. Unfortunately, voters realize these candidates will inevitably do whatever their party leaders instruct them to do. Those who dare to disobey their leaders are summarily ejected from their positions. The only advantage to having 50 senators who will routinely vote in the same way is that each senator requires their colleagues and the administration to pay for their loyalty. They profit; their constituency suffers.

A prime example of our legislature’s failure to fulfill its promises is America’s continuing support of the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Most Americans want peace, and few would support sending billions of dollars of military equipment to a regime that has orchestrated attacks against our nation and our citizens. As improbable as it may sound, our government helped train and equip some of our most dangerous enemies, including Osama bin Laden. Billions of American dollars flow to the Saudi royal family, a family that has given considerable support to America’s enemies.

Democratic and Republican administrations will argue that it is in our country’s interest to make these anachronistic, misogynistic, butchers happy. After all, they hardly ever support teams of suicide bombers to bring down our skyscrapers. We know of only one American journalist whom they have murdered and dismembered. Our politicians argue that we need this regime that clings to 7th century norms to keep the cost of oil relatively low. Their recent support of Russia in its efforts to raise oil prices in support of the war against the Ukraine must be a fluke. Friends do not price gouge their friends. They certainly do not want to tip the American economy into a recession. This is all a minor misunderstanding. Our oil executives will straighten this out. Without friends like Mohammed bin Salman, we would need to rely on renewable energy sources.

At best the upcoming election will not degenerate into claims of fraud and illegitimacy. We need free and fair elections to survive as a nation at peace within its own borders. We need to vote to show that we care, that we do not need a “strong man” or “strong woman” to keep our nation prosperous and productive. We need to show the candidates that we do not want or need leaders who must first show their loyalty to slogans before they are allowed to speak their minds. We need men and women with integrity and humanity, motivated by a desire to see all of their fellow citizens live free from exploitation or denigration. It can be done.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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