We forget. In the mad rush of speculation before the polls open, and the hubbub of claims and counterclaims after they close, we forget. We forget the solemn daylong pause in between. We forget the momentary peace that descends on this suddenly one nation indivisible. We forget the in-between day, Election Day. It is gone as abruptly as it came.
We forget the variety of places where The Decision was made by we the people. Not en masse, not in The Street, not by the cheering throngs with arms upraised to a Fuehrer or Il Duce or President for Life or Dear Leader or El Lider Maximo or Mullah So-and-So ... or any of thousands of other names by which the most modern of that ancient species, the Tyrant, is known in our oh-so-advanced times.
We forget that here the people rule not in the aggregate, but one by one, just the way we cast our votes, in solitude, in conscience, in that moment of silence like prayer that separates the before and after of the great, quadrennial tumult called an American presidential campaign. We forget the holiness of this day.
We forget the variety of this land reflected dot by dot on those maps of your neighborhood's, your county's, your parish's polling places. From the Norman Rockwell scenes at little churches, schools, and fire stations, to the Ashcan School's crowded tenements and airless streets.
We forget to look up at the cerulean sky presiding over it all on a perfect, still early fall day. Election day dawned bright and clear here in Arkansas, with mild temperatures, as if it were any other, and not the great sabbath of democracy. Are the leaves ever any brighter, the rustle of those that cover the yards and sidewalks ever more satisfying than on a perfect election day in these blessed latitudes?
We forget to look down at the ever-fecund soil, or the cracked sidewalk leading to the polling place. A friend on his way to cast his ballot noted how the roots of a great oak had, over the years, lifted up a whole slab of the concrete walkway. The sight brought to mind a prophecy by a Russian writer deep in the Stalinist snows of another but always the same Russia: Even if the whole of the Earth were covered by concrete, he wrote, one day a crack would develop, and in that crack a blade of grass would grow. Freedom is like that.
We forget this nation's capacity for renewal, its power to remain what it has always been while it is always changing. The last, best hope of the world, Mr. Lincoln called this Union he saved, even though, by now, however derided America may be by those who don't know it, we have become the first. Which is why they still come from all over, the Americans to be. They know something all of Europe's sophisticates and America's own cynics don't.
We forget ourselves, just as the grown forget the child within them. We forget that we are our history as well as future. But Election Day reminds us. Is there a voter with soul so dead who has not left his polling place, his vote cast, his voice recorded, his steps crackling through the leaves underfoot on a golden fall day, the voices of neighbors and once-every-election-day acquaintances, who, his duty done and right exercised, has not thought: This is my country! The United States of America, wrote Walt Whitman, is the greatest poem. It still is.
We forget how many have sacrificed how much for this simple ritual, this pause in the year's occupations, and how many still guard us today. We forget the veterans still paying the price, and those who have paid it in full. We forget to whisper: Thank you.
We forget to vow: We shall not forget.