Tom Lewis

Of all the dates that are marked on my annual calendar in red, the ones we observe mostly by shopping with wild abandon or traveling aimlessly around the planet, the one that has always affected me more than any others is Election Day.

(Oh, stop rolling your eyes and hear me out. This isn’t meant to be some pious civics lecture, it’s actually sort of nasty.)

Of course when I was a child it was Christmas that gripped me most, but for some reason they stopped backing cargo trucks up to the front door and stacking presents around the tree until you couldn’t see it any more, so my interest waned.

For a while my favorite was Columbus Day, because the idea appealed to me of joining the world’s Italians in paying homage to a guy leading a Spanish expedition who didn’t know where he was when he got there, misnamed an entire race of people as “Indians” when they didn’t even know where India was (but then of course neither did he) and has been credited for centuries with “discovering” a place he never set foot in.

But it’s hard to maintain cynicism, let alone celebrate it, and when the appeal of Columbus Day dimmed, there was Election Day, shining in the sun. Not for the reason you might think. Seeking better government and electing good candidates is the reason I vote, not the reason I love Election Day as I do.

I love Election Day because, to misquote Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” I love the smell of fear in the morning.

There is not a person whose name is on the ballot who does not feel, on awakening on Election Day, a twinge of fear. It does not matter how rich he is, or how long she has been in office, or how good the polls look.

Always, the thought arises: what if this is the day that lightning strikes? What if this is the day they throw me out? Or humiliate me?

There is no way to avoid this thinking, fleeting though it may be, on Election Day. There are too many “Dewey Defeats Truman” headlines in the archive to let anyone forget. (In case you weren’t there: that headline appeared in the Chicago Tribune on election night 1948, confirming what everybody knew was going to happen, except that it didn’t actually happen, and the shoo-in candidate, Dewey, was the one humiliated.)

This uncertainty of the rich and powerful is a good thing. If we could make it a part of every politician’s daily life, we would get much better government.

But most politicians forget, between election days, who they work for and why. They surround themselves with sycophants who, for purposes of job security, endlessly praise the boss as the hottest thing since Ronald Reagan, while the boss endlessly sucks up to wealthy donors.

But on Election Day, no matter how many sycophants are reassuring you, no matter how fat your piggy bank, there is Doubt. Nobody can be sure of anything.

Maybe tomorrow no one will want to talk to you on TV. Maybe no one will come to an auditorium to hear what you have to say. Maybe everyone will just (shudder) ignore you.

These are the thoughts that come, no matter what. I know because I have been with many candidates on election days in the past, and I have personally seen the knees tremble. And I learned to love the smell of fear in the morning.

Like Colonel Kilgore said, it’s the smell of victory.

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