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Election Day: 'You're the star of the show.'

I love Election Day, and have written rhapsodically -- and perhaps even a bit mushily -- about it in the past. I wrote a column in 1996 explaining why I liked it so much, and it drew a nicely astringent response from the conservative writer David Tell. He wrote in the Weekly Standard about how his election day had not gone so well.

I still believe what I said back then: that electoral democracy is a miracle of human development because it's based on the idea that every citizen, rich or poor, Ph.D. or high school dropout, has a stake in the common good and, in principle at least, an equal voice in deciding how it will be defined and achieved.

But I'll spare you any more of my thoughts and instead share with you three literary takes on Election Day, two poems and -- my favorite of the three - a view of the joy of voting from a very tough guy, Archie Goodwin, the narrator in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective series.

A classic is Walt Whitman's "Election Day, November 1884":

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,

'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyserloops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:

--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous'd-sea-board and inland-Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,

The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,

Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,

Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Then, in honor of how some of my conservative friends see as my own politics, I offer Vachel Lindsay's 1919 poem, "Why I voted the Socialist Ticket."

I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.

My life's unkind, but I can vote for kindness.

I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.

I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.

Man is a curious brute -- he pets his fancies --

Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.

So he will be, tho' law be clear as crystal,

Tho' all men plan to live in harmony.

Come, let us vote against our human nature,

Crying to God in all the polling places

To heal our everlasting sinfulness

And make us sages with transfigured faces.

And I have always treasured this passage from Rex Stout's last novel, "A Family Affair," written in 1975 when Stout was 88 years old. If you have never read Stout's Nero Wolfe series, you have one of life's great treats in store, or so I believe anyway. Nero Wolfe is a detective who weighs not much shy of 300 pounds and almost never leaves his home. It's fitted out with a chef -- one of the world's greatest, of course -- and a gardener who helps Wolfe tend the 10,000 orchids he keeps in the plant rooms on the roof of his Manhattan brownstone. All of Wolfe's legwork is done by Archie Goodwin, a shrewd, sometimes brash, often dashing young man who is also the narrator of all 74 Wolfe stories.

Election Day 1974 just happens to fall in the middle of the story Archie is telling in "A Family Affair." Here's how Archie describes going to vote:

The most interesting incident Tuesday morning was my walking to a building on Thirty-fourth Street to enter a booth and push levers on a voting machine. I have never understood why anybody passes up that bargain. It doesn't cost a cent, and for that couple of minutes, you're the star of the show, with top billing. It's the only way that really counts for you to say I'm it, I'm the one that decides what's going to happen and who's going to make it happen. It's the only time I really feel important and know I have a right to. Wonderful. Sometimes the feeling lasts all the way home if somebody doesn't bump me.

So I hope you choose to be the star of the show today. And I hope nobody bumps you on your way home.

Read E.J.'s 1996 column on how much he loves Election Day and David Tell's essay on why E.J.'s column "made me want to puke."

By E.J. Dionne  | November 2, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Next: The madness of George Pataki


I just hope that there are more Republican stars than Democrats in the show today.

Posted by: postfan1 | November 2, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

most of E.J.'s columns make me want to hurl... invectives.

Posted by: adamnescot1 | November 2, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I am going to predict EJ's next column: It will read something like this:

- The Republicans actually lost by not winning more seats.

- Don't read anything in to it.

- It's not a mandate or an ultimatum. It's only the economy.

King "Dem Spin" will be at it again.

Posted by: d-35 | November 2, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

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