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Divisions and nasty partisanship seem here to stay

The other day, after watching the latest spat of televised nastiness between Donald Trump and whomever, I thought of something political I had also seen on television.

Something from another world long ago.

That time the speaker was a Michigan man, in every sense of that term, and he was also a politician who had survived a battle we then thought was the nastiest and most bizarre of our lifetimes. Virtually everyone was watching when he said:

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our Great Republic is a government of laws and not men.”

That was, of course, Gerald Ford at the moment we became President. We all felt as if we had been through a war.

But we had survived it; the evil had been destroyed, things were now expected to get better again. Except for a few fleeting days after 9-11, I’m not sure this country has ever felt the same.

What worries me is that I’m not sure we ever will. I was in my twenties when Gerald Ford was president; I’m in my sixties now. There were certainly divisions and nasty partisanship in his time.

When Ford pardoned Richard Nixon a month into his term, the country was once again savagely torn, and millions lost faith in Ford’s integrity. Today, virtually everyone agrees it was the right thing to do, but one which likely cost him the presidency.

Two years later, when he was defeated by Jimmy Carter, there were strong emotions the day afterwards. By and large, Republicans were sad and Democrats thrilled.

But no one was saying Carter was a secret Muslim traitor who was really born in another country. At the inaugural, the new President thanked the old one for “all he has done to heal our land.”

Three months after President Ford took office, Michigan Governor Bill Milliken defeated Democrat Sander Levin for a second time in a second very close election. We naïve souls thought that was a bitter campaign.

Forty years later, I had breakfast with Sandy Levin, today still in Congress.

“Yes, that was hard,” he told me, but added that at least he had the consolation of losing to “such an exceptionally great and decent man.”

Governor Milliken, now 94, says the same of Levin, and the two men, who had close marriages, called each other when their wives died. They never saw each other as corrupt evil sub-humans

My personal theory is that we began to lose our belief in ourselves as a nation after Vietnam and Watergate, but that our real crisis came when the Soviet Union completely disappeared almost without warning. We had defined ourselves for almost half a century as not being them and opposing all they stood for.

Politics, we then sometimes said, stopped at the water’s edge. “We must go forward now together,” Gerry Ford told us on that long-ago August day, noting that Abraham Lincoln had asked, “Is there any better way or equal hope in the world?"

I don’t know how we get that country or mentality back, or even if we can. The ancient Greeks said you can’t step in the same river twice. But I want a president who would at least try.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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