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Transcript:

October 31, 2008

BILL MOYERS: As we just heard, democracy is a beautiful idea but a rough practice. Over the years I've covered or been part of some tough, hard fought and close elections, with unexpected consequences. It was just eight years ago this weekend that Al Gore was behind George W. Bush in two of three major polls. He wound up winning the popular vote only to lose to Bush in the Electoral College and the Supreme Court.

One of the most memorable moments for me actually came on the morning before the election. The actress Marlo Thomas went on the TODAY SHOW to rebuke her husband, my friend Phil Donahue, for agreeing with Ralph Nader that it made no difference whether Al Gore or George W. Bush won the presidency. Marlo was so upset over Phil's refusal to recognize profound differences between the two candidates, she said, that she had to, "Come out fighting."

We should all be grateful to her for reminding us it does matter who is elected. And that our votes just might make the difference to the outcome. I still remember election night in 1960; it was nearing dawn when we finally learned that John Kennedy had won over Richard Nixon by just point two percent of the vote...a margin of 118,574 of the popular votes.

Eight years later we had another momentous election. 1968 was one of those years when you felt as if the worst was never behind you. Starting with the Tet Offensive that staggered the American military in Vietnam, the weeks that followed brought President Johnson's decision not to run for re-election, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., days of death and rioting in our cities, and police mayhem in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. It seemed possible we would all go down in chaos. Yet the electoral process continued, through all the primaries and two conventions, until, on election day, Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by a margin of 510,314 votes - fewer, in fact, than Gore received over Bush eight years ago.

We know tragically how bullets can change the course of history - bullets cost us Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King.

But ballots change history, too, and when I say our votes matter, I speak not out of some mystical belief in "the will of the people" but because elections - imperfect as they are, twisted and smattered by smears and lies and counter-lies galore, subject to distortion and manipulation - elections offer an alternative to violence, they keep us from coming apart altogether.

Just before election day in 1968, a fellow in advertising who worked for Nixon wrote a newspaper ad that began, "It will be quiet on Tuesday. No speeches. No motorcades. No paid political announcements. It's a very special day, just for grown-ups. America votes Tuesday…and . . . on Tuesday, the shouting and the begging and the threatening and the heckling will be silenced. It's very quiet in a voting booth. And nobody's going to help you make up your mind. So - just for that instant - you'll know what the man you're voting for will do a thousand times a day for the next four years. Now it's your turn."

Democracy, this is still the most radical idea ever let loose in the world -that masses of people, so feared and loathed by monarchs of old, so distrusted by monied and political elites, should be charged with self-government, and get on with it, imperfectly, crudely, but with the idea of creating a prosperous society that leaves no one out. That's not mystical, either. It's been at the heart of the American experience, the hope that sustains one generation to the next. Every election is an effort to retrieve that radical idea and breathe new life into it.

So don't forget or fail to vote. And when you show up at the polls on Tuesday, take part if you can in the "Video the Vote" campaign at pbs.org. Respecting the limits of your local or state laws, take your camera to the polling place and record what you see. Send what you've got to pbs.org.

That's it for the JOURNAL.

I'm Bill Moyers. See you next time.

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