Gwen’s Take: Hopes, Fears and Democracy on Election Day

BY Gwen Ifill  November 6, 2012 at 7:00 AM EDT


Judy Woodruff with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter in New Hampshire Feb. 24, 1976. Photo by NBC News/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

I try not to get too carried away on Election Day every four years, because, after all, I have a job to do. But the truth is I’m walking an emotional tightrope all day long. I love covering American politics, I’m fascinated by watching most politicians, and I could talk to voters for hours about what matters to them and how they see the men and women competing for their support. And the presidential campaigns have put so much time, energy and heart into defeating the other one, you can’t ignore the element of drama — it’s a little like watching two locomotives barreling down parallel train tracks, one of them headed to a happy destination, the other off a cliff. No one knows which will end up where; the suspense is overwhelming.

Of course there are huge stakes involved — war and peace, government moves that affect the well-being of millions — but on Election Day what comes into sharpest relief for me are the men and women celebrating or mourning the outcome. I saw this first as a young reporter covering the 1976 campaign when President Gerald Ford was defeated by former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Assigned on election night to cover the Carter staff at an Atlanta hotel, I’ll never forget the look of shock and sheer joy on a young aide’s face when she realized the candidate she’d devoted the last few years of her life to, had won. Then, at the White House four years later, as by-then President Carter was focused on trying to win the release of U.S. hostages held in the embassy in Iran, I saw the same aide dissolve in tears as she watched him concede to Ronald Reagan.

There would be a similar cycle in 1988 and 1992, as the team surrounding President George H. W. Bush thrilled to his victory over Michael Dukakis, then collapsed in disappointment when Bill Clinton, with a boost from Ross Perot, wiped out Bush’s dreams of a second term.

If there is no greater high than the celebration around a presidential victor, and no more painful low than the disappointment felt by the loser, the 2000 recount was an incredible news story and an emotional roller-coaster. Thirty-eight days of chad-counting and court challenges dimmed some of the glow from George W. Bush’s celebration after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. But the sting felt by the team around Al Gore was probably no less acute than it would have been with a clean result on election night.

I think what Gore said in his concession speech that December gets at the core of what makes our system of government the best of all the alternatives:

“Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency: ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’

Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”

That couldn’t have been easy for Gore, but it helped begin the healing process that was so necessary after the draining, bitter post-election period. It set an example for the army of aides and advisers who had worked so hard for Gore’s election, and undoubtedly for his supporters as well. Looking back, it’s an approach that seems especially appealing today, at a time when our political divisions seem more pronounced than ever.

My job on Election Day is in many ways like every other working day — to gather the facts and ask the questions that help viewers and readers understand what is happening. But if the surface looks calm, it’s deceptive. By the end of the evening, underneath, a part of me is an emotional mess: thinking about the happy winners and the heartbroken losers, and marveling that, yet again, the country I love has voted in a new leader — or rejected a challenger — without firing a shot, or shedding a drop of blood. If you look closely, you may see me hiding a lump in my throat, because I feel so lucky to live in the United States of America.