LOS ANGELES -- A French visitor was amazed to see that in every tavern he visited -- and "bar-room," a new word to him -- Americans of all classes, workmen and rich men, were talking and arguing about politics. Elections and candidates, and ideas, too, seemed to be the entertainment of America.
That was in 1831. The Frenchman was Alexis de Tocqueville, taking notes for his classic, "Democracy in America." On one of his stops, a rough inn in the frontier settlement that became Pontiac, Mich., he wrote: "They come to smoke, drink and talk politics on a footing of seeming perfect equality."
When I retraced Tocqueville's travels more than 150 years later, the talk in taverns seemed to have turned to football. But right now -- "hurrah!" -- it's politics again.
We were at a small restaurant last Thursday night. The decor was Valentine's Day hearts and flowers, but the words drifting about were "Obama" or "Hillary" or "McCain." It is a thrilling thing.
"Suddenly, Everyone Around the Table Is a Political Expert" headlined The New York Times over a long story by Lisa W. Foderaro. Writing last Wednesday from White Plains, north of the city, she wrote of workers at a small company called Adler Consulting: "They sound like seasoned political pundits, dissecting delegate counts, comparing speaking styles, conjuring dream tickets and eagerly anticipating the conventions."
In The New York Observer, a sassier product edited by a Times alumnus, Peter Kaplan, the lead story was about husbands and wives fighting over Hillary and Barack. "(T)heir chummy little party had taken on the tone of a World Wrestling Entertainment championship match," wrote Gillian Reagan and Lizzy Ratner.
"It's amazing. It's wonderful," Robert Scheer, the left-wing activist turned college instructor told his class the night before at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "It's like 1968 again. Maybe better. The big crowds. The turnouts. The young people everywhere."
"Epic," said Tom Brokaw on NBC. And so it is. In one Ohio town on a cold and snowy night, a call for volunteers for Obama produced 350 people. Such things typically brought out a dozen old people four years ago.
At my house a couple of nights before, someone said that if black people thought Barack Obama were cheated out of the Democratic nomination, they would boycott the election -- and that would be the end of the Democrats. "I'd boycott, too," said half a dozen people around the table -- and they were all white.
There are dangers in all of this, of course, as we learned in 1968. For those who have forgotten or never knew, the Democratic Party tore itself to pieces in battles in which young and often privileged students -- devoted to everything from love and peace to anarchy and war -- taunted policemen trying to make enough money to send their own kids to college, and the cops started swinging.
That was then. The country was divided in almost every way -- "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?" -- by generation, by class, by race, by gender. Now the divisions are political, which is the way it is supposed to be. Many people hate the current president or one of his potential successors, but seem to believe they can change things at the ballot box, which is also the way it is supposed to be.
We are a far more democratic republic than we were back in the 1960s -- and at least for now, more optimistic, despite another foolish war and frightening economic statistics. Something is going right when newspapers and television stations are reporting that readers are complaining that the Who Injected Roger Clemens? story is being overcovered. Right now, we don't care. What we care about is Hillary and Obama and McCain -- and that, again, is the way it is supposed to be.
Tocqueville might be appalled at what would seem to him the cheapening of great ideas in debates about ghost delegates in that same Michigan he visited. But I'm not French, and this politics is the best I've seen in a long time. I have a hunch it will end well for the great democracy the great Frenchman found all those years ago on the rough side of the Atlantic.
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