I was reading one of the late Norman Mailer's letters published in The New Yorker last week and was struck by his comments about the 1960 presidential election.

Beyond having the honor of interviewing and writing about Sen. John F. Kennedy, Mailer said he was worried about the election between Kennedy and Richard Nixon because there was so much at stake.

He said it as if it were highly unusual to have major differences between two presidential candidates. I can't speak with experience about presidential elections before 1960, but in that Kennedy-Nixon race and ever since, there always has been a lot at stake.

And we've learned the last eight years that, despite appearances, there are differences and they can have a significant impact on world and national history.

In 1960, as a sixth-grader, the overt distinctions concerned religion _ and that was an issue nationally because the nation had never had a Catholic president. In my class, and presumably in many other examples of Small Town, USA, that's how the lines were drawn.

The Catholics and Jews in my class were for Kennedy, and the Protestants were for Nixon, and there's no doubt that my classmates' picks reflected their parents' choices.

Of course, most people have gone beyond the superficiality of seeing different versions of Christianity as major factors for candidates, but in each election since 1960 there were issues that created high stakes _ whether we recognized them or not.

Just look at a list of some of the candidates: Goldwater, Nixon, McGovern, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and, yes, Bush II.

Indeed, the year 2000 was no exception, except that many observers tried to downplay the differences between Bush and Gore to the point that the candidates became Boring I and Boring II and were referred to as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

(It's all too clear now which guy was Dee and who was Dum.)

Since Election Day 2000, our nation has been living through what seems like a nightmare. The 21st century under Bush has been about as bad as anyone could have imagined; in fact, many refer to his presidency as the worst in history.

It would not have been the same under Gore. No Iraq war. No ignoring of global warming, a rational energy policy and the health-care crisis. No economic meltdown. No infringement on rights. No torture. No anti-gay rights agenda. No Cheney. No lying. (Go ahead; feel free to add to the list.)

The election of 2000 even called into question the way we elect presidents, since Gore collected half a million more votes but lost because of vote-count scandal and our Electoral College system.

But even more embarrassing for American voters is the fact they elected Bush again in 2004, and that time he actually won the popular vote.

This year, the stakes again are high and voters have a chance to redeem themselves for their mistakes. They need to elect Barack Obama as our next president and take a step into the future with a leader who has the wisdom and the agenda to face and solve, not ignore, our problems.

Electing John McCain would be a regressive step into the 1980s with a man who would be older than Reagan was when taking office. Yes, he sacrificed years of his life as a POW, but he was immoral in bombing North Vietnam, according to the Geneva conventions.

Yes, he's spent years in the Senate, but his domestic agenda merely reacts to the demands of voters for answers and the force of Obama's platform. McCain is not driven by creative solutions, but relies on moldy rear-view mirrors.

But just as we've evolved concerning candidates and their minute religious distinctions, we now are being tested on whether we've progressed on the question of race. The whole world is watching. Will America elect the better candidate even though he's black?

Let's prove to the world that we are enlightened _ at least to some extent _ and wouldn't let race cloud our good judgment.

And our election process?

The election is considered over in all but a handful of too-close-to-call states whose electoral votes are still up for grabs. Tell your children that the outcome of the presidential election depends on Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado. And then tell them about Gore and how the system needs to be changed.

Don't forget to explain how voters have made serious mistakes in recent elections, but that it may not be too late for our country to recover.

With Obama, we can right the wrongs and turn the nation's leadership upside-down.

With Obama, we can stop the ascent of that line representing the number of people who think we're on the wrong track and send it back the other way. In short, there's a lot at stake and we can't afford another mistake.

___

Cary Brunswick is managing editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at (607) 432-1000, ext. 217 or cary@thedailystar.com.

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