While I was spending the weekend at a conference in Washington, D.C., October ended without the much anticipated "October surprise." I am a bit surprised not to have been surprised.
Osama bin Laden's message does not, in my opinion, count. First, it wasn't generated by Karl Rove (as a real "October surprise" would have been). Second, it was a message that seems to have had remarkably little impact on Americans. (Even Republican commentators have expressed uncertainty about whether the message benefits Bush or Kerry.) Third, it is clear that bin Laden's target audience was the Muslim world, not Americans. Yes, he addressed himself to Americans, but the message was designed to rally Muslims to his cause.
Many aspects of the trip to Washington deserve additional comment (and will get additional comment in the days to come), but for now I have just a few quick observations.
- Although the Age of Empires is over, Washington has the look and the feel of an imperial capital. I suspect Londoners in 1885 felt very much like Washingtonians in 2004. What creates the impression? Embassies everywhere. The headquarters of the OAS. A population drawn from all over the world. Bright and very serious young people everywhere. Monuments--new and old--to the nation's greatness everywhere you look. (The World War II Memorial--which I found impressive, if not moving--is the latest.)
- The history of America's experiment with democracy is glorious; its present, however, is perilous. I spent an hour or so after midnight Saturday wandering around the Capitol in the company of a Pepperdine alumna and her husband (thank you Lynn and Dave) and two Capitol Police officers. The Trumbull paintings in the Rotunda, the statues in the Hall of Columns (and in the Rotunda), and the many portraits and epigrams that adorn the Capitol are powerful reminders that our nation has been blessed with the leadership of great men and women dedicated to the ideal of democratic government. The name "Dennis Hastert" on the door of the Speaker's office and the name "Tom DeLay" on the door of the office of the House Majority Leader are powerful reminders that narrow-minded partisans have, at times, occupied our highest offices.
- America remains a melting pot and a beacon of freedom. I spent Sunday afternoon in Washington's Adams-Morgan district. (Thanks, Kim.) In the space of a just few hours, I had an Ethiopian meal, met people whose ethnic heritage spans the globe, and witnessed an All Souls Day procession that must have been transplanted directly from Mexico or Guatemala or Colombia. It was as strong an affirmation of the goodness of America as the tour of the Capitol the previous evening had been.
- Many of America's best and brightest serve in the military. The conference I attended--a joint meeting of the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association and the International Security and Arms Control Section of the American Political Science Association (ISSS/ISAC hereafter)--drew a lot of representatives from the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the National War College, and the National Defense University. Many (but not all) were officers in the military. All were conscientious, intelligent, and well aware of the proper questions to be asking. We in the United States should never let control of the military slip out of civilian hands, but we should also never lose sight of the accumulated wisdom that exists in the military.
Finally, it's worth noting that the Washington Redskins lost their home game on Sunday. That guarantees a Kerry victory tomorrow. (However, it probably doesn't guarantee that we'll know by the end of the day tomorrow that Kerry won.)