Tueday was the night the ghosts died in the Bush White House. There was the ghost of his last campaign, which Bush lost among voters but won in the court. There was the ghost of his father's last campaign, when even winning a war was not enough to earn a second term. And then there was the ghost of Tuesday afternoon, when the entire Bush campaign team was haunted by the possibility that they had got it all wrong, as the first exit polls came in and nothing, but nothing, was going their way.
When it was finally over, the President who had become a radical champion of democracy's power to change the world became the living symbol of how it works. He made his decisions and moved on; the voters made theirs, in one of the most extraordinary displays of political passion seen in a generation. About 120 million voted, 15 million more than in 2000, with
Bush beating Senator John Kerry by about 51% to 48.5%. He became the first President since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote, he gained seats in both houses of Congress, and for good measure, he knocked off not just the Democratic nominee but the party's Senate leader as well. The love-hate presidency of George W. Bush was neither an accident of ideology nor a product of these times. Asked as he left the Crawford, Texas, polling station about the polarized feelings he inspires in voters, Bush replied, "I take that as a compliment. It means I'm willing to take a stand." He saw his task as leading and never looking back, and only that night did he learn whether enough people had decided to fall into line behind him to allow him to carry on. In a triumphant speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in D.C., after a long and winding election night, Bush declared victory. "America has spoken, and I am humbled by the trust and the confidence of my fellow citizens. With that trust comes a duty to serve all Americans, and I will do my best to fulfill that duty every day as your President."
Moments earlier, Kerry had stood before his supporters at Boston's Faneuil Hall, where his campaign began. To stamp out any delusions, he was very clear about the finality of his decision: "We cannot win this election," he said. Then, his voice breaking, he reminded his supporters that after an election, "we all wake up as Americans" and called for the healing to commence.
The kid who was born serious, who was greeted on campus with kazoos buzzing Hail to the Chief, who was tagged on national TV at age 27 as a future President, who marinated in the Senate among 99 other aspiring Presidents for 19 years before launching a bid for the White House that this time a year ago saw him barely twitching at about 10% in the polls, had shown exactly the kind of toughness his opponents claimed he lacked. He mortgaged his house, recast his team, renovated virtually every position he had ever taken and shook the grave dust off his suit several times before arriving at history's door. And then it closed in his face on a day when for a moment it had seemed to blow wide open.