Any election day is a lesson in history


WASHINGTON -- It's election day. The one day when Washington's importance recedes into the background. Everything that's worth paying attention to isn't happening here. It's all happening Out There, beyond the Beltway.

Careers will be decided. Lives will change. The fate of the republic lies in the balance, but it's a fate that won't be decided here. I'll walk to my poll in the Takoma Park Elementary School today. It's in places like this where we'll decide how the more than two-century-old experiment in representative democracy will continue.

I like history. It's one of the few subjects in which I ever got good marks. I failed every language I ever took in high school including English, so naturally I became a writer.

Two weeks ago I went to Boston. I went alone. My kids prefer it that way. Whenever I take them anyplace "historic," my son sounds the "Lecture Alert" and my daughter covers her ears. My wife laughs at me. I've learned that these trips are best done in solitude.

Boston and the surrounding area is of course one of those places where all the things the entertainment industry fights about -- from the First Amendment to copyright law -- was born. Dry policy fights are fought now; it was life-and-death matters then. I like to come to places like this to get some idea of what it was like then.

That's why I stood in Minute Man National Park in a driving rainstorm. The weather wasn't like it was on April 19, 1775. It was a beautiful spring day back then. I tried to picture just how it all lay. Some of the best soldiers in the world lined up on this side of a rickety bridge. On the other side was a militia of insurgents.

Where did they all stand? What did they think as they stared at each other across the Concord River, before it became the American Rubicon? The stories of that moment are all bollixed up. Someone fired a shot, and then ... well, the rest is history.

The next day was a Sunday and it was cold and windy but the rain had stopped. I peered out the window of the Old State House. I could just see the water of Boston Harbor. I stood as close as I could to the balcony where the Declaration of Independence was read on July 18, 1776. After it was read, there was much rejoicing.

"Abigail Adams described the events that day," Bostonian Society director Brian LaMay told me. "That's when they pulled down the symbols of the British Crown, the lion and the unicorn and burned them right there in the square."

A runaway slave, Crispus Attucs, had died on the steps of the building during the Boston Massacre six years earlier. The British attack on an unruly mob resulted in five deaths and galvanized the public's sentiment.

Later, I stood on the gun deck of the USS Constitution and listened to a young female sailor as she explained how the ship sank the HMS Guerriere on Aug. 19, 1812 and garnered the nickname Old Ironsides. She's proud to be one of the Constitution's crew today; it didn't have female sailors in 1812. The ship flies a flag with a snake and the legend "Don't Tread on Me."

It's hard for me not to think about those days as I head to the polls today to vote. Back in the day, people were spoiling for a fight.

I wish more people were spoiling to vote. It always amazes me how cavalierly we treat our right to vote. Throughout history, amazing people have put their fortunes and lives on the line for a crazy idea about self-government. Today, all we have to do to keep that crazy idea alive is go vote.