Labor Day every four years used to be the official kickoff of the presidential campaign. Even as late as 1968, I can remember walking up the center of New York's Fifth Avenue with then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the annual parade celebrating the nation's working men and women as he began his two-month effort to keep the White House under Democrat control. He darn near did, too, despite entering the fray miles behind the republican Richard Nixon.
The starting date doesn't mean there wasn't anything going on in advance of that. But the official date was tied to the national political conventions, now mere pep rallies to certify the results of primaries. Humphrey entered no primaries and became his beleaguered party's choice only after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy that June. The party out of power always holds its convention first, and there usually are a couple of weeks when that nominee isn't doing much campaigning, waiting for the incumbent's party to put the official stamp on his nomination.
All this used to come before Labor Day. This year, the Democrats are meeting in Charlotte, N.C., after the traditional end of summer. But the stumping has been going on for months, degenerating into negative railing from both camps at levels of historic proportions. The actor Clint Eastwood punctuated this the other night, for the GOP throngs in Tampa, Fla., with a tasteless performance that employed an empty-chair "interview" with President Barack Obama and obscene allusions. At the risk of being stripped of my political writing credentials and sent into permanent exile covering some village police beat, I would like to say that as each day passes I become more incredulous that we can survive.
Not to put too fine a point on things, I am sick of the entire process. Actually, a stint in the maelstrom of a cop station would be welcoming. Compared to the current political warfare, it would seem civilized, a sort of Nirvana. At least I wouldn't have to be battered by the bellowing of those dedicated to telling the rest of us how we should live and who we should worship, all of which is none of their bloody business.
When I began in this adventure, birth control, abortion, gay marriage and a variety of other social issues were not considered fit for debate. Gun control wasn't a problem, because there weren't that many guns -- and massacres by maniacs with battlefield weapons didn't occur. The National Rifle Association was dedicated to teaching kids to shoot -- at rabbits, not people.
Labor Day -- except for presidential-election years -- was a last big fling. When we were young, it often meant the end to a summer love affair and, for the rest of us, the return to "dull care." It could be a bittersweet time.
Now, two wars, a draining recession and a wall of partisan bickering and political leaders' failed promises have crushed us for eight long years, leaving us with a taste more bitter than sweet.
I vividly remember walking up that famous Gotham City avenue with Humphrey, ever ebullient and enthusiastic, only hours removed from the awful turmoil of the Chicago Democratic convention. I recall telling a fellow reporter, as Humphrey bounced along from side to side to greet the crowds, that one would never know the candidate was carrying the ashes of his party in his suit pockets.
"Yes," my colleague replied, "but he will try to spread them on the political gardens and hope they will sprout roses. ... That's just his nature, always positive. He never quits trying. The system will endure."
Let's certainly hope so. Although the process never has been short on negativism or rancor or even hate, let's also pray that the rhetoric can be as civil as it is passionate.
The parties have always come together two months after Labor Day and called a temporary truce. Hopefully, the remaining days will reflect a willingness to do so again, emphasizing the differences but preserving our dignity.