An endless capacity for fact-free fantasy allows President Bush to look at the daily disaster that he has created in Iraq and somehow remain optimistic. So, maybe a little fantasy will help me get through the state of angst that has seized me and won’t let go until, at the earliest, the evening of November 2.

Why do I need fantasy? Why am I taking this election so personally? Why is it that the anxiety level ratchets up with every turn in the polls, every debate, and every piece of news? It’s simple: There’s so much at stake.

If Bush wins this election, despite the disastrous mess he has made of the economy and the world, it will mark the death of accountability in America. It will demonstrate for all future candidates that, no matter how badly a president screws up, the incumbent’s remorseless application of fear, fear, and more fear will carry the day.

If we elect a president who talks endlessly of freedom, but works tirelessly to stifle the freedom to oppose his policies, we can expect more and more repression after the next terrorist attack in America. The starkest warning of this danger came from General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq and later said in a magazine interview that another major terrorist attack could “cause our own population to question our own Constitution and begin to militarize our country to avoid a repeat of another mass-casualty-producing event.”

If we choose this sadly inadequate man simply because we are afraid not to, it will prove conclusively that the American electorate simply does not read or pay attention. If we show that we’d prefer a president who seems like a good drinking buddy, over one who witnessed firsthand the evil of war and then spoke out against it, we will give the world a searing insight into our vacant souls. If we choose a leader who refuses to read, over one who can actually think critically, there’s not much hope for our republic.

In the face of these hideous realities, a few fantasies seem like a suitable option for maintaining my sanity.

* * *

It is election night. John Kerry has defeated Bush so convincingly that even the usual Republican dirty tricks at the polling place fail to change the result. This time, no legion of slimy Republican lawyers can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s over. The frat-boy presidency is toast. Near tears, Bush thinks briefly about a military coup that overturns the election and restores him to power. But the election results near major American military posts have made it clear that there will be no armies marching to reinstall the AWOL president. In the limousine from the White House to the inauguration next January, he will have to sit, short and sullen and petulant, next to the tall and commanding new president.

Sitting with him in the residence at the White House, his silver-haired mother, Barbara, is not weepy. She is furious. Her useless son, who caused her endless embarrassment in his boozing days, has humiliated her once again. In the bitter recesses of her heart, where compassion chokes and grudges grow, she knows the horrible truth: For only the second time in the history of the republic, the first time since John Quincy Adams suffered a bitter defeat in the election of 1828, a woman enters the annals as both the wife and the mother of a rejected, one-term president. In fact, Abigail Adams had it easier: She saw her husband’s defeat, but a merciful death spared her the humiliation of watching her son lose, too. Unable to stifle her rage, Barbara Bush administers to her wayward child a ferocious tongue-lashing that makes the Leader of the Free World cringe.

* * *

It is 2006. Bush has lived through months of painful seclusion. He watched helplessly as President John F. Kerry led America to capture Osama bin Laden and put him on trial. He cringed sulked as Kerry skillfully ended America’s ill-conceived presence in Iraq — an achievement that cruelly eluded Bush. Now, the former president has decided to take the same route as John Quincy Adams by running for a seat in the House of Representatives. His friends in Crawford will surely not abandon him. In a defiantly folksy speech in May, admitting no errors during his presidency and still expressing confidence that weapons of mass destruction will soon be found in Iraq, Bush says he’s running for Congress.

On election night five months later, as Democrats regain control of both houses of Congress, in a landmark election that will permanently make the Republicans an impotent minority party, Bush loses his second straight election. It isn’t even close. His mother screams at him again.

* * *

It is a cold January day in 2021. America is focusing on the temporary stands outside the Capitol, for the inauguration of the third consecutive Democratic president. After eight solid years of serving under President John Edwards as the first African American vice president, and helping to broker the Amman accords that have finally brought peace to the Middle East, Barack Obama places his left hand on a worn Bible, raises his right hand, and faces Lani Guinier, the first African American Chief Justice of the United States. As Guinier leads him through the oath prescribed in the Constitution, Obama speaks the words loudly and crisply. “Congratulations, Mr. President,” Guinier says. “Thank you, Madame Chief Justice,” he says. Rather than give her the usual formal handshake, the new president draws the chief justice into a bear-like hug, then turns to the podium to deliver his inaugural address.

Obama brings to the presidency breathtaking intellectual and rhetorical gifts, plus a biography of cinematic sweep. In 1961, the year John F. Kennedy became president, Obama was born in Hawaii, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas. Obama’s white grandparents had loved him deeply, but he learned, painfully, that his grandmother could still be afraid of a black panhandler. His Kenyan grandfather had been a Muslim and a tribal healer. Obama had struggled to live authentically as a young black man, had grown to maturity in Indonesia, New York, Cambridge and Chicago, had become the first African-American to become president of the Harvard Law Review, and had written about it all in a lyrical literary memoir. In 2004, he easily won a seat in the United States Senate, cruised to a second term in 2010, and joined the Edwards ticket in 2012. Finally, running on his own, Obama scored a landslide victory, carrying even parts of the South where a black president was once merely a nightmare. Left defeated, the aging Florida senator, Jeb Bush, in his last-hurrah run, had failed to salvage the dignity of the Bush family.

In the campaign of 2020, Obama had called for 20/20 vision. He often spoke of his grandfather the medicine man, and called for a national healing of the scars of racial hatred — the nation’s original sin. Choosing not to ignore the solidly Republican South, Obama had campaigned in backwoods bastions of racism where black men had been lynched for little more than lack of deference to their white neighbors. His near-miraculous ease with white southern crowds had won them over.

Now, in an inaugural speech that will be quoted in rhetoric classes for generations to come, President Obama is taking office in a time filled with bright promise, prosperity and peace. At this moment, to those listening to Obama, the long-ago disaster of Bush’s one-term presidency seems little more than an unpleasant dream.

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