By now you probably have heard the story from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, telling of a moment before the Al Smith dinner in New York where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump briefly met with him as they were about to enter. Dolan asked the two to pray with him, which they did, and then Trump, well … why don’t we let Cardinal Dolan tell it: “[He] turned to Clinton and said, ‘You know, you are one tough and talented woman,’” adding, “This has been a good experience — this whole campaign — as tough as it’s been.”
“Whatever happens, we need to work together afterwards,” Clinton responded. It’s difficult to think any such warm and fuzzy conversation between the two of them would even be possible in a campaign that has been so brutally cold and abrasive. But let’s suspend our disbelief. After all, it’s a cardinal describing what happened.
Whether their graciousness was sincere or not — and in politics almost nothing is sincere — Hillary’s comment about working together is going to be a vital imperative once the election is decided, if there’s any chance whatsoever of putting a stop to the nation being badly ripped to tatters. The United States is not united, and the shredding has been going on for many years. Trump exploited the division and made it worse, and assuming it’s Hillary Clinton who wins, she will need Trump and his millions of intensely angry-at-everyone supporters to help stanch the bleeding and rescue a country that is weakened by, let’s be honest, hatred and distrust.
We exist in separate antagonistic enclaves. It’s worse than the red state/blue state boundary lines where the culture rigidly rules politics; it has even poisoned personal relationships. A Pew survey in June found that almost half of Clinton backers, 47 percent, said they have no close friends who support Donald Trump. Nearly a third, 31 percent, of the Trump supporters said none of their besties were in favor of Hillary Clinton. How do you achieve any national consensus with that kind of isolation? The answer is that you cannot. And in the past decades, we have not. But we must. Somehow, we must find a common ground or the ground beneath us will collapse, which is another way of saying the U.S. will not survive.
So what’s a president to do? Whoever it is — and don’t assume yet that it’s certain to be Hillary — will have to lead us into changing our ways. A big reason for all the anger is that we believe we’re getting a raw deal. All of us believe that. We have to insist on ways to fairly distribute our wealth so that our society is more than a few super-rich people and millions of serfs. We must outgrow our hateful prejudices and somehow have to be better informed.
Ignorance is not bliss; it’s fertile ground for the demagogues who prosper as the country craters. That means our leaders also will have to change their ways. It starts at the top of the heap. If it’s President Hillary Clinton, it’s essential that she abandons her secretive way of doing things. It should go without saying that transparency is essential to democracy, but she hasn’t learned that. Unless Americans are convinced she’s being honest with them, no initiative from her stands a chance.
As for a President Donald Trump, if there’s an upset special, he will have to fundamentally transform as a person. At the moment, he’s someone who relies on lying and bigotry to come up with nonstop cheap shots. That won’t work. It will separate us further.
Few in power seem to care much about statesmanship. Without it, we will continue to disintegrate. Our political system must reform into something that is not corrupt and obsolete. It’s in the interest of our politicians. If they don’t, they will be overthrown. They, and our country as we know it, will not have a prayer.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.