In July 1864, as President Abraham Lincoln prepared to run for a second term against General George B. McClellan, The New York Times editorialized: “We have had many important elections, but never one so important as that now approaching….The republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history.” The Civil War had been raging for three years and seemed to be at a stalemate. Lincoln was for fighting on until victory, regardless of the cost. McClellan supported compromise and negotiation to end the bloodiest conflict in American history. As everybody knows, Lincoln won the election, the Union soon won the war, and McClellan’s reputation never recovered.
The expression “the most important election in history,” however, achieved immortality. “Every even-numbered year,” Senator John McCain told an interviewer in 2006, “politicians go around and say ‘This is the most important election in history.’” As the republic’s history lengthened, the phrase often mutated into “the most important election in my lifetime” or “in a century.” Still, in all its forms it proved remarkably resistant to irony or derision. In 1988, when George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, the already venerable Senator Robert C. Byrd declared: “It may be the most important election of this century.” In 1992, when Bush ran for re-election against Bill Clinton, Clinton declared it “the most important election in a generation,” generation being a word that sounds weighty and biblical but is often deployed without any precise meaning.
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