Seven score and 14 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln delivered what is probably one of the most famous speeches ever spoken by a world leader — the Gettysburg Address.
Just 10 sentences long, the president captured not only the weariness from war the nation felt at that point, but also what it was we were fighting for in the first place — the right of every person, no matter what their skin color, to be treated equally.
Lincoln also borrowed words from 14th century Bible translator John Wycliffe declaring that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
That phrase simply defines what a democracy is — we elect people to represent us in government, and we expect them to speak for us, and act on our behalf.
It’s the very reason why elections are so important in this country. It doesn’t matter if the votes are being cast for President of the United States or dogcatcher of Bronx County, we exercise our power in government every time we visit a polling place and “pull the lever,” so to speak.
Last week as New York City elected a mayor and city council members, among other things, this newspaper sent reporters to take a look at what was happening in our local polling sites.
Part of it was curiosity over who and what measures voters were supporting. But part of it also was about keeping the election process transparent.
Did we suspect there were irregularities happening at Fort Independence Houses, where a polling coordinator was ultimately pulled from her position? No. But vigilance is a far better antidote to corruption than any law forbidding it.
It’s like you’ve invited the neighbors over to visit, and you have to clean the house. If you only clean your house when company is coming, it’s going to be a nightmarish task to complete.
However, if you clean your house regularly as if you were expecting someone could drop by unannounced at any time, all you’ll need to do is tidy up a bit before the doorbell rings, making the prospect of entertaining guests not just palatable, but something you’d want to do time and again.
Journalists have a similar job. We remain proactive when it comes to holding out government accountable — and we start not in Albany or in city hall, but right in the voting booth. If we wait for something bad to happen before we do it, then we’re only going to encounter a mess. And cleaning it up? Forget it.
Like government officials, we represent the people as well. We are not actually making decisions on behalf of people, as we’re not elected. But we do serve a role in holding those we do elect accountable to the people. We attend government meetings, we read lengthy bills, we study campaign finance reports. And when necessary, we ask the tough questions.
Those making those decisions sometimes preferred we weren’t there every step of the way. But the moment we put the broom and mop down, it’s only going to get dirty again.
It’s why our Founding Fathers made it a point to keep the press free and independent. It’s our job to watch over our government on behalf of the real leaders of this democracy — the people.
That’s a job we take very seriously. And it’s one we will continue to do, whether it’s in Washington, Albany, or right here at home. Because we won’t let this government — of the people, by the people, for the people — perish from the Earth.