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CLINTON OFFERS WORDS TO BRING US TOGETHER

Leave it to Bubba to send a message both sides need to hear.

Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president and a guy whose appeal crossed color-coded boundaries, sent a memo Friday to Americans dug in on the political left or right.

Last week's election seemingly revealed a cultural divide too wide for any bridge. It's left vs. right, red states and blue states, the South and the heartland allied against the two coasts and big cities.

Hard-core lefties have sunk into depression over President Bush's re-election. I've heard half-serious talk of liberals ready to move to Canada.

Clinton, in a speech at a Washington think tank, offered a remedy that probably won't penetrate the dug-in defensiveness of either Rush Limbaugh's dittoheads or Michael Moore's disciples.

"I hope that we'll be able to diminish the cultural war -- not by getting people to give up what they think is right and wrong, but by getting them to listen to one another and look at one another as people again, and not as cartoons," Clinton said.

In a "Hardball" world, it won't be easy. And I don't want to sound like a cross between Pollyanna and Kathie Lee Gifford. But if people on both extremes did what most folks in the middle did -- look at issues one by one, not blindly subscribe to a dogma of Republicans Good, Democrats Bad (or vice versa) -- the chasm would shrink, and nobody would be suicidal after Election Day.

An open mind is an endangered species. Admitting that those on the other political shore might have a reasonable point about anything borders on blasphemy. Each polar extreme is equally righteous, disdainful of the other's views and unwilling to consider any policy or idea that doesn't skew precisely to its political dogma. Each side is also incapable of imagining it is like the other in any way.

I know people at both extremes who think themselves free-thinkers while slavishly toeing a party line. Limbaugh's dittoheads have their opposite equivalents. Folksy humorist Garrison Keillor's politics, revealed in his book "Homegrown Democrat," are frozen in late-'60s liberalism like a prehistoric bug trapped in amber.

A litmus test for any hard-core Republican or Democrat: Name three issues where you break from party doctrine. If you can't, you're a rubber stamp.

We all have convictions. We'd be Stepford Nation without them. But if we don't try to understand the other side's argument, we're doomed to civil war.

History shows that nobody has a monopoly on right or wrong. Democrats led the way on civil rights, womens' rights and now gay rights.

Yet Republicans were right on "welfare to work," an end to the eternal public assistance that sucks initiative. Charter schools, largely a Republican invention, expand school choice to the neediest kids. In an age of AIDS and unwanted pregnancies, abstinence ought to be part of the sex education message to teenagers.

The hard-core conservatives who detest gays give a waiver to Dick Cheney's daughter. But hypocrisy cuts both ways. The liberals who defended Clinton's Monica episode as a personal flaw but not a political deal-breaker didn't apply the same logic when it came to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's bad behavior. Either we separate the personal from policy and politics, or we don't.

Clinton won the presidency by moving toward the center. He knew that Republicans were right about the value of faith, family values and law-and-order.

Times change, people change, minds should be able to change. This country was built not just on loud voices, but on open ears and open minds. If that gets lost, so will we.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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