Take your sign down.

Pull up the stakes. Rip up the cardboard. Throw the whole thing in the trash.

We are no longer Bush or Kerry this morning, we are no longer right or left. Our reds and blues need to be united now, by the pure and neutral white that completes the American flag. We have the next president, somewhere in the numbers, and his biggest challenge, when he is sworn in, will be getting this entire country behind him.

And our biggest challenge will be allowing that to happen.

This is now the question: Will we be led?

Can we put aside the anger, mistrust and fear that fueled possibly record numbers of voters for this election? Can we turn down the burners that boiled emotions, torched dinner conversations and turned neighbor against neighbor?

Did we elect a president, or a thick shield, one that gets attacked from the front and held up from the rear?

Did we come together Tuesday, or did we come apart?

Will we be led?

This morning, to parrot a phrase heard you are no doubt sick of by now, it is “too soon to tell.” For here was an election that was as divisive as a tribal feud. People didn’t offer their positions, they declared them. They didn’t argue their points, they hollered them. They didn’t suggest their candidate was right, they insisted it.

If you believed the ads, the only people running for office were cads, scoundrels, flip-floppers and liars. Did we just elect such a person to the highest office in the land?

If not, are we willing to support the winner?

Will we be led?

The positive signs

Let’s hope so. Because lost in the partisan swordfights of the last six months were the simple, inspiring snapshots that tumbled in Tuesday from across this magnificent nation. People waiting in the drizzling rain. People waiting through the darkness. People waiting through growling stomachs and sore feet, in churches, in school gymnasiums, in VFW halls.

America stood in long lines Tuesday, and for once, the thing on the other end was not for sale.

It was too precious.

Will we be led? Will we allow it? And will we be led by the man who was, in the wee hours of this morning, handed our most precious political gift: our trust?

Will he understand that he has not been handed the keys to the funhouse, that his election is not a treasure chest meant to repay his friends? Will he understand that he was not chosen god, bishop, rabbi or high priest? Will he understand that he did not get a mandate from this populace? When nearly half the country doesn’t want you in office, you have a lot of work to do.

This, let’s be honest, was not something our President George W. Bush handled well these past four years, promoting self as a “uniter not a divider” yet somehow leading the country to the verge of a Hatfield-McCoy blood feud.

We cannot afford that again. Four more years of this kind of division and we will be on the brink of a philosophical civil war. The bottom won’t hold. The nation is dizzy enough already.

Not that election coverage helped. Did you watch all that? Did your eyes cross? All through the long night, TV screens brought home the story with images that, at times, seemed surreal: banners hanging like Rapunzel’s hair from windows in Rockefeller Plaza, carrying the electoral votes as the evening went on. The giant ice skating rink transformed into a map of the United States. Dan Rather mumbling those quixotic phrases like “The hounds are at the door.” Tim Russert with an electronic Etch A Sketch. Maps with three different shades of red — pink, dark pink and crimson — to reflect, what? Differences from last time? Strength of schedule? What?

We saw the president inviting reporters into his inner sanctum for a rare early peek, then asking his dog Barney if he “had anything to say?” The dog?

We saw CNN commentator Tucker Carlson calling a state’s counting methodology “Third World.”

We saw numbers that said one thing and commentators that said another. We saw the Electoral College numbers move along, from a Kerry lead of 77-66, to a Bush lead of 182-112, and still we were told “Bush needs to win Florida or he could be out.”

We saw the South go squarely for the president, the Northeast go squarely for the challenger, the Great Plains go red, the West predicted blue.

And we waited. For late counted votes. For lines that snaked long beyond the closing times of polls. We waited for lawyers. We waited for speeches. We waited for the tote board of our future to ring up the score. But mostly we waited for a face to emerge as the man who will comfort us in times of national crisis, who will represent us to the rest of the world, who will speak to us about the economy, our health, our security.

We waited for a leader.

Will we be led?

A time for action

Here in Michigan, we voted to insert a definition of marriage in our state constitution, which will do nothing to save conventional marriage but will ensure the unconventional never comes close.

We voted to vote on future gambling developments, in a proposal that, I am convinced, had more people scratching their heads than pulling levers.

Have we made our lives better? Or have we simply expressed our roiling anger? If the man we appeared to go for, Sen. John Kerry, does not sit in the White House, will we be petulant, unsatisfied, obstinate?

Will we be led?

There is an election sign on a lawn in my neighborhood, right out front, you can’t help but see it as you drive past. It reads “How Would God Vote?”

Well, with all due respect, it’s not a fair question. God doesn’t vote. God doesn’t need to. And if God wanted to make a decision on this thing, I doubt He would need to wait until the polls closed.

But if you believe that God gave man free choice, then this was about our own self-determination. And having chosen a man, we now have to choose an attitude.

So take down the signs. Toss them in the trash. This is no longer about declaring who you want. This is about declaring what you’ll do. We can only hope that answer is as inspiring as the images we saw Tuesday, in those churches and gymnasiums and high schools and rec halls, in the Midwestern rain and the Southwestern sun, in cold darkness and long and winding lines, Americans exercising the profound simplicity of this thing we call democracy.

Will we be led?

The truth is, the hardest question of this election is now in front of us.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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