Lincoln … FDR … Kennedy … McCain … Obama …

Hard to believe that this night is finally upon us. After two long years, a billion dollars spent, hundreds of stump speeches delivered, thousands of polls taken, and 27 million 30-second political ads aired, it is still difficult for me to come to grips with the fact that this election cycle is about to come to an end.

Cold-turkey withdrawal is going to be ugly. Let me know if anyone is plugged into a local Political Junkies Anonymous (PJA) group they can recommend.

Given the incredibly tricky anti-Bush-anti-Republican political landscape that John McCain has had to navigate over the past year, it is amazing to me that he is not down by 15 points right now. But, as I write this, despite all the Obama-friendly polls, very few of the cable news pontificators are ready to count McCain out just yet. Me neither.

We will know in a few short hours if the polls have been correct, or if McCain, indeed, has another back-from-the-dead comeback in him. Either way, we are in for an incredibly exciting night. And, no matter who wins this, all Americans have something big to celebrate: the peaceful transition of power.

Seventy-seven days from now, President-elect Obama or President-elect McCain will stand on the west front of the Capitol, raise his right hand, and be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Although throughout our history the dates and locations for taking that sacred oath have moved around a bit, the official words of the oath itself have remained exactly as George Washington spoke them in 1789 as he stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.

There is no small controversy surrounding whether Washington added “so help me God” at the end of his recitation, but the 35 words, as laid out in Article II, Section I of the Constitution, have become the foundation on which rests the peaceful transfer of power for the greatest democracy on the planet:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Following that oath, McCain or Obama will offer hopes and dreams for the nation, and lay out the overall tone and vision of the new administration. And there, in the shadow of that glorious dome, there have been some absolutely spectacular speeches over the years.

Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, while the “new” dome was still being built, proclaimed to a nation at war with itself: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds …”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933, offered his downtrodden countrymen hope and belief in themselves, when they had lost both: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”

Despite those historic offerings from two great American leaders, my favorite is the one delivered by John F. Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961.

Not facing a civil war or hard economic times, Kennedy used his particular challenge, the ominous Soviet nuclear threat, to remind the American people of their true strength and calling. In short, he defined for them how they should view themselves in this new, insecure world of nuclear weapons.

Kennedy stood on the snow-capped East Portico that cold Friday afternoon and challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Then, hinting at the fact that he was the first American president born in the 20th century, he added: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

Whether we are in for another Kennedy-like generational hand-off to Obama or we find greater comfort in the age and experience of McCain, the torch will be passed. That fire has been burning for some 232 years now. Sometimes a bold, glowing flame, and sometimes just a flicker, but it still burns in the night sky for all to see.

And even with some of the less decorous moments and name-calling along the way, this is still the way it should be done. No bullets. No tanks. And at the end of it all we come together and agree that there is only one more name to call. Mr. President. No matter one’s ideology or party allegiance — that’s something worth celebrating.