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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An open letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton

Author's note: Although this blog is about my travels, living outside the U.S. since 2000 means being asked about that country and its president. More often than I would like. So I've chosen this forum to share thoughts.

Dear Mrs. Clinton,

I know you sign your e-mails to me "Hillary" but we both know those aren't really written by you, so please accept the formality. The way things have been going in this election campaign, to err on the side of respect is no vice.

I'm on Bernie Sanders's e-mail list too. In fact, I voted for him during the primary. I mention that now because I want you to know where I'm coming from. I have not been an uncritical fan of yours, but I listen to what you have to say, and I feel that I gave you a fair chance.

I'm not one of those young student voters, but I was the first time I saw you, with your husband in New Hampshire in 1992. He was running for president, and I hadn't heard of you before you were First Lady of Arkansas. I have to say, I didn't warm to either you or Mr. Clinton at first. But, by the time the general election rolled around I was glad to vote for him, and I remember you trying hard to accomplish something on health care during his administration. It failed--tragically--and part of me thought then that both of you should have gone down fighting for the most important thing we elected him for.

But, the 1990s were a different time. The number of jobs increased, and the markets were going up and up and up--it's no wonder Mr. Clinton made some of the decisions he did about welfare and trade deals. A lot of Americans were more optimistic in those days. And I certainly would never excoriate you, as opposed to your husband, for things he did wrong in your personal life. Public humiliation in front of the entire world is a high enough price to pay.

We've been through a lot since 2000--you, and I, and America. I left the country for reasons that did not change until the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor a couple years ago. By that time, I'd long since become a Canadian and made a life for myself somewhere else. But I wasn't one of those people who claim they're going to run away to Canada if someone gets elected they don't like. I still have a stake in America, as do other Canadians and, in fact, the rest of the world.

One of your most disarming moments in this long campaign was when you said, in the Univision debate, "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven.'t noticed, like my husband or President Obama." I felt for you then, Mrs. Clinton, because it made you human to me. So often, your answers are so measured and careful, and believe me, I understand why that is. The "vast right-wing conspiracy" may not have been to blame for your husband's problems, but people certainly have had it in for you. You've learned from long experience to weigh your words carefully whenever you open your mouth, and you know that issues are usually more nuanced and complex than simply "yes" or "no."

The problem is that right now, we are in a place that we have never been before. You went into the 2008 campaign (when I voted for you, by the way) with the same broad economic and policy views shared by Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama, and indeed Republican presidents before you. Up until 2008, I guess they still made sense, especially in the world in which you move. The problem is that a lot has gone down since then and a lot of people are hurting in a way that you may not have been aware of.

Some of them, no doubt, have the kind of racial resentment that your Republican opponent has proven so adept at stirring up. But others do not. That's why you had such a hard time putting away your surprising opponent for the Democratic nomination--an independent senator whose state, age, and self-described socialist views the media never get tired of making fun of. They have been on your side from Day One (remember that expression from eight years ago?) yet they haven't completely been able to crush coverage of, and enthusiasm for, Mr. Sanders. In my opinion, he has been good for the Democratic party--even, dare I say it, good for you. He has forced you and the rest of the Democrats to deal with a bunch of issues that were not important during Mr. Clinton's presidency, but are very important to many Americans today, especially those who don't have the memories of the 1990s that you and I have.

So now you've survived that, and you are facing the ugliest thing that has happened to U.S. politics since George Wallace walked out of the Democratic party a generation ago. Since the "police riot" of chaos and violence in Chicago in 1968. Only at least that year, the violence didn't erupt until the Democratic convention in the summer. This time, it's been going on all year.

You may not be a natural politician, Mrs. Clinton, but you know what we are all up against is not the usual four-yearly opponent. I didn't want Mitt Romney or John McCain to be president, but they were honorable men, with whom you could disagree in what was once called civil discourse. Heaven knows what's happened to John McCain now, but you remember that after Mr. Obama had gotten the nomination in 2008 and was starting to get hit with the lies and disrespect that have plagued his administration, Mr. McCain spoke up for that civil discourse and his own honorable opponent. "He's a decent person...no, ma'am, he's a decent family man and citizen."

Now, however, we have Mr. Trump. You know him--personally--and you also know that he has found a way to tap that racial resentment, that hurt. By saying just enough truth to convince people (never more), Mr. Trump has won voters to his side. You have got to win more voters, in more states, than he does.

Of course you know this is your task. And many of your supporters--opponents, even--may think this is a good position to be in, that you can't flub it up. With the greatest respect, Mrs. Clinton, I think that you can. I don't, God forbid, think that you will, but we must all recognize the possibility of failure. If we don't, failure will come to you.

Hence, my unsolicited advice to you, as a voter, not an expert of any kind. I like you, Mrs. Clinton. I won't say I've always supported you, and goodness knows you've driven me up the wall plenty of times, but we are on the same side. So are most Democratic voters, regardless of whom they voted for in the primaries. So are a lot of Republicans. In fact you probably would rather disclaim some of the people who've supported you, but as a woman called out to Adlai Stevenson in the apocryphal campaign story, "Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!"

"That's not enough, madam, we need a majority!"

So here's how you're going to get that majority, Mrs. Clinton--though you're not a natural politician, though you're held to a different--some would say impossible--standard because you are a woman, though you've had to evolve on numerous issues, though the economic consensus to which you and Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton held is not holding water anymore and it's awkward for you to adjust to that.

1. Say it like you mean it. I know you've gotten better at this, but my gosh, sometimes I still cringe. We know Benghazi is a made-up scandal. We know you testified for eleven hours and Congress got nothing on you. So when Jorge Ramos asks did you lie, please start your answer with NoThen you can explain the context and express your feelings for the Benghazi families.When asked if you lie--and when given the opportunity to lie--ever, just say no

Does that remind you of Nancy Reagan? Sorry to bring that up again. I know you apologized and, while I don't feel entitled to accept your apology on behalf of all gay people, I get that you misspoke. To paraphrase a friend of mine, I'm guessing that when asked to say something nice about the Reagans, you may have panicked a little bit. In the same circumstances, I'd probably have to make something up too. 

2. Don't take your voters for granted. You've already figured out that African-Americans don't owe you their vote just because you're named Clinton. Queers don't owe you their vote just because you're a Democrat. Yes, I said queer. Get used to it, as we said before your husband was president (the first we'd ever had who could pronounce the words gay and lesbian). We've all come a long way from Little Rock, Mrs. Clinton. Don't blow it.

3. Represent us. All of us--America. You and Mr. Sanders have run such a high-class campaign, but this is the fight of your life. It's the fight of our lives. Literally. Thanks to executive overreach by every recent president including Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton, the office you're running for is more powerful than any position in the world should be. And we have someone reaching for it who would destroy freedom of speech, tighten libel laws, threaten lawsuits or punishment to those who disagree with him, deport millions (or, if he can't prove their illegality, make it up), and close the borders to an entire religion. A man who speaks loathsomely of women and for whom no level of rhetoric is too low, or too inflammatory, to stoop to. A man who pines for "the good old days" before "political correctness"--where political correctness means "not punching black people in the face."

This is not a Republican opponent, Mrs. Clinton. This is an opponent of the republic itself.

Like it or hate it, the President of the United States is both our head of government and the head of state of our country. He represents it to us and to the world, like the Queen. The position you are in, Mrs. Clinton, is that you have to represent the country before you are even elected to the office. You have to start acting like our president right now.

Not that many voters care what the rest of the world thinks, but we are horrified by what America has become even before the election. People who normally take minimal interest in politics find it hard to believe that someone so obviously (to a European) a right-wing nationalist is in danger of becoming the President of the United States. Living outside America, Mrs. Clinton, I am asked every day about Mr. Trump and what will happen if he gets where he wants to go.

This is not just about Supreme Court nominations, or same-sex marriage, or Obama-/Hillary-/Romneycare. As important as those and many other issues are, there is really only one issue in 2016. Is the U.S.A. going to continue to be the republic for which the flag stands, "one nation," or is it going to fracture into something else?

I mentioned the 1960s before, but I think something even greater than the 1960s is at hand. Try the 1860s. This country is in danger of splitting as it did during the Civil War, and along the same lines. You have never claimed to be Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. Clinton, but right now the best the party of Lincoln has come up with is your opponent, Mr. Trump. If President Lincoln were here, he would no doubt be surprised to see a "little lady" running to be his successor. But I believe if he, or any responsible Republican or Democrat of the past, thought that the alternative was a vulgar misogynist who whips crowds into a fury with the rhetoric of hate groups, Mr. Lincoln would vote for you.

Our opponents will laugh us to scorn. Hillary Clinton! We've never liked her! I know that hurts your feelings; as you reminded us, you're a human being too. I'm not saying you're Lincoln. But you are--forgive me--the little Dutch boy whose finger is plugging this particular dike, and if you can't get it done, we're all going to be under water for a long time to come.


We are the U.S. citizens whom you said you would always support, whether we supported you or not. We are people who never imagined America could elect a woman president, and people who weren't sure that you were that woman. We are registered in different parties and we are independents. We live in many countries and look to see what the United States will do. We all know who Hillary Clinton is, that you visited more countries than any other Secretary of State, that you were in the Situation Room when they went for Osama bin Laden--all of that. Millions and millions of us are hoping, even praying, that you rise above your human weaknesses and get this done for us.

You are a Christian and talk about praying daily, but I've never heard anyone say of you that you're anointed by God to seek and obtain the presidency. For all that, I believe this is your moment. I very much doubt that you would have chosen these exact circumstances and no one is more surprised than I that we are in them, but here we are. 

If I may conclude with an anecdote you may know from British history. Before World War II, Arthur Greenwood became the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party under Clement Attlee. On the 2nd of September 1939, acting for an absent Attlee, he was called to respond to Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's ambivalent speech on whether Britain would aid Poland. He was interrupted by an angry Conservative backbencher, Leo Amery, who exclaimed "Speak for England, Arthur!" Arthur Greenwood proceeded to give the speech of his life, denouncing Mr. Chamberlain's appeasement and beginning the unification of Britain against the greatest enemy the Allies ever faced.

Speak for America, Hillary.

Yours sincerely,
J. E. Knowles