When I was 19, I voted for Bill Clinton for president. I knew he was well-liked internationally, and I believed this would keep us out of war. In my painting class at a local university, I was the only one who voted Democrat. When I was 7 or 8, my father had brought me back a toy donkey from a business trip. The inside of its ears were covered with old glory themed fabric — I interpreted this as permission to vote according to conscience in a primarily Republican state, and since then I’ve deliberated my political decisions rather than adhering strictly to party affiliation.
My recollections of listening to Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the student lounge are vivid. I remember my stomach turning, especially as I heard him intentionally twist words. As a lawyer’s daughter, I recognized classic evasions of the truth. These memories resurfaced during the Kavanaugh trials, and again this week as I have listened to the defense tactics of President Donald Trump’s lawyers.
I will admit that since the Clinton impeachment, I have not trusted the Clintons – Bill’s lack of self-control and mistreatment of women, even while holding our country’s most revered office, and Hilary’s dogged persecution of any who might compromise her political ambitions. Since then, I’ve looked for honor and integrity in the politicians I choose to elect. In the 2000 primaries, the Bush campaign defeated John McCain through Karl Rove’s whispers of an “illegitimate black child” in South Carolina, which secured the nomination for George Bush. As Al Gore and George Bush ran neck to neck for the 2000 presidency, the latter’s DUI record leaked five days before the election. In 2004, the year I moved to Washington D.C., the Republican smear campaign focused on John Kerry’s military service, disputing the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple hearts he was awarded for commanding a Swift boat in Vietnam.
This focus on mud-slinging during presidential campaigning made it hard for me to determine my vote – a complicated calculus of platforms, balance of power, and decency – the latter in small quantity when it came to winning. Every candidate seemed to be running an “at all costs” campaign.
In January 2008, I stood shivering in the middle of the National Mall. I dropped my camera just a few inches from the frozen ground. It cracked internally, and I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the event. Admittedly, President Barack Obama’s presidential terms were fraught with conflict and partisan roadblocks, but that day, a large crowd joined together in hope. After the inauguration, we walked away calmly, shoulder to shoulder, moving in mass on Independence Avenue. I had never seen so many human bodies in one place at one time, but there was no anger or pushing. When a woman fell 10 feet ahead, the crowd stopped and waited as the people surrounding her helped her to her feet. I’d like to think the reverence we felt that day not only came from Obama’s charisma and America’s first election of a black president, but how both candidates had behaved in the 2008 election.
Amid rumors that Barack Obama was an Arab and born abroad, Rep. John McCain defended his opponent, famously taking the microphone from a crowd member at a Minnesota rally, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign issue is all about.” Earlier at the same rally, another supporter asserted that Obama “cohorts with domestic terrorists” and that if he were elected, Americans would have much to fear. To this as well, McCain responded with class, claiming that Obama was a “decent person” and that there would be no reason to be scared if he were elected.
McCain was keeping his promise to his daughter Bridget, whom the McCains had adopted from Bangladesh when she was a seriously ill infant in Mother Teresa’s orphanage. She had never heard about the smear campaign in the 2000 election until she Googled herself, realizing Rove had characterized her as the “illegitimate black child.” When her father entered the 2008 campaign, she made him and his aides commit to behaving differently.
Currently, I work as a freshman and sophomore English teacher. The curriculum at both institutions of higher education I’m employed at focuses on researched opinion, civility in argument, and respect for the opposition. We examine logical fallacy and violations of the “rules of argument.” These discursive transgressions are easy to identify in presidential debates. I do not take partisan positions in class, but caution my students to be “people of information” and to research issues before forming opinions.
During the impeachment trial, I found myself returning to the internet and Googling the same topic over and over. I can’t get past the refusal of so many of our nation’s senators to search out the truth and subpoena evidence. I shudder as I hear the testimonies of public servants who strove to fulfill their duties and obligations to our Ukrainian ally, a country bravely defending its territory against Russian encroachment. I wonder if civility matters, the sanctity of our elections, and if “winning” is worth this cost.
I fear the trial was pre-determined by partisanship. I wonder why so many of my friends cannot hear what I do: logical fallacy, the purposeful twisting of words, the creation of misinformation and sound bites meant to be published in conservative publications and repeated verbally to drown out any opposition. I wonder why their moral sense does not revolt against President Donald Trump.
I searched over and over for another Justin Amash. After publicly calling for impeachment, Justin Amash resigned from the Republican party. In an op-ed he declared, “No matter your circumstance, I’m asking you to join me in rejecting the partisan loyalties and rhetoric that divide and dehumanize us. I’m asking you to believe that we can do better than this two-party system — and to work toward it. If we continue to take America for granted, we will lose it.” I search in hope that right still matters, and that Republican senators will have the moral courage to at least call out President Donald Trump’s actions for what they are: self-interested, dangerous, immoral, small.
I fear the precedent his acquittal will set and the standard going forward for actions considered lawful in a presidential race: Foreign powers have no place in U.S. elections. Personal gain has no place in national interests and policies. No president has the right to freeze Congress-condoned aid to our embattled allies. Next to these issues, partisan considerations must be irrelevant; otherwise, as Adam Schiff warns us, “no Constitution can protect us.”