As an elder citizen who has voted in every presidential election since 1960, I still can recall the special feelings of that first one. I was 21, the legal voting age at the time, having come of age in the 50s in an ethnic, working class enclave in a little mill town in Maine. As if on cue, here came a young, energetic, charismatic candidate who clearly wasn’t one of “us,” to be sure, but who felt like a breath of fresh air and seemed to mean it when he spoke out on behalf of the least fortunate and least visible among us. He offered hope and possibility, and I was thrilled to cast my first vote for John F. Kennedy.
I don’t remember feeling anything quite like that again – until 2008. Here, reminiscently, was this charismatic candidate, who had the Harvard degree and all that but who seemed to appreciate his own good fortune, whatever his previous hardships, and who roused in us, including those less favored than himself, a sense of promise and hope and possibility. And to choose him, in the bargain we would elect the first black president in our nation’s history.
I remember well the moment, Mr. President, when you penetrated the radar of my political skepticism and rekindled a kind of joy, I’d call it, which I’d almost forgotten could possibly come out of the political landscape. It was that speech you gave in Philadelphia during the primary campaign. Against the advice of your inner circle of advisors, as I’ve heard, you stepped up and gave that courageous — I would say, “inspired” — speech, which addressed head-on the subterranean but explosive issue of race in America, calling for a more open and whole-hearted national dialogue. It could have cost you the election, as your aides well knew, but, on that day you spoke truly to our “better angels,” and on that day, for my money, you became a president.
Now, four years later, we find ourselves on the verge of another such moment of truth with much at stake. The lives of millions of people will be deeply affected by the results of this election, for better or for worse. So, like so many of your supporters, I was stunned and dismayed to see you in your first television debate appear so dazed and listless — spiritless, it seemed. I could hardly force myself to stay with it. What in God’s name was wrong, I wondered. Were you ill? Had something terrible happened before the debate to distract you? Where was the man who had summoned our hearts four years ago in Philadelphia? We could only speculate and maybe admit we were scared what it might portend.
Tonight, it is somewhat reassuring to read you quoted as saying you will “come out swinging” in the next debate, as I’m sure you will. But beyond the questions of how aggressive you need to be, or how in particular you should respond to any given issue, I write this letter with an urgent and heartfelt suggestion — no, really a plea.
It is this: Before you walk onto that stage, Mr. President, and even before that, as you are preparing for the debate, I ask you to drill down into yourself, past where the arguments are constructed and the points are scored, to that place we all must find to speak from when the lives and well-being of our dearest ones are at stake. The place we locate when we’re called upon to speak in behalf of a child, say, or of a loved one unable in the moment to advocate for herself or himself.
I ask you, Mr. President, before you go into that debate, to think beyond your talking points, to the lives of those millions of people you may never meet, whose hopes for themselves and their children, whose very ability to hope, will be affected by the outcome of this election —and with every word, to speak for them. Dare, Mr. President, to speak from that place in your heart for all of us, as on that day in Philadelphia when you spoke to our better angels, and we heard. Godspeed and God bless.
Jim Bishop, of Bangor, is formally retired as an English lecturer from the University of Maine but still teaches as an adjunct for the English department and Honors College.