Peter Edelman, a Clinton appointee, resigned in 1996 when Clinton signed the welfare “reform” law. At the time he said only, “I had worked as hard as I could over the past thirty-plus years to reduce poverty and…in my opinion this bill moved in the opposite direction.” In an Atlantic Monthly article in 1997, however, after Clinton was reelected, Edelman detailed his position, prefacing it with this comment about why he had not come forth with a more complete statement earlier:
“My judgment was that it was important to make clear the reasons for my resignation but not helpful to politicize the issue further during an election campaign. And I did want to see President Clinton re-elected. Worse is not better, in my view, and Bob Dole would certainly have been worse on a wide range of issues, especially if coupled with a Republican Congress.”
Edelman’s choice. I believe it is a choice similar to the one we have before us today.
How I came to be an apathetic voter
For thirty years of my life, I was probably like a majority of Americans, so busy with my life that I accepted familiar political assumptions. I voted once I was eligible but wasn’t particularly engaged. Maybe there were other reasons for my apathy, though, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
I wasn’t raised to be an apathetic voter. I remember well the excitement of staying up with my Dad into the small hours of the morning to see if John Kennedy won the nomination of his party in 1960. Finally my Dad sent me to bed, then came and woke me to tell me Kennedy would be the candidate. I remember naively lining up outside the door of my junior high school that next morning wearing a Kennedy button in a Republican town.
President Kennedy was assassinated during my sophomore year in high school. I remember the day he died, the shock, the deep sadness, the feeling that the world would never be the same. I remember walking home from school on that terrible day and meeting my Dad halfway along my path as he was leaving his office, weeping openly. We walked the rest of the way home together.
I remember when my Dad took us all to First Methodist Church in Evanston in 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. And I remember the tumultuous years of the sixties, the civil rights marches in the south, the anti-war demonstrations, the heart-crushing oppression and death broadcast nightly on the news, the deaths of great leaders.
I remember when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, and a short two months later in June, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. I remember the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August 1968, two years before I graduated college and the November election that brought Lyndon B. Johnson into office, still before I was eligible to vote.
By the time I was voting age, I was busy with my adult life. I married in 1970, had my first child in 1972, my second in 1974, managed two homes, one in the country with a large organic garden and orchard, went back to school to complete a second bachelor’s degree, two masters degrees and most of a doctorate, survived a divorce and worked, worked a lot. My organic garden, off-and-on vegetarianism and whole food cooking for my family were my contribution to repairing the world.
Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, I voted Democratic even though I kind of liked some Republicans along the way. I came from a Democratic family, and it just seemed…necessary. After all, there was Watergate. I was unenthusiastic. I termed myself “apolitical”. The endless justifications for policies on both sides and the swirls of controversies lost me.
When Bill Clinton ran for president the first time in 1992, everyone I knew was excited. “Another Kennedy.” I wasn’t feeling it. Something just wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, just a vague feeling of dislike or discomfort. I assumed that was because I was busy and didn’t have time for or interest in politics.
In 1992, I was struggling, raising two kids as a single parent with little money. I was in school and working. By 1996, when Clinton ran for his second term, I was doing better. I was able to get good work, much of it that I could do from home, and my financial situation improved steadily. My kids were a little older. From my narrow perspective, life felt OK, so I figured the economy must indeed be better. Superficially, Clinton appeared to be on the right side of liberal social issues. He must be doing alright as a president.
Of course, by the time Clinton ran for his second term, his sex scandals were all over the news. I hated all of that and was angered by it — that he did it, the way he handled it and the way the Republicans leaped on it like gleeful kids and barraged us with the gory details day after day when I sensed they were equally involved in scandals of their own. The whole mess depressed me. I wanted someone to admire, and there was no one. The fact that Bill Clinton was little more than a talented, ambitious man, not the inspiring leader I wanted, helped me understand my original lukewarm reaction to him.
I was persuaded by everyone I knew, mostly liberals, that the man’s personal morals and behavior had nothing to do with his ability as President of the United States. I was persuaded that he had done an excellent job during his first term despite great obstacles, including constant attacks by “the vast right-wing conspiracy”. I was persuaded, in short, to vote for him a second time.
I voted for Clinton that second time, resentfully. I made Edelman’s choice.
The 2000 election was brutal. Everybody was angry. You could not raise an issue or ask a question or disagree with a position on either side without risking the loss of a friend or without getting into a vehement, heated argument. And of course, there was the hanging chad thing. I hated the entire election cycle all the way around that year. I was unenthusiastic to begin with. Much to my surprise, I found myself kind of liking the guy everyone in my circles loved to hate — nothing to do with policies. I was sick of the constant negativity and demonization and didn’t want to hear any more of it. I voted Democratic with complete lack of enthusiasm in that election and the one that followed, which was worse than the first, and I began my long recovery process from those election cycles.
By 2007, I also began to experience the beginnings of an economic catastrophe that originated in the 70s. If financial crash and burn taught me one thing, it was something about humility, about what it feels like to stare down losing your home, about what it’s like not to have a safety net. I just had to cope with that for a few short years, and I had family and friends that helped. Some people are born into that world. They have neither the resources nor the privilege that I enjoy and remain in that situation throughout their lives.
Sometime in the late 90s, I read an interview with Not-Yet-Senator Barak Obama. I didn’t fully agree with everything he said, but I was impressed. Living in Chicago at the time, I voted for him.
Then came July 26, 2004 when then Senator Obama delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. It was the first time in years I was moved by anything in politics. I wept through most of it. This is what I had missed over the years since my childhood heroes had all been assassinated, someone who could reflect back to us our most beautiful and inspiring vision of ourselves and who we can be.
For the first time in my adult life, I voted enthusiastically for a candidate, and I have not been disappointed. Michelle Obama is an awesome First Lady. Sasha and Malia, like their parents, are beautiful, intelligent and dignified. With grace, superb intelligence and thoughtfulness, President Obama weathered the storms of his presidency and moved us forward. Yes, the progress is slow, but he has moved us, and he continues to inspire me in how he handles not only the unbearably enormous task of being president of the United States but in how he lives his personal life. Because you know what? Personal morality DOES have something to do with how you govern. My friends were wrong in the 90s.
I dreaded coming to the end of President Obama’s second term in office and facing yet another election cycle, but then I started to hear more about Bernie Sanders a year or two ago and liked what I heard. He gave voice to my ideals. He electrified me as President Obama had, although in a very different way.
Bernie doesn’t have the same quietly intellectual and analytical thoughtfulness in his approach to issues or the same extraordinary rhetorical skills as President Obama. He is more like the prophets of the Bible, thundering down out of the hills and deserts, chastising us for our moral failures, our me-centeredness, and exhorting us to return to the path of social justice. He often shouts, often in a hoarse voice, as I imagine the prophets must have done, and he sometimes seems angry. But Bernie Sanders has precisely identified the problem that will bring down our great Democratic experiment, in fact, our world, and tells us what we must do to adjust course. And the operative word is “we”, a word Bernie characteristically uses over and over.
We all should be angry. We all should shout until we’re hoarse from it. We all should protest what it says about our country today when 25% of our population is in prison, when 1 in 5 kids is starving, when 50 million live with “food insecurity”, when people who work full-time cannot afford to live and when there is no longer a social safety net, something put in place by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to save hundreds of thousands in his own time and protect millions well into the future from the effects of corporate greed in collusion with government.
I know the United States will never actually be the idealistic vision President Obama presented at the 2004 convention, nor will we ever fully solve the problems to which Bernie Sanders points. We will never actually be the vision created for us by our founding fathers. We’re a work in progress, and people are still people with all their extraordinary capacity for goodness as well as their capacity for greed and evil. But we have a concept, at least, of a system of checks and balances. That system is broken — again — as it was at the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. And we must, unless we want to continue down the path to the Evil Empire of mythology, restore checks and balances on human behavior. We must find a way, as FDR did in the thirties, to do the most good for the most people.
Personally, I don’t care what the political label is on the person who leads us in that direction. I don’t care what gender they are. I don’t care what religion or what race. I just know it is imperative that we walk in that direction.
So I am starting to understand my lack of enthusiasm before President Obama as having something to do with uninspiring options. Too often I found myself making Edelman’s choice: the lesser of evils. And I don’t want to be forced to make that choice again.
The choice before us
I’ve been reluctant to say anything negative about Secretary Clinton. She fields plenty of accusations, plenty of criticism, and a great deal of it is possibly unfair. And she might end up as our Democratic nominee, so why add to the Republican drive to make her unelectable? But right now we’re in primary season, and I believe we have an opportunity to avoid, once again, having to make Edelman’s choice.
That is why, with some reluctance, I’m going to share my own thoughts: because if it comes to the moment that I must again make Edelman’s choice, I will resent it as I did before, and so will others. As a friend pointed out, while most Democrats, including Bernie supporters, will vote for Hillary, there will be many others, young people voting for the first time, Republicans unhappy with the Republican field, and independents, who will not feel the same compulsion and who will find someone in the Republican field or not vote at all. I don’t think we can or should ignore what the idealists among us are saying.
One of our options today is a person of clear moral character, a person who directs his focused attention and ours to the deep systemic issue that is at the base of every other problem in our society, the fact that we are a me-focused society, that since the 70s, we have built the political framework for a Catcher-in-the-Rye world. Our me-centeredness is captured perfectly in the drive to shrink government to the smallest possible unit of decision-making, “me”, doing just what “me” wants to do in a completely unfettered way. Break up government, give it back to the states, back to the corporations, back to the individual. A few lucky, privileged and often ruthless individuals thrive in this setup. Most do not.
The other option is Secretary Clinton. My decision to give more thought to my lukewarm reaction to her candidacy and to share my thoughts was influenced by a short Facebook post from Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. In it, she said, “I can’t believe Hillary would be coasting into the primaries with her current margin of black support if most people knew how much damage the Clintons have done – the millions of families that were destroyed the last time they were in the White House thanks to their boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine and their total capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes. There’s so much more to say on this topic and it’s a shame that more people aren’t saying it. I think it’s time we have that conversation.”
I agree. I think it’s time we have that conversation. So I started to read. As I said, I’m not well-informed about those Clinton years. I didn’t have a good feeling about them but was too busy and disengaged to pay much attention or sort out the truth of what was and wasn’t true. I wanted to find out what Michelle Alexander means, though, when she talks about the Clintons’ “boastful embrace of the mass incarceration machine” and their “capitulation to the right-wing narrative on race, crime, welfare and taxes.”
I searched the Internet for what might be credible articles on Clinton and taxes, Clinton and incarceration, Clinton and welfare, Clinton and race. There’s no shortage of material, and I haven’t finished reading. I won’t try to summarize. I’ll say simply, it was eye-opening for me, and now I understand better the discomfort I had with this couple and why they failed, and continue to fail, to inspire me.
I will share a short sampling of these articles here, for those who are interested. I believe the authors are credible. They have strong liberal credentials (which removes the variable of the “vast right wing conspiracy” out to get the Clintons), and they are trained and accomplished academics:
Bill Clinton and Mass Incarceration, Andrew Cohen
The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done, The Atlantic Monthly, Peter Edelman.
How Bill Clinton’s Welfare “Reform” Created a System Rife with Racial Biases, Bill Moyers’ interviews Joe Soss, University of Minnesota sociologist, who studied the after effects of the legislation.
That second article by Peter Edelman is lengthy but well worth the read. It was a little difficult for me to absorb all of it, and I think it might require another read, but I followed enough to begin to understand Michelle Alexander’s rage with what happened during Clintons’ administration. I understood that Clinton was a long way from representing a progressive agenda, at least as I understand it, an agenda for social justice. I was disturbed by what I can only interpret as complete dedication to his political objectives, above meaningful moral considerations.
In another article by Peter Edelman about why we can’t end poverty in America, Edelman outlines what he thinks we must do to address this seemingly intractable issue — and it is essentially Bernie’s platform.
I know the cautionary wisdom here: Secretary Clinton is her own person. She is not her husband, and a Hillary Clinton administration will not be a Bill Clinton administration. And Hillary has a long list of accomplishments and contributions to her name, a list she recites for us at every opportunity, so I won’t lay it out again here. But then there’s this, a response to the question, did the Clintons really steal things when they left the White House. Gil Troy, American Historian and author of “The Age of Clinton: American in the 1990s” has this to say in the last paragraph of his response:
“Bill Clinton, an extraordinarily talented politician clearly was more morally tone-deaf and personally hollow than many admitted; while his wife was often co-conspirator, not just victim or enabler.”
Troy quotes George Will in the response:
“I love liberals. They put up with this guy through perjury, suborning perjury, obstruction of justice and use of the military to cloud discussion of his problems. Then he steals the toaster and they say, ‘That’s it, we’ve had it’.” Did Hillary not know of the theft? Was she compelled in any way?
We put up with a lot more from that couple in the White House. We put up not only with Bill’s me-centered ambition but with Hillary’s, an ambition that had her aimed for the presidency all along. In that universe, Hillary, a champion for women, participated in a smear-campaign against a woman her husband assaulted, calling her a “floozy”. In that universe, Hillary answered any questions about integrity or the authenticity of Bill Clinton’s intentions and promises with blame on a “right-wing conspiracy”, as she does today. When asked by a student in the recent Iowa Town Hall why people “don’t trust her,” she hauled out the standard response, a list of her personal accomplishments and progressive commitments followed by blame of the “right-wing conspiracy”. Yet this is a woman who staunchly supported her husband’s administration which laid waste to the social safety net and ensured the incarceration of 25% of the citizens of this country — and who was part of a smear campaign against a woman assaulted by her husband.
Shame on us as Democrats for taking notice only when the toaster went out the door. Shame on us for continuing to believe the lie that the Clintons have a deep and total commitment to a progressive agenda and that any questions of integrity and character are all a “right-wing conspiracy”. Shame on us for not insisting on better answers for that young person who asked a question. And shame on us for not recognizing that our greatest issue is that me-centeredness that caused us to create a system that serves the few and neglects and oppresses way too many, preventing us from finding social justice in this country and the world.
I believe we have an important, even critical option in the primaries. We can choose a candidate whose life demonstrates passion and commitment to social justice and who has a clear-eyed view of the need for redemption in our me-society. Or we can choose the first woman president, a woman with amazing accomplishments and abilities — but also a woman who does not inspire young people and who responds to a question about a perception that she’s dishonest with a list of her accomplishments and abilities and blame of the “right-wing conspiracy”. A woman whose drive to the top “trumps” all else, who remains oblivious, apparently, to her own moral ambiguity.
If we choose the second as our candidate, I, at least, will feel as though I am confronted once again with Edelman’s choice. And I will vote for her. But I will resent it, and so will many others. That won’t play well for the Democrats in the long run. We need young voters who can still imagine a better world, not voters like I was whose apathy lets them ignore what is happening in front of them.
In 1971, John Lennon wrote “Imagine” in one sitting. It inspired and motivated his contemporaries, and it continues to inspire and motivate many today:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
Lennon’s vision wasn’t about being in a position to take the White House toaster. It wasn’t about rising to the top or being first whatever. It wasn’t about power or big money or prestige. It was about a world where all the people can live a life in peace, no need for greed or hunger, sharing all the world. Was he a dreamer? Yes, but he’s not the only one.
Since when did we start saying the the dreams and the vision we had when we were young are, as Hillary often suggests in debates, impractical and unachievable? If that’s what we’re saying, it’s time to retire and leave the voting to the overwhelming majority of young people who still have dreams for a better world, a world where at the very least the president of our country has the moral character to inspire and lead us in the slow crawl toward redemption.
I hope we make a choice for that person, for someone who puts that vision of social justice at the top of their agenda. I hope we respond to the dreams of our young people and put before them a vision for which they will not only vote but to which they will commit their lives.
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