We’ve let you down, and I’m sorry.
Your hope and optimism about American public life is infectious. Watching you watch the first presidential debate this fall, for which you’d begged us to push back bedtime, was a proud moment for Mom and me. Here you were, our 10-year-old daughter, glued intensely to two screens — a TV that displayed the debating candidates and an iPad catching their inconsistencies on a live fact-checker.
In many respects, your earnestness during this election season hasn’t surprised us because you’ve always been drawn to this stuff. President Obama’s first election came on your second birthday and, in the months leading up to it, you were a proud toddler, shouting “Gobama!” and “Cain!” when the candidates’ voices came on the radio during the morning commute. Mom and I shed a tear that night, knowing that the only world you’d ever know was one where a black family, one we admired very much, could occupy the White House.
Since you learned to read, you have been fascinated by books about presidents and public affairs. You have begged us over the years, and we have gladly obliged, to visit presidential libraries and historic sites where we’ve all been inspired by the faithful public servants and everyday people who have given us much.
What has impressed us most, perhaps, is that while you’re interested in some of the pomp and circumstance of politics (and no, I won’t run for president so you can have a downstairs bowling alley), you’re drawn magnetically, as well, to the hard things. You know about 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination. You’ve read many accounts of the struggles for civil and voting rights, which your African-American sisters and brothers waged heroically while many of your white forebears blocked, suppressed or stood idly by. You know that the world contains evil, and that we are prone to its manifestations in American public life. This great country has lots of scars, many of our own making.
You know, too, that the evils abide. You read the newspaper — its reports of war and crime and racial strife — and you are not naïve.
If watching you watch the first presidential debate was one of our proudest moments, then denying you the chance to watch the second was among the most shameful for your mom and me. You, of course, didn’t make us ashamed; you had every right to beg and wring your hands at our refusal. You see, we were ashamed of us — that collective Us who had gotten us in this bind.
What you know is this: In the days leading up to that debate, it was discovered that Donald Trump had done some terrible things to women. These were unspeakable things, in fact, things we couldn’t let you hear as a 10-year-old girl. In all your reading and all your presidential library visits, you’ve been convinced, more or less rightly, that despite the world’s brokenness, the American people tend to elevate and celebrate people of good faith. We seemed, now, to be doing something altogether different.
You already had a sense of that, though. You knew about some of the other unjust campaign promises and actions — about the wall, for example, which you couldn’t believe. You knew that your Latina friends at school were afraid of Donald Trump. You knew about the racist undertones of his crusade to paint the president as foreign-born. You could sense, like many of us, that his was a campaign based on fear, not hope. He made you deeply uneasy.
So in the wee hours of November 9, as Mom and I watched election returns in disbelief, we couldn’t bear the thought of waking you and your sister to the news.
We’re sorry, Anna. We’re sorry that this country, which you love and believe in, has overlooked the assaults on women. We’re sorry that we overlooked the racism and xenophobia that the president-elect rode like a wave into office. We’re sorry to have elected a man who mocks disabled brothers and sisters and objectifies women, behaviors that we would never overlook if they were yours or mine.
But we ought to apologize, too, for some of the ways we’ve behaved ever since. Some of our neighbors near and far have felt empowered to monger fear and demonstrate delusions of white supremacy. This is despicable and shameful; I don’t have to tell you that. But others have wrongly been unwilling to accept the results of a fairly contested election, making claims, despite valid reasons for protest, that the president-elect is #notmypresident. That’s false, too, and maybe a little childish. Actually, I take that back. You’re a child, and you know better.
So I’ll say it this way, Anna, perhaps the best I know how: I’m sorry for the world we’re creating for you, and I’m sorry that we’re not better than this. We’ve taken our poorest traits and mistaken them for high ideals. We’ve elevated our lowest selves to the places of highest esteem. And we’ve overlooked a lot that we just simply shouldn’t.
But you can make us better, Anna, and we hope that you will. Let us encourage you, in the days ahead, to look to your other heroes— to Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges, for example — girls not much different from you who defied their elders’ shortcomings and made us all better for it. Look to strong women like Michelle Obama, and heed her good advice: “When they go low, we go high.” Look to the words of George H.W. Bush, who called us to be “a thousand points of light.” Or look to your favorite, John F. Kennedy, who told us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
We’re sorry, Anna. But please don’t lose faith. With the audacity of hope, let’s instead get to work.
Andy Hogue, director of the Civic Education & Community Service Program and lecturer of political science at Baylor University, is an expert in religion and American politics as well as political rhetoric. He is author of “Stumping God: Reagan, Carter and the Invention of a Political Faith,” explaining how and why religion became an important factor in modern presidential elections.