Dear Candidates Clinton and Trump:

I remember campaigns when presidential candidates exhorted us to do better and come together as Americans to make the country and its people better, to help people in need – to heal the sick, educate the young, care for the old and bring economic prosperity and health to those who had been passed over.

Certainly, candidates criticized one another and the other party for the ways in which they had failed – but it seems to me as though both of you, the Republican and Democratic candidates, have resorted to language unbecoming to people running for the nation’s highest office. When you criticize each other and each other’s supporters personally, I cringe in embarrassment. I want you to be gracious, empathetic, caring, bold, big-hearted and incredibly smart, to use language that elevates rather than debases, that urges us to dream big and build, to be better than we are today, and to aim for a society that is fairer and more just.

You should represent the very best that we are and can be as Americans. When you denigrate whole groups of people, you legitimize meanness, prejudices and clichés, and judgments about people that are not based in data or fact. I want your humanity to shine and your willingness to reach out to those who do not agree with you to be a fundamental part of your strategy. You will not succeed without these marks of character, and therefore, we will not succeed.

In 1960, candidate John F. Kennedy said:

Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.

I want you, our present-day candidates, to accept responsibility for the future.

In his acceptance speech, Kennedy spoke of standing on the edge of a new frontier, facing a set of challenges. “It is not what I intend to offer the American people but what I intend to ask of them,” he said. Kennedy spoke of uncharted areas of science, unanswered questions of poverty, the value of service and so much more. That language stirred and kindled a commitment to service in a generation of young Americans, and I was one of them. His language and ideas elevated us all, and they were translated into policies and programs, some of which live on today. [Read more here.]

Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump, as candidates, you can motivate us to be the best we can be; to solve what have been referred to as the “wicked” problems of the country – those big, multisectoral problems, such as serious inequities in health, wealth and education; to embrace the frontier, and to join you in a powerful movement based in hope and positivity. If the polls are to be believed, neither of you has found the language, devised the strategies, nor thought through the consequences of your actions in ways that reflect statesmanship and leadership – much less ways that engender inspiration.

I was too young to vote in the 1960 election, but I was forever motivated by Kennedy’s words. Later, I waited hours at Eastern Michigan University with 3,000 excited, mostly young people to hear Bobby Kennedy talk about many of the same issues in October 1966.

From Ypsilanti in the 20th Century, by James Thomas Mann (p. 119)
From Ypsilanti in the 20th Century, by James Thomas Mann (p. 119)

In 1980, accepting the Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan said, “[The Democrats] say that the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith.… My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.” Reagan might have disagreed with the approach of the Democrats, but he had not given up on the future of this country. We all need to believe that the best is still to come.

In February 1981, Reagan was faced with serious economic problems in the country. He did not promise panaceas. “We don’t have an option of living with inflation and its attendant tragedy,” he said.

We have an alternative, and that is the program for economic recovery. True, it’ll take time for the favorable effects of our program to be felt. So, we must begin now. The people are watching and waiting. They don’t demand miracles. They do expect us to act. Let us act together.

[Read more here.]

In the 1992 campaign, candidate Bill Clinton said that the old ways will not do. He spoke of the need to deal with poverty, hunger and disease, and he said that “it’s exhilarating to me to think that, as president, I could make all Americans’ lives better.”

In his 2012 acceptance speech, President Obama said:

We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

[Read more here.]

What these quotes have in common is that they exhort us, as Americans, to do better, to come together to solve the greatest problems of our time, which are often the province of public health. They encourage us to dream of a country that is bigger and better than what we are today, because we can be better. They elevate both our expectations and our responsibilities. They remind us that, as citizens, we must be part of solutions.

That sense of responsibility has driven my professional life.

Candidates Clinton and Trump, you’ve had your moments of quotable oratory, but we’re hungry for more substance. Tell us more about how you will engage us to work together to create a better future for all who live here. Tell us authentically about who you are, and why we should believe in your vision. Allow us to see your humanity and your humility, admit your mistakes, take responsibility for your actions, and convey empathy for those who suffer. Assure us that you will work across the aisle if you are elected. Tell us how we can work together, with you. And then, we, the People, will decide. Thank you.

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