Dear Hillary,Reasons abound why you should do all you can to defeat John McCain -- but for you, it should be personal. Maybe you've forgotten in the heat of the Democratic contest. But remember McCain's cruel joke about your daughter, when Chelsea was 18 and vulnerable. This alone should give you every reason to stand against McCain -- and nothing to boost his chances.
McCain made the joke at a 1998 Republican Senate fundraiser. "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?" he asked. "Because her father is Janet Reno." Chelsea was a lovely young woman then, and is even lovelier now. But when you're 18, an attack like that can be deeply wounding. It's outrageous for McCain to slime an innocent young woman who'd done nothing to offend him -- just to throw red meat to a Republican crowd.
It would be bad enough had McCain's joke targeted only Janet Reno and you, feeding the misogynist myth that any assertive woman must be gay. But as adults, both you and Reno could recognize the nasty joke as reflecting solely on the man who made it. Sliming teenage Chelsea like that, however, crossed a fundamental line -- a line that I'm sure matters for you and Bill as parents.
Sure, McCain apologized after a flurry of media coverage, but talk of that sort is cheap. It's like his using the excuse that he'd had a long day, after telling his own wife at a 1992 campaign event: "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt." That was his public response to her teasing him about his thinning hair. But the Chelsea "joke" was from a prepared text, not accidental. It's a window into McCain's cruel side. Your lovely daughter was the target of his abuse.
You should want to defeat McCain for other reasons too. He pushed strongly for the 1998 bill supporting Iraqi "regime change," said the country's people would greet us as liberators and has no problem with our staying as occupiers for a hundred years. He thinks it's fine to do little or nothing about people whose homes are being foreclosed on, fine for Bush to have vetoed a bill banning waterboarding, and fine to joke about bombing Iran. The Children's Defense Fund rated him the worst senator in Congress for children last year, and he got a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters. He voted against a Martin Luther King holiday and gave the commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University after Falwell claimed the 9/11 attacks happened because God was angered by the gays, lesbians, feminists, abortionists, the ACLU, and People for the American Way. Any of these should be reasons enough for voters to reject him. But you should also have an intensely personal reason: McCain can be decent and charming, but he also has a mean streak -- one he exercised at the expense of your beloved only child.
Please remember McCain's ugly actions and words between now and November. Don't let their import dissipate in the passion of the Democratic contest. It must be difficult to have envisioned your making history as America's first woman president, with the chance to lead the country toward your most passionate heart-felt goals -- and then to see the nomination steadily slip away. I'm sure you're frustrated and angry that after withstanding all the right-wing assaults, you may miss the electoral prize. But think of your daughter and dedicate yourself from this point forward to defeating McCain. It's your right to keep running; but stop attacking Obama in your speeches, your ads, and your surrogates' statements (including those of Bill). A few weeks ago, you whipped up a crowd to boo Obama in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You stood by and said nothing while Machinist Union head Tom Buffenbarger used recycled lies to dismiss his supporters as "latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies." You said you and McCain had enough experience, while Obama had nothing but "a speech he made in 2002." You and your surrogates are taking an accurate point Obama raised about anger in economically devastated communities, and caricaturing it with classic Republican talking points tarring him as an out-of-touch "elitist."
You may feel these attacks are just politics ("the fun part," in your words), and that Obama's gone after you just as harshly. But remember, your words have an impact. At my Washington State caucus, Obama supporters listened respectfully while your spokesperson made her pitch. Then your supporters heckled and booed the Obama person, and several even turned their backs. You've seen the recent Gallup poll, taken mostly before Obama's Philadelphia race speech, where 28% of your supporters say they'd vote for McCain in November if Obama is the nominee (as would 19% of Obama's, were the situation reversed). As the pollsters pointed out, people often give similar responses during intensely fought primaries, and then shift back in November. But I've gotten far too many emails from your supporters that dismiss Obama's strengths using the very words and themes your campaign has stressed, like saying they mistrust a candidate "who's done nothing in his life." These responses may be just a way to vent for those who see their own dreams of America's first female president at least temporarily snatched away. I trust most will come around by November, whoever is the Democratic nominee. But not all will. And the more you conduct a scorched-earth campaign, the more the likely defections. If past campaigns are any guide, you won't be able to turn on a dime and erase the rancor at the last minute.
So keep on through the final primary if you think it makes sense. But remember what John McCain did to your daughter. And make clear in every public statement that you'd give Obama your full and enthusiastic support if he ends up the nominee. Keep your ads focused on your own strengths, and tell your surrogates to do the same. You can certainly ask this as well of Obama, who's said repeatedly that he'd back you energetically if he lost. Then let the delegates make their choice. If you aren't the winner, take a well-deserved vacation, then come back and campaign as hard (well nearly as hard) for an overall Democratic victory as you did for the presidential nomination. After all, the broader the Democratic victory, the more you can accomplish in the Senate.
That would be the best response to McCain's cruel and capricious assault on Chelsea. It would also be the best possible way to move toward a future you'd be proud to have your daughter inherit.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org. To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles