You may wonder where I’ve been. Why you haven’t seen much of me. Why you haven’t heard much from me. After all, I was the President of the United States for eight years. Naturally, I care. Obviously, I’m watching. And listening.
There is a tradition in our country, especially in the modern era, that a former president doesn’t engage in public criticism of a sitting U.S. President. There are exceptions, of course. Especially by our friend from Plains, Georgia.
Myself, I’ve tried to abide by this custom for the last 17 months; tried to give my successor his own turn at the wheel. I’ve kept pretty busy. That’s not to say that holding back has always been easy. It hasn’t.
And even today, as I write and speak these words to the nation, it’s not to take issue and push back publicly against specific policy positions and recent laws passed. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’d even know where to begin.
No. Today I’m using my voice to address just one thing, and it’s nothing to do with partisanship.
It’s about how we’re speaking to one another. And how we’re not.
It’s about all of the bile and vitriol being exchanged between Americans. Both sides, both sides.
What I’m seeing and hearing breaks my heart. Daily. And I’ll bet my bottom dollar it’s breaking millions of yours, too.
How did we get here? Our politics have always been rough, tough and full of conflict. It’s how our country and our Constitution was born. There’s no surprise in that.
But the hate. The publicly voiced hate and anger. It wasn’t there just five or nine short years ago when I ran.
In the middle of a bruising 2008 campaign for President, a woman labeled me an untrustworthy ‘Arab’ to my opponent in a public forum. John McCain took the microphone from this woman and almost reflexively explained to her that I was nothing more than an American whom he just happened to disagree with on a number of issues.
Nine short years ago.
Of course I could go into the reasons and the specific source I believe has moved us so far south of the standard most of us used to adhere to — especially those in public office.
But pointing the finger — even if it’s 100% accurate — doesn’t reach out the hand.
I decided to share these words today to try to at least extend a hand of civility — to all Americans.
Let’s start fresh. Let’s start a new and more civil dialogue. Today.
‘Civil’ doesn’t mean puppy dogs and ice cream. Duke it out on the political issues of the day. Argue. Debate. Make your case. But enough of the raw anger and ugliness.
As Robin Williams would say, ‘keep your head about you. That goes for the lot of you.’
One person cannot stop another from acting rudely or insensitively. Whether it’s an American president or the passenger riding next to you on the bus.
But we can control our own conduct. Our own words. The way we choose to express ourselves.
Take it from an old politician who’s had to exercise restraint for a full political lifetime: Being civil and being productive — even ‘winning’ — can both be achieved at the same time. I know it to be true. And so might you.
I have many wishes for this country that I still love so much. Plenty of them have to do with politics and policy. I trust those things will still move in the right direction as long as we keep fighting for them.
But today, I have just one wish for all of my fellow Americans: let’s each of us try to treat each other with kindness — even if that kindness isn’t immediately returned.
Michelle is the smart one in our family, so I never go wrong when I borrow her advice. Take the high road.
Win at the ballot box. That’s where it matters. And between those special days on which we vote, speak your mind. But go high.
(Barack Obama did not make this speech. I wrote it for him, just because I had to get it out of my system.)