My Candidate Questions Haven’t Changed


Just over a year ago I posted a list called “Nonpartisan Questions for Presidential Candidates.” What a year it has been since then! I have revised that original post and expanded it. I was reminded of this post when I read a story this morning indicating that as many as 100 million people would tune in to the first debate this evening. 

We are a country that is uncomfortable in our own skin. We are at odds; there is powerful friction between us. We are wrestling with our identity to a degree that has at times driven thoughtful consideration of candidate positions and character under the wheel of the campaign bus. While the list of questions below may seem naive in the context of what is happening in this campaign, I stand by them.

In part, my desire to post my questions is a result of disappointment with the news media for failing to play its full and necessary role. It has too often defaulted to soundbites and a strange kind of pretend that it can play its vital part as the fourth estate through 140 character posts and gotcha video clips. As print journalism seems to be starving less because of access to quality reporting than because of lack of readership, we see coming to fruition the flaw of television and internet journalism, that is, it often prioritizes entertainment and partisan advocacy ahead of delivering news as accurately and completely as possible. With only few exceptions individual media outlets seek to grow, solidify, and sustain market share by working more to preach to the choir of their specific audience than to tell the story before them as truthfully as possible. As a result over time that audience becomes more extreme in its views and more righteous in its expression of them.

With this in mind, I have compiled a list of questions I would like the candidates to answer. What questions would you add to the list?

  • What is your definition of the American Dream?
  • What percentage of your income do you donate to causes other than political campaigns?
  • What are you reading? What book has had the greatest impact on you?
  • When did you and how have you reached out to someone or to some group with viewpoints different than your own?
  • As president, which would you value more: the responsibility to represent the people who voted for you or the people of the United States?
  • When have you gone against the majority in your own party?
  • Give an example of when you have chosen the hard right over the easy wrong?
  • What contribution do you most want to make during your presidency and what makes you think you can accomplish it?
  • Imagine you can add or delete one amendment to the constitution: what would you delete or add?
  • How do you spend your limited free time? (question suggested by a former student, John Kutteh, St. George’s Independent School Class of 2016)
  • To whom do you go for good counsel?
  • Describe a mistake you have made and reflect on how you would go about approaching the same situation differently now?
  • What is a lesson you learned as a young person that has stayed with you?
  • What is the most important lesson you have learned about yourself in the last five years?
  • Imagine you can construct your cabinet from only historical figures–who do you put in the cabinet? Who is Secretary of State? Defense Secretary? Etc.

Updated reflections on The 9/11 Seawall and the The Empathetic Community

(The World Trade Towers and the QEII Photo:Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

[As we head toward the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am reposting (with some revisions) something I wrote several years ago that still reflects my thinking about the primacy of creating and sustaining a community that prioritizes empathy. Since posting this in January of 2012, I have seen many examples of people on a kind of figurative seawall facing challenges that threaten to become overwhelming. Additionally, I recognize that we have all stood on our own seawall at various points in our lives. When we are in immediate and pressing danger like those in need of rescue on 9/11, it is human nature to raise our hands and voices for help. It is more difficult to raise our hands when the challenges we face are less visible.  Living within an empathetic community makes it more possible for those who suffer in silence to gain the strength to raise their hands for help, and an empathetic community rises to the occasion when called. Beneath my reflection on the video entitled “Boatlift” are comments I made to an assembly on September 11, 2011 at The Westminster Schools on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.]

“Boatlift”, the story of the boatlift from the lower end of Manhattan on 9/11 is compelling viewing for many reasons. I found it especially fascinating because I had no prior knowledge of the fact that there was a significant boat evacuation on that day, and I certainly did not know it was the largest such evacuation in history. Even more significantly, however, I was drawn to the heroic actions of the people who moved so quickly to help others while placing their own safety in  jeopardy. Please watch it:

At about the 4:18 mark in the video, I was struck by the statement of  Kirk Slater: “It’s just human nature…you see people on the seawall in Manhattan begging you to pick them up, you have to pick them up.” I found myself thinking that while we are not running from collapsing buildings and faced with the potential prospect of having to jump into the water to avoid the smoke and dust of the Twin Towers, we have all spent some time on our own figurative seawalls (though our seawalls probably don’t lend themselves to dramatic soundtracks, and Tom Hanks is not likely to accept the job of narrating the documentary). On 9/11 the clarity of calling and purpose was clear to the men and women who stepped up to help the people stranded at the furthest edge of Lower Manhattan. It is far more difficult to assess and react to the seawalls upon which other members of our community may find themselves.  The routines of our lives allow us to forget others at times. We can find ourselves living as if the other people are merely actors in our play.

Successful communities discover ways to fend off this kind of empathy forgetfulness. Such communities create and maintain high expectations for our awareness of and respect for others. These places bring to day to day life many of the same skills that were manifest in the actions of every person who reached out helping hands on 9/11.


September 11: I Could Not Stop Watching Because I Could Not Begin To Understand (A Reflection on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks):  

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at a boarding school in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and I remember that I had a distinct sense that the events of that day would be etched in the memory of each of my AP Literature students for the rest of their lives. I wanted, more than any other moment in my career, to be a good teacher that day.
During my classes while we listened to the fast moving news on a sorry old portable radio, we wrote and talked about what was most important to us, and we struggled to reconcile the startlingly beautiful and verdant view out of my fourth floor classroom windows with the reality of events in New York, in Pennsylvania, and in Washington DC.  In the days to come I watched the footage of the planes disappearing into the World Trade Center over and over and over again.  I could not stop watching because I could not begin to understand.
Just days earlier in August of 2001, the nation had been focused on a debate about the relative merits of stem-cell research.  It was an intense debate—the president, the Congress and the news media had the topic running on the high rotation of the 24-hour news cycle and the high octane of charged rhetoric.  Many pundits were positing that this debate would in the end define the legacy and the relative success of George W. Bush’s Presidency.  The events of September 11, 2001 suddenly made the Stem Cell Debate seem like ancient history and the effort to define a president’s legacy seem trite.
Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives that day—ordinary citizens, firefighters, police, and rescue workers. Those who died were on airplanes, in the World Trade Center, or in the Pentagon, and in a couple of hours the lives of their families and this nation were forever changed.  Since that day close to six thousand U. S. Service men and women have been killed in the conflicts that have grown out from the 9 11 attacks, and many times that number have returned home as casualties.
So today, in anticipation of this sad anniversary, we honor the memory of the victims of that attack, and we honor those that serve the public good and put their lives in harm’s way in response to those in need.  We also honor all the members of the armed services and their families for the unfathomable commitment they have made to our country since that horrible day in 2001.  We cannot understand the extremes of such commitment and should not pretend to unless we have made it ourselves; instead we should simply say thank you and do all we can to support them, while recognizing that the price for preserving our nation rests unequally on the shoulders of our citizens.

DNA Tests and the House of Humankind

Please watch the video above before reading my comments.

I must admit from the start that I have not had DNA testing and thus cannot claim that I have felt the full power of the experience the people in the video felt upon receiving their results. However, I was powerfully affected by watching the story unfold over five and a half minutes, and I recognize there is extraordinary likelihood that I would be similarly surprised by the circuitous routes my various ancestors followed that led to my birth. I do not well up often, but I welled up watching the end.

Watching it today was perhaps doubly powerful as I have just read Jon Meecham’s 2015 piece, “G and G Interview: John Lewis”,  in Garden and Gun Magazine about John Lewis and his life as a leader within the Civil Rights movement. There are a few quotations that stood out to me made every more powerful because I have heard Lewis’ voice enough that I can hear it as I read his words.

Here are a couple of quotations from the article:

  • “For Lewis, the civil-rights struggle always centered around whether the best of the Southern soul (the grace and the love, the godliness and the generosity) could finally win out over the worst (the racism and the hatred, the fear and the cruelty).”
  • “I always felt growing up that in the South there was evil but also good—so much good,” Lewis says. “We are still in the process of becoming. I am very, very hopeful about the American South—I believe that we will lead America to what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community.’ I travel all the time, but when I come back to the South, I see such progress. In a real sense a great deal of the South has been redeemed. People feel freer, more complete, more whole, because of what happened in the movement.”
  • “The march of 1965 injected something very special into the soul and the heart and the veins of America,” Lewis says. “It said, in effect, that we must humanize our social and political and economic structure. When people saw what happened on that bridge [The Edmund Pettus Bridge], there was a sense of revulsion all over America.”
  • “In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house—not just the house of black and white, but the house of the South, the house of America,” Lewis says. “We can move ahead, we can move forward, we can create a multiracial community, a truly democratic society. I think we’re on our way there. There may be some setbacks. But we are going to get there. We have to be hopeful. Never give up, never give in, keep moving on.”

With the backdrop of the DNA video, I am particularly interested in Lewis’ last quotation. The end of the video illustrates point worthy of the hope Lewis expresses. As the participants realize that they were not exactly who they thought they were, you can see it dawn on them that they are more than they thought they were.  I am struck by the idea that humankind’s work is not about bringing separate groups together; rather it is about remembering that we have never been apart. It is about remembering something deep inside us that recognizes what Maya Angelou gently reminds us: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Garden and Gun Interview with John Lewis by Jon Meacham
Garden and Gun Interview with John Lewis by Jon Meacham


Garden and Gun Magazine
Garden and Gun Magazine

Bombasticball–Let’s Take Our Ball and Go Home

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, member of the St. George's Independent School Class of 2017
Copyright Elle Vaughn, member of the St. George’s Independent School Class of 2017 (used with permission)

It seems everybody is playing it. They are playing it in politics, in media, around water-coolers, after church on Sunday, in school hallways, on social media post comment threads, in post-game interviews, in the stands at High School (or Middle School or Elementary School) athletic events. Bombasticball.

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017
Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (used with permission)

Bom-bas’tic-ball, n. a game played with sharpened tongues where combatants duel by hurling high-sounding, turgid prose (the “ball”) back and forth to try to gain points. Players prepare for matches by rehearsing in front of others they perceive as like-minded in an exercise called “preaching to the choir.” Such competitions are given to hyperbole, red-herrings, non-sequiturs, hasty generalizations and other logical fallacies. The dominant player, often winning as a result of volume and/or deployment of a strategy called “Filibluster” *, receives a brief feeling of righteousness, which can lead to the creation of dependency on the game. In short, one might begin by playing it and end up being played by it.

The risks of too much bombasticball in a competitive regimen include spiritual corrosion, misplaced priorities, isolation from viewpoints that might inform a thoughtful revision of an opinion, and pride (not the good kind).

Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (Used with Permission)
Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (used with permission)

*Fili-blus-ter, n. ineffective loud, aggressive, or indignant talk such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress toward real solutions but may indeed be the positive difference-maker in games of bombasticball.