A SPEECH A REAL PRESIDENT COULD GIVE*
Untitled, Watercolor, 29" x 21", Richard J. Van Wagoner, Circa 1970, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
My Fellow Americans:
Today we mourn. We mourn the senseless loss of life. We mourn the growing hatred, bigotry, intolerance and ignorance. We mourn a lack of respectful civic — and civil — dialogue in which people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, ethnicities and identities can peacefully agree, disagree and agree to disagree on the core issues of our day. We mourn a culture of growing violence incited by mean-spirited, hateful rhetoric and the tacit endorsement of racial and ethnic divides by our political leadership. Words have meaning. Ideas have meaning. Words and ideas have consequences. And the people of this country listen to, take to heart, rely and act on the words and ideas spoken and advocated by their leaders. Leaders know this and therefore have a tremendous responsibility to those who fall within their stewardship.
America is at a crossroads. We have not been this divided as a country since the race-based struggles of the 1960s, punctuated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and before that of the Civil War. America survived those deep divisions only because of responsible leadership.
Yesterday, eleven people were murdered and six injured at a Pittsburgh synagogue — victims of the growing epidemic of gun violence — in a hate-crime of unspeakable magnitude. This mass murder occurred a little more than a year after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in which counter protester Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist. I was wrong to imply moral equivalence by saying there were very fine people on both sides, and hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. The mass murder at the Pittsburgh synagogue was the largest attack on the Jewish American community in United States history. And it occurred under my watch.
Only the day before, federal authorities arrested a man in Florida who now stands accused of multiple acts of domestic terrorism. He placed no fewer than fourteen pipe-bombs in the United States mail, addressed to past and current United States and Democratic leaders and others who serve and have served this country with honor. Also targeted were private citizens who have been critical of me and my administration. Fortunately, no one was harmed. Each target of this assassination attempt is someone I have publicly criticized, some repeatedly, people I have mocked and belittled, tried to humiliate, people I have characterized and name-called in demeaning and mean-spirited ways. This was the largest assassination attempt in US history. Again, under my watch.
Two days before that, two African Americans were gunned down at a Louisville, Kentucky, grocery store, one execution style with a bullet to the back of the head. Why? For no reason — other than being Black in America. Under my watch.
The founders of this great country wisely assured the protections of speech from government infringement. Speech, including unpopular speech, under the First Amendment is essential for meaningful public discourse and political dialogue in an open market of ideas. Speech, along with protection of the press, is crucial, our country’s most meaningful checks on power and its abuses. While the constitutional protection of speech is not boundless, the limitations are on the fringes. Most hate speech enjoys protection under the Constitution. It would be and is irresponsible, however, for any elected official, particularly the President of the United States, to engage in or encourage, tacitly or otherwise, any form of hate speech. It is incumbent on our political and government leaders to choose our words and the ideas we advocate very carefully.
Again, words and ideas matter. Words and ideas have consequences. That is largely the point of those constitutional protections. And that is why I travel to and speak at campaign events during this election season. My words matter. My ideas matter. My words and ideas have consequences. I have not always been careful in choosing my words and the ideas I promote.
The citizens of this country elected me president, a high honor. With that high honor comes a heavy responsibility. Mine is a tremendous stewardship. During my inauguration speech, I committed to the citizens of the United States that I was and would be president to all. I promised the carnage in America would end. Neither has occurred on my watch.
We reach this crossroads in American history with divisions sown from all quarters. I recognize, however, that I bear significant responsibility for this division, that the problem is largely top down. As president, my responsibility is not to divide. My responsibility is to unify. The buck must and does stop with me. By running, being elected and taking the oath of office to protect and defend our Constitution and the people of this country from enemies foreign and domestic, I must do everything in my power to unify, to reduce the tension, the hatred, the anger and the hostility that divide us. I must set an example of civility. I must send the clear message to everyone, particularly those on the fringes, that all people are and must be treated equally regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious persuasion, sexual orientation, self-identification and age. Violence, bigotry and expressions of hostility toward others have no place. It is time to reverse course and put an end to the divisions.
Out of respect for the victims of the hate-based murders and assassination attempts of this past week, I am cancelling all appearances at campaign events. I will be visiting the sites of these horrific crimes and meeting with the victims and their families. I will also be reaching out to the targets of the assassination attempts, former presidents and public servants, for their input on how to improve the tone and content of our public and political discourse.
I recognize that the foregoing is against my nature. I am a fighter. I counterpunch. But I will give this my best effort. I don’t expect all Americans to support this effort or even believe me, but I hope and trust the vast majority of citizens of this great nation will back me in finding ways to reduce the hatred and increase tolerance.
This is my solemn promise.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in lastamendment.com