On October 24 U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) gave a moving speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate rejecting President Trump’s character and actions and announcing the senator’s decision to not seek re-election in 2018. He simultaneously extended his thoughts in the Washington Post, which commended him for his words and actions. I immediately sent him a letter thanking him for his speech and for his advocacy of U.S.-Cuba normalization, and on November 6 Senator Flake made a public response to the many letters he has received about his speech. Here is a summary of these events.
Senator Flake’s Speech
The Senator said, “I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our – all of our – complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.” Below is a photograph of Senator Flake giving his speech.
“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength – because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit, and weakness.”
“If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States. If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience. The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters – the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
“The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”
Senator Flake’s Washington Post Article
The same day as his speech, Senator Flake wrote an op-ed article in the Washington Post. He opened with a reference to one of my heroes, Joseph Welch, and his famous 1954 rhetorical question to Senator Joseph McCarthy who was attacking a young colleague of Welch: ““You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
In so doing, said Flake, “Someone had finally spoken up and said: Enough. . . . Welch reawakened the conscience of the country. The moment was a shock to the system, a powerful dose of cure for an American democracy that was questioning its values during a time of global tumult and threat. We had temporarily forgotten who we were supposed to be.”
Flake continued, “We face just such a time now. We have again forgotten who we are supposed to be. There is a sickness in our system — and it is contagious.”
“Nine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal, and that we are on the verge of some sort of pivot to governing, to stability. Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”
“The outcome of this is in our hands. We can no longer remain silent, merely observing this train wreck, passively, as if waiting for someone else to do something. The longer we wait, the greater the damage, the harsher the judgment of history.”
“It’s time we all say: Enough.”
Washington Post’s Editorial
The Washington Post immediately published an editorial that said the speech “was profoundly eloquent in its diagnosis of the degradation that President Trump has brought to American politics. It was also profoundly depressing. If Republicans can be honest only after they have taken themselves out of the political arena — or if by being honest they disqualify themselves from future service — then their party and therefore the nation are in even graver trouble than we knew.”
My Thank You Letter
“As a fellow U.S. citizen, I thank you for your speech yesterday on the Senate Floor. You spoke the truth about the serious challenges facing our country by the character and conduct of Donald Trump as president. You correctly pointed out that you did not want to be complicit in that conduct by remaining silent although with your recent book and other comments you hardly have remained silent.”
“I also thank you for your strong support of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation and normalization, and I know you have visited the island many times. As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, I personally have been involved over the last 15 years with our partnership with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas and have been on three of our mission trips to the island and have welcomed Cubans visiting our church. This has led to my writing extensively on this subject and advocating such reconciliation and normalization on my blog.”
“As you well know, in recent months U.S.-Cuba relations have been troubled by medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed In Havana, about which I have written blog posts. I am amazed that after many months of investigations by the U.S. (and Cuba) the U.S. continues to assert that it does not know who or how these medical problems were created. I also am amazed that I have not discovered anyone who is wondering whether they were created by a secret and malfunctioning U.S. program or device. Perhaps this is something you could question in the Senate.”
Senator Flake’s Response to Letters
“By the electronic bushel, in thousands of calls and letters, reactions have poured into my office.] Some wrote just to say thanks. From Arizona, from all over the country and from abroad. From all across the political map, too.”
This was a “deeply personal outpouring, the scale of which has stunned and humbled me. . . . I can say that reading these letters has been one of the most humbling experiences of my public life. . . . I am humbled because until now I didn’t fully grasp the level of anxiety and real pain that exists across the country due to the state of our national leadership.”
“These writers despair not just for the chaos emanating from the White House, but for the moral vandalism that has been set loose in our culture, as well as the seeming disregard for the institutions of American democracy. The damage to our democracy seems to come daily now, most recently with the president’s venting late last week that if he had his way, he would hijack the American justice system to conduct political prosecutions — a practice that only happens in the very worst places on earth. And as this behavior continues, it is not just our politics being disfigured, but the American sense of well-being and time-honored notions of the common good.”
“I have been powerfully reminded that we have all been raised with fidelity to a very large idea, the American idea. When that idea comes under threat, and it seems as if the center might not hold, it is not just our politics that suffers. When a leader wreaks havoc with our democratic norms, it is not just political Washington that is dragged through the muck. When that happens, it is deeply upsetting to people everywhere, almost existentially so, and we all suffer.”
“These extraordinary and patriotic voices, calling me and themselves to action in defense of the things we hold dear, remind me that to have a vital democracy, there can be no bystanders.” I now “realize that to stand up and speak out is sometimes the most conservative thing a citizen can do.”
I urge my fellow U.S. citizens to join in the commendation of Senator Flake for his outspoken defense of true American values and to call for the resignation or removal of Donald Trump from office under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
 U.S. Senate, Flake Announces Senate Future ( Oct. 24, 2017); Full Transcript: Jeff Flake’s Speech on the Senate Floor, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 2017).
 An inverse historical example for Senator Flake’s criticisms of President Trump is President Eisenhower’s behind-the-scenes campaign to destroy his fellow Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy, which is the subject of David A. Nichols’ Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy (Simon & Schuster 2017).
 Editorial, Jeff Flake’s Diagnosis is right. But it’s not enough, Wash. Post (Oct. 24, 2017)