Even I wasn't sure why I was watching every minute of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I generally don't have much use for either of our major political parties and have been politically homeless for quite some time. Maybe at first I was just curious to see if the Democrats would perform as poorly with their convention as the Republicans did the previous week in Cleveland. Maybe it was because I wanted to see First Lady Michelle Obama speak or because I have a mad crush on Eva Longoria, the drop-dead gorgeous actress who is a champion of noble causes like fair wages for migrant workers. I tried to convince myself of more maybes with each passing hour of the first two nights.
My ears perked up when former President Bill Clinton told Americans about the job his wife Hillary Clinton once briefly held a job in Alaska sliming fish in 1969. He said that she had made her way there after college and ended up working in a cannery, where her job was to scoop the entrails out of salmon.
I set out to do the same thing after I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1991.
Twenty-five years ago this very summer, I stood in a Kodiak Island, Alaska cannery surrounded by nasty smelling fish that had just come in from the sea. I ended up there after a blind throw of a dart to a world map landed on an island so tiny that a professional darts champion couldn't hit on purpose. I sold my car for just enough money to buy a plane ticket to Kodiak Island, asked my parents for camping gear as a graduation present and took off for adventures unknown in "the last frontier." I envisioned working in the canneries and saving up a lot of money that I could use to travel the rest of Alaska and other destinations.
I landed on the remote island and quickly realized that I was in way over my head: I was a city boy who was out of my league trying to become Grizzly Adams overnight. I nearly puked the moment I entered the cannery. Everyone in the building was wearing heavy duty rain gear, shivering and standing in fish parts that ran up their boots. I don't eat seafood anyway and the smell of all those fish and fish guts was too much for me, as was every potential assignment the boss told me I could take. I wasn't strong enough to handle lifting and stacking cement-like ice blocks. The boss told me he thought the best job for me to start with would be "de-slimer." He showed me a hand tool and told me that my job would be to pick up the fish coming down the line, scrape the tool across the fish and remove the slime from them. He said I could start in a few days upon the end of the current strike -- some squabble between American and Japanese fishermen and canneries.
Neither Hillary nor I lasted even a week at our putrid tasks. She says she got fired for asking too many questions about the poor quality of the fish. I didn't wait around for the strike to end because I knew full well that the long hours and painfully freezing, odious work conditions were not the environment I wanted for phase one of my global travels. I survived a few days on a gravel workers camp nearby and promptly made my way off the island. I reached the city of Anchorage with only a bright orange rain slicker as evidence I had even been on Kodiak Island. I still treasure the slicker to this day.
What struck me about Bill Clinton's telling of the fish story, though, was that it was the first time that I felt like I could relate to Hillary Clinton ... the first time I felt a human connection with her.
Allow me now to confess some of my own shortcomings as a human being and as an American citizen: I have never cared for or voted for Hillary Clinton but my reasons don't stand up to the rigorous political and philosophical standards I usually hold myself to. As a rule, I don't believe that a person's "likability" should enter the equation when choosing a candidate for president or any other political office. A person's intellect, qualifications, platform, record and vision should be the deciding factors. She lacks her husband's gifts through absolutely no fault of her own. As shallow as it is, I have allowed superficial factors to shade my view of Mrs. Clinton -- factors I haven't held against other candidates. I have allowed issues of personal appearance, voice and lack of telegenic warmth and charm to get in the way of my ability to consider her fairly. That's wrong and I need to apply the same criteria to her candidacy than I have of every other person who has ever been on a ballot. At the end of the day, I'm looking to vote for the best person to run our country -- not to attend the prom with me.
I am also aware of many layers of my own cognitive dissonance when it comes to Mrs. Clinton.
Politically, she shares most of the same views as President Obama -- a man I voted for twice and the first Democratic presidential candidate I ever voted for. I actually only started listening closely to him when he first ran because I had planned to vote against whoever was running against her in the Democratic primary. He ultimately captivated me in a way that caused me to reassess every political view I've ever had, a process still going on eight years later but that's another story for another day. I have been throughout most of my adult life an ardent supporter of the Libertarian Party, which is to say that I have been socially progressive and fiscally conservative. I even helped run a U.S. Senate campaign for a Libertarian candidate in Georgia in 1996. Mrs. Clinton shares a great many of my views of social and environmental issues.
In my middle age, I find that my question is no longer a Democratic, Libertarian or Republican query about whether it's better to have a bigger or smaller federal government. My quest is for government, regardless of size, to be effective. I want it to do good for the people it serves. I also better appreciate now that there are some things that the private sector, non-profits and individual citizens just can't do by themselves. State governments, either. Visit any of America's national parks with me and I'll show you just one example of something our federal government does phenomenally well and that makes me proud to be a tax-paying citizen.
My Libertarian leanings still get at my central anguish about Mrs. Clinton and this presidential election. It would typically be easy for me to simply vote for the Libertarian candidate for president as I've done for most of my life. This is a particularly good year for the Libertarians because they have put up perhaps their best-ever nominee -- former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. I do not see voting for third parties as an act of wasting a vote but one of demonstrating a conscience. My ballots in every election during presidential and non-presidential cycles have always included a mix of Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans and write-in candidates. (I'll write in the name of a respected friend before I'll vote for a candidate from any party if I believe that the person in question is not the best person for the job.) Gary Johnson is absolutely qualified to be president of the United States and under normal circumstances would deserve serious consideration.
These are not normal circumstances: The presidential election of 2016 features Donald Trump as the representative of the Republican Party.
The reasons to vote against Trump are more massive than the wall he intends to build along our southern border. His irrational, schizophrenic and temperamental personality makes him even more unqualified than his viewpoints. Trump's views are reprehensible. He has been wrong on nearly every one of the few actual ideas he has put forward. He is wrong on issues of immigration, foreign policy, guns, public safety, economics and more. He is quite proud to be a vile human being, too. He relishes in his own egomania. Trump delights in being nasty. He champions willful ignorance as a virtue. He lives for reaching out to Americans' most base instincts and fears to make America hate again because he knows that trying to turn us against each other is the only way he can win.
Crime is down. Illegal immigration is down. Unemployment is down. Gas prices are down. Bin Laden is dead. The stock market is up. The auto industry survived. Interest rates are low. The Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. More people than ever have access to health insurance and health care. We are confronting global climate change. The answer to Ronald Reagan's question about whether Americans are better off than we were four years ago (eight in this case) is a resounding "Yes." These are pesky facts for which there is no room in any Trump tower.
Republicans chose not to support high-character and highly qualified candidates like John Kasich. There simply is no rational, reasonable argument to vote for Donald Trump for president. Any Republican voter who chooses to do so is putting political party before patriotic duty. Any independent voter who selects Trump because that voter somehow perceives Trump as a "lesser evil" than Mrs. Clinton is shockingly uninformed. Mrs. Clinton has her flaws and people can rightfully debate her on the merits of her ideas but she does not dwell in the same vile and un-American realm as Donald Trump.
As Bill Clinton spoke last night, it dawned on me that the real reason I was watching the Democratic National Convention was that I had to prepare myself to accept the fact that the stakes are too high in this election for me to vote for a third party candidate. This election is going to be won by the tiniest of margins. Every vote is going to matter more this November than ever before.
I realize now that I have no choice: I'm With Her -- even if I had to go back to memories of standing in frozen fish guts to figure that out.