An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

Above the fold

Since studies show few readers make it past the second paragraph, my open letter to Hillary suggests she’s losing the memory war to Donald Trump. The main reason is that she and her team have no good sound bites. None. Nada.

“Stronger together?” Doesn’t even have a verb. It’s two words with suffixes strung together leaving us hanging for more. In the meantime, the Trump people bury Hillary’s people with the same sound bites over and over again on every major network, drowning Americans in Trump memes. Memes attach themselves to memory like leeches, draining away vital information. Trump wins.

My letter explains how the memory war works against Hillary and offers sound bites she (and her spokespeople) can pitch to Hillary meme (or Hi-Meme for short) Trump during the last month and debates of the campaign.

The letter

Dear Hillary:

I should, by all my political convictions, have supported Bernie Sanders this election but my wife and I support you because we believe you are uniquely prepared to serve this country in a way no other person has prepared in my lifetime.

That being said, as a former championship college debater, writer, performance artist and community organizer who spent years studying why audiences respond to messages (and messengers) I’m bothered by the way your campaign fails to connect with an audience that should embrace you.

This campaign reminds me too much of the campaign between Texas Governor Anne Richards and the light weight George Bush. I explained to my wife Carol repeatedly why Ann’s message missed the mark, and, in retrospect, wish maybe I hadn’t kept my concerns within the family.

I am a native Texan, born and raised Bible belt. Half my family will vote for Trump because they believe it’s God’s will. Many of the people I know and socialize with will vote for Trump. I don’t belittle their thinking, I grew up with it, as much as I disagree with it.

While I know my voice is small, I hope someone in your campaign takes notice of the following suggestions and at least places them into discussion in your campaign.

It’s not about trust, it’s about memory

The reason you barely lead Trump in the polls, even though you kicked him all over the stage (although some would say — rightfully — he dragged himself across the stage by his own big mouth), even though he has nothing of substance to offer, even though he appeals to the worst in people and insults every class of American but rich white men and lost almost a billion dollars in a single year (a billion dollars!)….Let me repeat, the reason you barely lead Trump in the polls is not because people don’t trust you, or because you don’t have that male magnetism exuded by candidates like Kennedy, Obama and your own husband, but because Americans have piss-poor memories.

In fact, most Americans have memories the size of a newborn’s bladder. I know this because I spent more than twenty-five years in the classroom. I usually taught college classes, but over the years I also taught high school students, juvenile offenders, professionals, even professional educators. They all had one thing in common: their memories leaked like roofs after a thirty days of hurricanes and hail.

One former student, a professional musician, told me after taking my class that I drove her crazy by constantly repeating key ideas over and over again. Then I broke the class into groups for their first group assignment. She realized I didn’t repeat enough.

Democrats (and your campaign) long ago forfeited the memory war. You don’t even know the Republicans are fighting one. You honestly believe that once you present the facts out to the public (e.g. three and a half million Americans lifted themselves from poverty since 2014 thanks to Obama’s economy, the middle class had their fastest growth on record under Obama, or that Obama launched ten times as many drone strikes as Bush — killing thousands of terrorists who would never have been found by Trump’s top secret boots on the ground) that the public will absorb those facts like sponges and embrace the wonderful things you’ve done for them.

Fat chance. The good news is lost in the constant drum beat of FOX broadcasters and the Trump spin doctors. Their message — “Smart taxes, thirty thousand emails, and pay-for-play” — is repeated again and again on CNN, MSNBC, the major networks and every newspaper in the name of fairness. “Just in case.” “Because it’s news.” Because it attracts advertising.

As a result, Americans remember Whitewater, they remember Benghazi, they remember “e-mail scandal.” But they never remember the tiny whisper, “but she was cleared on all charges.”

The GOP launched their memory war machine with you.

The GOP ruthlessly hounded you from the moment they realized you could run for Bill’s third term and possibly win. They kept your name tied to his name in every scandal they tossed at him, and when Bill left office they turned their guns on you because you were the real target all along.

They smeared you with everything from Whitewater to your emails (scandals that seem like pissing in the public pool next to theirs) for so long and so often that sooner or later mere repetition was enough to make you a liar, and, possibly, a traitor.

They based their memory war machine on sound brain science. The more people entertain an idea the more the brain builds neurons to reinforce it. It doesn’t matter that Ken Starr, the FBI, and even the Republican pit bulls in Congress ultimately exonerated you. The few mention clearing you in the press couldn’t possibly down out the crescendo of accusations, and rapidly reinforcing neurons condemning you.

Consider Bush’s WMDs. He deployed the same strategy to sell the public on the war in Iraq. It mattered little that he lacked any concrete evidence of WMDs in Iraq. By the time the vote came to Congress to give him war powers, the Bush-Cheney propaganda machine so successfully saturated the media that even you felt compelled to vote in favor of that one small, seemingly innocuous step. Later, when no WMDs were found, half of the American public remained in denial.

(I worked with an online intelligence gathering and analysis service during the invasion, and half of the analysts remained convinced throughout the war that we would find those weapons buried deep under the desert.)

So with a month remaining to combat that machine, what do you do?

The “Trust” issue

You’ve answered honestly and truthfully about every scandal, especially the e-mail scandal, and more half the country still doesn’t believe you. In my experience as a debater, if I had run the same argument against the same team and lost that many times, I would have to realize I needed a new brief.

First of all, however, because I’m debating for people with memories the size of snow peas, I would have to break my brief into tiny sound bites and feed it to them one sound byte at a time.

Spin: “I’ve been cleared of these charges time and again, and I’ve answered the questions as honestly as I can. You may dislike them, disagree with them, or flat out disbelieve them, but they’re on the record along with director of the FBI’s.”


“You have to look into your heart to decide if you’re judging me fairly, or or let new sound bites make up your mind.”

Spin: “Donald Trump never answers questions, refuses to disclose the details of his business dealings overseas, the number of overseas workers he hires, the businesses he left unpaid due to bankruptcy or refusal to honor his contracts.”


“Instead he changes the subject to ISIS and the economy about which he knows nothing. He only knows the real estate business.


“(And, judging from his 1995 tax return, he doesn’t even know the real estate business very well.)”

Spin: “Let’s change the subject, Donald. ISIS and the economy are issues, but the foremost issue is: Can we trust a President to guarantee you a job when he can’t even promise payment to his business partners and employees?

“Can you trust a President to protect our borders from terrorism when he brings in projects on time and under budget by stiffing his contractors, hires the same immigrant labor he suspects of terrorism and probably bids out for cheapest materials?

“If that’s the model for success for economic and national security, then Donald Trump is definitely your man.”

The “Thirty Years of Failure” issue

Every time I hear a Trump spokesman confronted with a question they can’t answer they immediately shout, “Hillary Clinton’s been in power for thirty years and what has she accomplished?” This, of course, is utter nonsense — unless the First Lady has power, or a Senator can unilaterally rewrite the laws of the land in her one term of office.

And yet none of your spokespeople ever challenges this statement. But it can easily be brushed aside with a simple sound bite:

Spin: “I served in the senate with 99 others for six years. Not much power. As Secretary of State I had no authority over domestic policy.

“The Republicans obstructed the Obama administration for six of his last eight years. I have one trump card the President doesn’t have. Years of reaching across the aisle to forge deals with the mainstream Republicans.

“Let the Tea Party whine. I can build consensus because the Tea Party won’t have Obama to blame anymore. That’s change Trump can’t deliver.

The “Change”issue

Speaking of change, I find it ironic Trump claims to be the change candidate in light of the fact that three million people climbed from poverty since 2014. Many were white voters, Trump’s constituency.

Even better, almost half were black and Hispanic, the voters Trump claims have been abandoned by the Obama administration.

The middle class did better too.

Spin: “Three million people lifted from poverty in the last year alone. The middle class better off than ever. These are white Americans, Blacks and Hispanics too. But Trump has a secret plan to do better by starting a trade war with China and Mexico and deporting half our work force?

“The best he can do is send us straight back to 2008. Is that what you want?

“A stock market in collapse?

“A real estate market in crisis?

“Record unemployment?

Tough on terrorism

Trump claims you and Obama are soft on terrorism, but Obama’s ordered ten times more drone strikes than Bush. Half of ISIS’ leadership is gone. They’re in retreat. Everyone knows that but Americans. And what’s the most certain proof? They’re attacking Americans piecemeal in isolated terrorist attacks because they can’t win the war in their own territory. It’s called blowback.”

Spin: “How do we know this? Because they can’t win at home so they’re bringing the war here. But Trump wants us to cower in fear at home and beg for our own safety while we trust him to concoct a secret plan like we trusted him to hide his business losses on his tax returns.”

Spin: “Maybe Republicans wouldn’t have to slash the budget, maybe the military wouldn’t be in the terrible shape he claims, if the budget was flush with the money Trump and his corporate buddies have siphoned away through their tax dodges. I intend to change that.”

In Summary

“There are three things the American people need to remember.

“I was cleared on all charges. End of story.

“Trump never faced his charges because he keeps changing the subject.

“The only changes Trump promises will take us backward.

Reality Check

Hillary, I know you’ll never read this. I do, however, hope someone on your staff does, and they think seriously about my advice.

Trump may still self-destruct. I certainly hope so. On the other hand, like any alcoholic, he’s proved himself capable of sobering up long enough to put on a good show just long enough to pull of that promotion. As a nation, we can’t afford that. We need you throwing your best punches.

I took some of this information from:

Phillip T. Stephens wrote the novels Cigerets, Guns and Beer, Raising Hell and his most recent release Seeing Jesus. Follow him @stephens_pt

Written by

Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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