GENEVA — The first time I set foot in the United States was just before the 1968 presidential election, when I joined the United Nations in New York City as a young staffer in the development aid program. I arrived in a country painfully scarred by the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy earlier that year and still wracked by mass demonstrations for civil rights and violent protests against the Vietnam War. The chaotic and riotous Democratic Party national convention in Chicago in August exemplified the bitter divides that engulfed American society.
On the evening of the Nov. 5 election at the time, I was invited to a party to watch the returns. It was a long evening. I left at around one in the morning, with the winner yet to be declared. It was only later that day that Richard Nixon emerged as the winner.
I was still living in the US when the 1972 elections, which pitted Nixon against George McGovern, rolled around. This time, I hosted my own election evening party. I laid in a plentiful supply of beer and pizza and told everyone to come late, recalling that the 1968 results had trickled in overnight. I should have followed the polls more carefully. By about 10 in the evening, it was clear that Nixon was winning by a landslide. The party became a wake.
Nixon’s re-election, however, turned out to be the opening act in a high-wire political spectacle. Over the next 20 months, the country was convulsed as the top levels of the government were progressively implicated in the infamous break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee four months before the election.
I was transfixed by the ensuing constitutional drama as one startling revelation tumbled out after another. The stories of the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post led the way. More was to come: the White House counsel John Dean’s damning televised testimony to the Senate inquiry on Watergate; the unearthing of the White House tapes; the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor and the resignation of the US attorney general in protest. Amid all that tumult, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign and face charges of corruption.
In the summer of 1974, I left the US as the Watergate scandal reached its apotheosis with the resignation of President Nixon ahead of his likely impeachment. I departed, however, profoundly impressed by the strength of the US political system and relentless pursuit of the truth — by the press, the courts and Congress — that had brought down a sitting president. I contrasted that outcome favorably with the rather tepid and reluctant way that the Profumo Affair (a ministerial sex scandal that involved a Soviet intelligence operative) had been handled in my home country, Britain, some years before, leaving many questions unanswered.
This election year in the US has been another one full of surprises and shocks. Again, I have been absorbed by the torrent of revelations and disclosures about the conduct of President Trump and everyone in his presidency. And, as in 1968, the US is again sharply divided on issues of race, justice and equality. The politicization of the Covid-19 pandemic has further deepened these divides. US institutions and norms are once more being tested by competing visions of what America should be both as a nation and as a great power.
Will the US surmount this year of electoral turmoil and come out better on the other side, as it did after the 1974 political upheaval? I earnestly hope so. Even though I and other citizens of democratic states do not have a vote to cast in the US election, we have a huge stake in its results.
New fault lines are emerging at home and abroad, which the presidential winner will have to bridge. We often refer to the US president as the leader of the free world. But that sobriquet must be earned. The community of democratic nations urgently needs principled American leadership to galvanize the best responses to a range of pressing challenges, among them: the rise of authoritarianism; the realignment of global economic power; and the very present dangers of climate change.
For many years, I worked for the UN on peace, development and humanitarian operations around the world — in Africa, Asia and Europe. I saw firsthand what a difference America could make when it weighed in on behalf of good government, human rights and economic opportunity. America still matters. People look up to the US, which is why so many people still want to get there. That should be a source of pride rather than a cause for rejection.
America’s day on the world stage is not done. So please, dear friends, vote and ensure that an enlightened America can resume its global leadership as a beacon for human progress.
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