Op-Ed Contributor: Jeff Flake: In a Democracy, There Can Be No Bystanders

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Jeff Flake at home in Mesa, Ariz., on Sunday. Credit Reilly Kneedler for The New York Times

Some wrote just to say thanks. From Arizona, from all over the country and from abroad. From all across the political map, too. Some wrote to say that they watched the speech with their children, or that they read it aloud to them. “I try to teach my kids to respect others,” wrote one man. “The current resident of the White House is not the example I want my kids to follow.”


In Pointed Speech, Jeff Flake Says He Won’t Seek Re-election

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said he would be leaving the Senate at the end of his term because to stay would cause him to compromise too many of his principles.

By REUTERS. Photo by Al Drago for The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

“As a die-hard Democrat, I have to say that before Trump came into office, you were kinda low on my list of senators to admire,” one woman wrote. “But I have changed that stance.” Another man wrote, “I am a registered Republican, but I am ashamed of what my party has become.”

One woman from Phoenix said she didn’t like my politics but thanked me for the “small beacon of light” all the same. “Semper Fi,” wrote a Marine. One man sent a check for $20.20 and urged me to run for president. (Sir, I will not be cashing the check, but I do appreciate the gesture.)

By the electronic bushel, in thousands of calls and letters, reactions have poured into my office in the past week since I spoke on the Senate floor and announced that I would not be running for another term, and detailing the reasons for my decision. A deeply personal outpouring, the scale of which has stunned and humbled me.

Each letter is distinctive, but all are plaintive, anguished, deeply engaged and urgent. They all have in common a feeling of distress that the country has taken a sudden and caustic turn, that we have a president who seems to take pleasure in dividing us. A president who is careless with the position that has become known in the past century as “leader of the free world,” and that our institutions and maybe even our liberty are in peril as a consequence. Please, the letter writers all said. Don’t stop speaking out. I’M COUNTING ON IT, one person wrote.

I can say that reading these letters has been one of the most humbling experiences of my public life. To be clear: I don’t find them humbling because the people who wrote to me liked the speech. Indeed, some didn’t. 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.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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