Presidential debates are watched not only inside the United States, but in every country and territory around the world by all our enemies and friends.
The USA acts as a powerful influence upon the rest of the world, no matter the pro- or anti-American political sentiment. What we do and how we do it empowers by example.
I once led the effort to establish the distribution of CNN International outside the U.S. For many countries, CNN provided the first independent news source, not controlled or heavily influenced by the state.
After watching the disgrace of the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland, where our president left little doubt as to his unsuitability for office, I was reminded of the impact the 1992 presidential debates had on the political establishment of Bangladesh.
At that time, Bangladesh was laboring under a political power struggle between two female leaders, both survivors of assassination attempts. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia ur-Rahman, of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, would alternate power for the next 20 years.
We had recently launched CNN on the national broadcast network and were following up with governing and political parties, including Sheikh Hasina, then out of power. A source of non-state news required political and regulatory approvals.
From the wall in Sheikh Hasina's office, more than 20 framed photographs looked on – her siblings, parents, servants and colleagues. Seventeen years prior, in 1975, her father, then-President Mujibur Rahman, and all those posing behind her, were assassinated by a group of young military officers as part of a military coup. Sheikh Hasina and her sister were in Germany at the time.
Six years later, the next president, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was assassinated.
During our discussion of CNN with Sheikh Hasina, under the smiling faces of her family members, she suddenly enthused how “everyone was talking” about the U.S. debates. At the time, President George H.W. Bush debated Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. The opponents disagreed. The adversaries laughed. The political opposites shook hands. These men debated publicly three times then proceeded through to a fair and peaceful election, culminating in a peaceful transfer of power in which all sides participated.
That example set by the live presentation of the U.S. political process influenced the current and future leaders in faraway Bangladesh as it most certainly did and still does in every country around the world.
Today, Sheikh Hasina is Bangladesh's longest-serving prime minister.
Think back to what you saw in Cleveland. What you heard. How you witnessed the president of our country disrespect the office he holds. Disrespect his opponent.
What example did he send around the world to current and future leaders?
Are you proud of the party in power? Are you happy with the level of respect shown for the tradition of government? Do our better angels encourage armed demonstrators to take to the streets for no other reason than to inhibit a free and fair election?
Encouraging with plausible deniability armed thugs to kidnap a governor, destroy public property and target police officers, then refusing to condemn the perpetrators sullies the reputation of the United States for all those countries and people around the world who place their hopes in the USA, and forfeits the right to govern.
When leaders of tomorrow look back to the USA of 2020, how will we have inspired them?
For nearly three centuries, the USA has peacefully transitioned from one administration to the next with trust in a process that has evolved over time but has never failed. A process that has never been perfect but nonetheless provides a model for the world. By refusing to commit to that tradition of transition, our current administration fails at the most fundamental level of government.
Bangladesh, a parliamentary democracy with a population of 165 million, grapples with party politics and good governance. The country struggles with poverty, climate, religion, immigration, health care, human rights and all the other same issues that beset the rest of the world.
Every nation is watching and hoping for an engaged USA at a time of urgent global challenges.
We need leaders who lead for the greater good, not the privileged few. Leaders whose inspiration is our most valuable export.
Fort Wayne native Mark Rudolph has worked for CNN and other television companies around the world.