Boomer Opinion: Where has American leadership gone?

Hanging over, and hindering, the whole crisis with the coronavirus is the absence of leadership: leading the states, leading the world. In this Boomer Opinion piece, Greg Dobbs, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor who traveled with presidents as an award-winning journalist, mourns the abandonment of leadership.

Leadership. American leadership. Through the calamitous course of the coronavirus crisis, it is a phrase that hasn’t so much been redefined, as abandoned.

As a journalist, I have covered great American leaders. First among them, Ronald Reagan. His politics weren’t my politics, but with one part commitment, one part charisma, the man knew how to lead. Wherever in the world I went with Reagan, people looked to him for leadership. You could see it simply enough because it was written on their faces. No baby boomer— no member of any generation conscious of America’s place in the world at the time of Reagan’s presidency— can forget his demand, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Not long after, Gorbachev did.

President Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Berlin Wall.

Before Reagan, Jimmy Carter’s presidency is not remembered as one of the great ones, but he showed signs of great leadership too. I shuttled with Carter around the Middle East when he was struggling to sew together a peace accord between two decades-long enemies, Israel and Egypt. In Carter’s case, leadership was one part commitment, one part perseverance. Against all odds, he wouldn’t give up and he wouldn’t let Begin or Sadat, the leaders of those two acrimonious adversaries, give up either. Eventually at Camp David, they signed. The peace is in place to this very day.

President Jimmy Carter helped to bring peace to the Middle East.

Finally, after Reagan, George H.W. Bush. When Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded an American ally, Kuwait— the alliance greased by Kuwait’s abundance of oil— Bush rode to the rescue. Militarily, the United States could have pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait by itself. But diplomatically, Bush knew that international law wouldn’t permit America to wage war alone. So he painstakingly assembled a coalition. I covered that war, code-named Operation Desert Storm. Bush built a team of 39 countries, from Argentina to Australia, from Poland to Pakistan, from South Korea to Senegal. Iraq’s army was badly bloodied and fled back to its borders.

President Bush greets troops in Saudi Arabia during his Thanksgiving visit.
22 November 1990
Credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

That was leadership. Take a good look, because today, still in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, we have none.

Does anyone seriously think that any of those presidents would have disclaimed his duty to lead our fifty states when the tide of this insidious virus began to wash over them? Of course not. But the president we have now is more consumed with preposterous boasts and petty bitterness than he is with leadership. When he told the nation’s governors who were begging for help with medical supplies, “We’re not a shipping clerk,” there was no more doubt. Neither Reagan nor Carter nor Bush told those who looked to them for leadership, “You’re on your own.”

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But today, leadership has been abandoned.

Leadership means when tens of thousands of your countrymen are killed by an invisible enemy, you lead the nation in mourning. Remember Reagan after Challenger? Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City? George W. Bush after 9/11? Barack Obama after Charleston? But where is the mourning from this White House? Other than occasional words of empathy scrupulously scripted in his written remarks and stiffly pronounced from his podium, we’ve seen none from this president. It has been left to governors and mayors to even order flags flown at half-staff. The president has been silent.

Leadership means when you’re trying to put down a pandemic that has no respect for borders, you straighten out the governors who don’t seem to understand that, and encourage them to act in the nation’s best interest, not just in their own. Tweets that encourage militiamen armed with assault rifles to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” aren’t leadership. They’re relinquishment of responsibility, dereliction of duty, abandonment of authority.

Wannabe right-wing militia protest against efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Leadership means you don’t declare victory until you’re out of the darkness and victory is assured. Because otherwise, you give people false hope. Yet every time this president tries to rescue his reelection and save his fragile ego by showing us the future through his rose-colored glasses, he does just that. Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke said it best in this cynical summary of the president’s perpetual parade of self-promotion: “Victory is ours! Not everyone has died, not everyone is unemployed.” Or as Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, put it after the president talked about the great shape we’ll all be in by the Fourth of July, “He plans fireworks while Americans plan funerals.”

Trump messing with the coronavirus crisis. 

And by the way, leadership means that when you’re the head of a government and the government says that for the safety of the nation, people in public ought to wear masks, you should be a role model and wear one yourself.

And all of that is to say nothing of the absence of global leadership. Shifting the blame for a belated and bungled American response to the pandemic. Disowning the World Health Organization, the only agency designed to help coordinate an international battle against the pandemic. It leaves pro-American political scientists like Dominique Moisi to sadly say, “America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly.” And it leaves Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas to observe that whilst in the old days, the world would depend on the United States for leadership, under this president, when the world needs leadership, it doesn’t even look in our direction.

There’s a word that this president tweeted a lot in the early days of his presidency, bemoaning anything that didn’t fit with his narrative: “Sad.” It’s time to bring it back. Because although the president has a bully pulpit, he only uses it to be a bully. When we need it the most, he doesn’t lead the world. He doesn’t lead the nation. Unlike Reagan, Carter, Clinton, Obama, both Bushes, he doesn’t lead at all.



  1. Another relevant and thoughtful commentary on the sad state of our so-called “leaders”! This not leadership I experienced after 38 years in the US Army and Army National Guard. While I also may not agree politically with those you listed, at a minimum they took charge, surrounded and listened to trusted advice and pushed forward with a consensus for the benefit and future of the country, not the next election. Those crises demanded a united response for the good of the country and they met those challenges. The House and Senate also lack personal courage, common sense, and conviction to stand up for the country when we need it, not hide in fear from Trump and his small-minded and incompetent minions.

  2. Greg,

    I fully enjoyed your article on Leadership and can relate.
    Like you, I have see and experienced fabulous leadership.
    Off the coast of Vietnam in October, 1968, my ship, the USS Preston (DD-795) was lead by a fully respected leader. Capt. Ramsey was in charge of the 15 Officers and 325 men on board. I remember one afternoon, he called the officers together in the Ward room;

    “Gentlemen, tonight will be a very rough night, we are heading North now with our sister ship, The USS Strauss, to attack Water Bourne Logistic crafts off of North Vietnam on a top secret mission called Sea Dragon”.
    The Capt then looked directly in turn at each one of us, addressed us by name and respectfully asked each of us:

    Operations; “Are all circuits up and have we confirmed comms with the Strauss?”
    “Yes sir”

    Weps; “Are all four 5” 38 mounts ready and fully stocked with Willy Peter (white phosphorous)?”
    “Yes sir”

    Engineering; “We will be asking for flank speed often, confirm for me at 2100 hrs a fully cross connected plant and all four boilers on line at 2200 hours. Has the Circ pump in the forward engine room been repaired?”
    “Yes sir, fully operational and confirming flank speed available at 2200 hours.”

    Damage Control: “Can you move first class Atterbury from repair 5 to repair 2 up forward for tonight’s action?”
    “Yes sir, will do”

    “Great, everyone, we will be going to general quarters at 2200 hours and setting condition Zebra. I am counting on each one of you. Relate my message in your own way in your own words to your men. Thanks excused.“

    Capt Ramsey exuded confidence, asked great questions, never pretended to be the smartest man on the ship and always was humble. We would have followed that man anywhere. He treated even the most junior officers with respect and made us feel comfortable.
    Like you said, Greg, that’s leadership and so sad to see such a lack of it from the top when it is so badly needed now.
    Respectfully submitted;
    Philip Max Kay

  3. Great piece! Totally agree on all points. No matter what, though, Trump’s supporters still love him. SAD. There, I think I’ve inserted the word in its proper place. I’ve never understood their unwavering allegiance to this man. No matter what he does, they continue to love him. Personally, I thought Ronald Reagan was an excellent president and a fine man. I’ve met him, Nancy, & Michael. And, I think President Reagan is rolling over in his grave at what Trump has done to the Republican Party.

  4. Bravo Mr. Dobbs. A cogent piece of verbal thought. You reminded us that leadership is the ability to enthuse, to inspire, to create, to accomplish, to soothe for the greater good.

    Thank you, for pointing out that Leadership is based on character and character is the outward quality of one’s inner being.

  5. Mr Dobbs,

    I think you are missing several points. Trump is a leader….for a specific set of followers
    and it is those followers that are part of the problem. Another part of the problem is
    our election system. It was set up to protect the country from the singular perspective of city folk. But such a system assumed the country folk would appreciate diversity of thought. Diversity of thought is cultivated by the collection of cultures in cities and discouraged by the traditions encouraged by farming (hogs, cattle and wheat do not change nearly as much as the world of technology which forces people to question).

    Great Leaders need a base of supporters who appreciate diversity of thought. That base
    is what this country needs more than a great leader.

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