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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.