Campaign 2020 and COVID-19 have converged.
Donald Trump considers himself a wartime president. Meanwhile, last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders acknowledged he couldn’t battle through former Vice President Joe Biden’s delegate lead and coronavirus coverage, and Wisconsin voters were left defenseless as they exercised their right to vote.
And so, while a presidential re-election bid is always a referendum on the incumbent, more than ever it seems certain that the transcendent issue will be Trump’s handling of the pandemic. In effect, a referendum on presidential leadership in a time of crisis — which was the topic of a panel discussion from the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace on Monday (conducted via videoconference in keeping with pandemic protocol).
Moderator Aaron David Miller, a Carnegie senior fellow after decades as a diplomat (and State Department historian) serving presidents of both parties, was joined by Douglas Brinkley, a historian who’s chronicled Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, among other transformative 20th century figures; David Gergen, a Harvard professor of public leadership who served three of those presidents (Nixon, Ford and Reagan) as well as Bill Clinton; and Wendy Sherman, who is also now a Harvard professor of public leadership after years as an envoy, most notably during nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The three panelists listed three consensus great presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR — one for the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But not only has a great 21st century president yet to preside, but the three experts expressed alarm over Trump’s leadership in this time of crisis.
Beyond the three greats, Brinkley said, some other good presidents were forged under fire with military records that showed who they were “when the big moment came, when the bell of danger rang.” Leaders like Teddy Roosevelt (who Brinkley noted still preferred to be called “the colonel” rather than president) and Dwight Eisenhower.
Character revealed, or created, during military service was also a consistent theme for diplomat Sherman, who referenced the Army Field Manual as a totemic tome on leadership. Its focus on enduring values like service, honor, integrity and personal courage may ultimately matter more, she implied, than policies and politics. Most profoundly for a president, Sherman said, “morality does matter.”
Regarding the virtue of honesty, Gergen believes that Lyndon Johnson’s evasions on Vietnam resonated beyond the presidency to society.
“The central lesson of Vietnam is first you commit the nation, then you commit the troops; you don’t do it the other way around,” Gergen said.
The relevance to today, he added, is “that there were two wars where we were lied to upfront: Vietnam and the virus. Right from the beginning it [coronavirus] wasn’t a rallying call, it was a dismissal.” There has yet to be, Gergen claimed, “a clarion call; the call has been muffled.”
That kind of clarity was one of the factors contributing to the greatness not of a president, but a prime minister. Winston Churchill, Gergen said, was willing to “tell the hard truths,” citing a seminal speech Churchill started with this stark sentence: “The news from France is very bad.”
During this crisis it’s the news media itself that’s very bad, or “fake,” or any other inflammatory insult Trump uses as he eschews fireside chats for firing up his base by torching reporters. The reality, Brinkley said, is that the media has been “heroic” and that without them “we really would be turned dizzy by the White House.”
What’s needed instead, Brinkley countered, is compassion and empathy.
“It’s almost now a job description because [former] President [Barack] Obama was so good at it, that grief-counselor-in-chief,” Brinkley said. In contrast, he continued, “I haven’t felt the proper amount of grieving for the people that are dying and for the losses we’re having.”
Great presidents weren’t reticent to lead, and indeed expanded their power during crises, but were careful to “snap it back,” Brinkley said.
But Sherman worries that this time may be different. “I have an anxiety that that centralization will not snap back in the way Abraham Lincoln said it should,” Sherman said, “but that President Trump, if he is reelected, will hold on to that centralized authority, will not let it go, that the authoritarianism we are seeing worldwide will grow and democracy will weaken.”
When asked to name the most essential presidential quality, Gergen simply said, “Character.”
For Sherman, it’s “To have the courage to do what’s right even if it comes at a cost.”
Brinkley agreed with Gergen on character and added, “honesty, forthrightness and not putting your political future ahead of what’s best for America.
“Be more like a Harry Truman figure,” he continued, “where the buck really does stop, and that you’re able to make the hard decisions for the country irrespective of whether it’s good for your political future.”
Historians will eventually render their verdict on presidential leadership during this crisis.
Voters will do so sooner, on Nov. 3, when they choose whose desk they want the buck to stop on.
The outcome is of outsized consequence, as either Trump or Biden will not only have to respond to the pandemic but repair a ruptured society and economy the pathogen will leave in its wake. So there’s never been a better time for the current president, or a future one, to become this century’s exemplar of presidential leadership.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport