A number of years ago, I wrote a documentary about John Gardner, the remarkable public servant who served as President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of health, education and welfare. He later founded the citizen's group Common Cause and was, by the way, a liberal Republican, if you can remember a time when such people existed. We can thank him for the implementation of many of LBJ's Great Society programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Gardner told a story about when he and his wife were newlyweds and built their first house, a small bungalow in northern California. It was the Depression and the construction men were grateful for the work but one of them came up to him one morning and said, "Mr. Gardner, I'm sorry, I have to leave early today. The president wants to speak to me."
It was 1933. Franklin Roosevelt had just entered the White House and the worker needed to go home to hear his Fireside Chat, the first of many radio broadcasts in which FDR calmed the nation about the economy, explained the steps he and his administration were taking and outlined the New Deal programs he hoped would restore financial health.
Roosevelt's tone was empathetic, reassuring and informed. In a word, presidential.
Flash forward 87 years: Coronavirus and a president completely unpresidential, a man unable to cope with a crisis, a leader who has no idea how to lead and who lacks a corpuscle of compassion, lamely leaning on unseemly truculence and the spewing of erroneous narratives.
There are the lies, of course, always the lies, each day adding to his running total of more than 16,000 falsehoods since taking the oath of office. Bess Levin at Vanity Fair writes that at Trump's daily coronavirus briefings, "at least half to three quarters of the claims that come out of his mouth are complete and total lies."
Lies about the number and availability of testing kits, masks and ventilators, the amount of supplies to fight the so-called "invisible enemy," claims of non-existent websites and of drugs and vaccines not fully tested or months away from being ready for actual widespread use.
Lies in which he claims that no one could ever have anticipated this situation. For now we know that, as per an investigative team at The New York Times, "Three times over the past four years the U.S. government, across two administrations, had grappled in depth with what a pandemic would look like, identifying likely shortcomings and in some cases recommending specific action… the government had considerable knowledge about the risks of a pandemic and accurately predicted the very types of problems Mr. Trump is now scrambling belatedly to address."
The article was headlined, "A Cascade of Warnings, Heard but Unheeded, Before Virus Outbreak."
What's more, Friday night The Washington Post reported, "U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen… despite that constant flow of reporting, Trump continued publicly and privately to play down the threat the virus posed to Americans."
An official told The Post, "Donald Trump may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were—they just couldn't get him to do anything about it. The system was blinking red."
Add to this the backpedaling and flip-flopping—from "We have it totally under control" and "We're going to be pretty soon to only five [sick] people" to "I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic." The misguided braggadocio with which he rates his own performance a "10" and announces, "There's never been a President even close that's been able to do what I've done in slashing all of the red tape."
There's misplaced and tactless pride, the hubris of observing in the midst of death that coronavirus has "created a number of new stars" in his administration, as if the disease is a Netflix series. And announcing in the middle of all this the release of Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury from a Lebanese prison, boasting from the dais that his administration's record of negotiating hostage releases is "42-0."
It's just another game score to Trump, the human life involved irrelevant. Yes, as the late sportswriter Grantland Rice noted, when the Great Scorekeeper comes to write about your name, He writes not that you won or lost, but how many hostages you can brag about freeing while thousands are afflicted with the deadliest global illness since the influenza pandemic of 1917-18.
And let's not forget his obsession with reelection and the stock market uber alles, plus the racism of his new insistence on referring to the illness as the Chinese virus at every opportunity. He cynically uses this to inflame the base while putting every Asian in America at risk of verbal or physical attack and trying to distract the rest of us from his overwhelming incompetence.
(Nor should anyone fail to realize that when and if you receive a check from the government to help get you through this, you rightfully will see it as a godsend but Donald Trump will see it as a bribe, a downpayment on November.)
Don't look at me, he seems to say, yet simultaneously he clings to the notion of an imperial presidency. He announced out loud the other day, "I don't take any responsibility at all," which certainly sums it up.
Because nothing is ever his fault. Unlike Harry Truman and every other chief executive in United States history, the buck doesn't stop with Trump, no sir, it stops with China and the media and fake news (witness Friday's despicable outburst reacting to the legitimate questions of NBC's Peter Alexander). And it stops with those pesky state governors who just won't take no for an answer when they keep pleading for federal assistance. "We're not a shipping clerk," he sniffed on Thursday, skirting responsibility for helping states fight the virus.
And oh yes, Trump's all-too-familiar fallback—this is all because of Obama—"I inherited an obsolete, broken old system that was not meant for this!" Please give it a rest.
Of course, his ego is such that he thinks this whole thing is a plot against him. He is after all, the national poster boy for the persecution complex. ("I've been right a lot," he insists, but wouldn't you know, nobody gives him enough credit!)
"This is what happens when you elect a sociopath president," David Brooks remarked on the PBS Newshour March 13. And it's what happens when you put in charge of government those who don't believe in government, who hire arrogant, inexperienced people whose only qualification is loyalty to the Dear Leader. As they ignore reality and busily try to manufacture the graven image of Trump as a Churchillian "wartime president," thousands may perish.
In his delusion and arrogance, Trump thinks he can run the United States like some Fortune 500 company, but a) government doesn't work that way, especially in extremis, b) he hasn't the skill set and c) if any large corporation had a CEO like Trump the stockholders and board of directors would have rebelled long ago, instantly kicking him out for abject malfeasance.
When not angry or aggrieved, Donald Trump seems listless, often bored and overwhelmed, like the kid who missed a couple of weeks of algebra and never catches up. Helpless. Hapless. And unrepentant.
Whatever success we're having in fighting back is due to the hardworking professionals tackling this, public servants as dedicated as John Gardner was back in the days of LBJ—everyone from orderlies, nurses and doctors to hospital administrators, research scientists and many of our governors. For all his past faults, New York's Andrew Cuomo has been a prominent exemplar.
The best minds in the world are indeed dedicated to solving this. Trump thinks he's one of them, but he really should stand back, shut up and let the others do their jobs.
We will win this together. Not because of Trump but in spite of him.