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On character, leadership, and what we need right now

To me, character is defined as trying to make the best decisions you can as you navigate your way in the world — then taking responsibility for these decisions.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
When Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks, I feel a little extra pride, since she is a woman near my age.
Last week I read an opinion piece in which the author fretted that the admonishments to “social distance” and “shelter in place,” because of the global pandemic, are going to destroy whatever sense of community we Americans still possess, as we all retreat into our own private corners, looking out for ourselves alone. My experience so far has been quite the opposite.

Lately, I cannot count the number of times I have heard the phrase “We’re all in this together.” In the past week I have communicated with practically every friend I have, as we check on each other’s well-being. My husband and I, both in our 70s, are going to “Zoom” with his college roommate. I have received emails from around the world.

On Facebook, the generosity shown is impressive. One family is making 20 pans of lasagna for seniors. Others are sewing or delivering masks. My efforts are more modest. I call people to see if they need anything. We order takeout from restaurants which are still open. I recommend books online.

Minnesotans: doing the right things

Everyone I know in Minnesota is following directions: washing hands obsessively, keeping a distance of 6 feet, quarantining ourselves if we think we are ill or exposed to the virus. We are doing this not only to protect ourselves, but because we are loath to infect another person.

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I look forward to Gov. Walz’s press conferences. When Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks, I feel a little extra pride, since she is a woman near my age. I feel comforted that we here in Minnesota are in good hands. Our leaders, and are fellow citizens, are demonstrating character.

To me, character is defined as trying to make the best decisions you can as you navigate your way in the world — then taking responsibility for these decisions. Don’t make excuses. Don’t lie to save face. If you make a decision you later come to regret, as is inevitable, admit it and move on. Learn from it.

Relief when Dr. Fauci takes the stage

Because I think he lacks character, President Trump frightens me. When he speaks, I don’t hear a man who is taking responsibility. I hear a man who is shirking it, while blaming others and spreading propaganda: The Chinese are to blame for the virus. A miracle drug is just around the corner. Obama is at fault for the slow response, but now the Trump administration has miraculously solved the problem so everything is going to be hunky dory. I breathe a sigh of relief when Trump cedes the stage to Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose words I trust. But I wonder how long Fauci can last.

photo of article author
Martha Bordwell
In his private life, Donald Trump has a history of weaseling out of commitments, including to his wives and business partners. As president, it has been more of the same. He makes excuses, lies, pins the blame on anyone but himself: Women who accuse him of harassment are all liars; immigrants are criminals and rapists, Democrats are unpatriotic; Europeans don’t do their share. His interests lie more with the personal acquisition of wealth and power, not with the citizens who have entrusted him with leadership. Now he is talking about easing social distancing and other recommendations proffered by health professionals. Because I don’t trust him, I suspect he is more concerned about himself than about us. And when a leader can’t be trusted, things fall apart.

Wrong playbook

For the sake of argument (an argument I don’t personally believe), let us say that character didn’t matter so much when our economy was humming along. A great economy gave us a lot of leeway, allowing us to ignore looming pandemics, the alienation of allies, global warming, the demonization of an immigrant workforce likely to be needed in the future. But now we have a crisis on our hands. To lead us effectively, Trump would have to demonstrate qualities he has never demonstrated in his 73 years. He would have to throw away his playbook of attack and accuse. I doubt he knows how.

So I am searching for other national leaders for comfort. I want to hear more from Joe Biden, whose personal history of loss suggests he will feel empathy for the displaced workers, the parents fearing for their children, the sick. I hope Dr. Fauci continues to have a platform. I like what I’m hearing from the governors of other states. I even feel comforted by Mike Pence’s sober tone, although I could do without his obsequiousness toward his boss. But I hope President Trump goes back to playing golf. He isn’t the leader we need right now. We Americans, who are trying so hard to make the right decisions in the midst of unthinkable uncertainty, deserve better.

Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel. She recently published a memoir, “Missing Mothers.”


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