Legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow, who had covered World War II from a bomb barraged London, later reflected on Winston Churchill’s sudden rise to power in 1940: “Now the hour had come for him to mobilize the English language, and send it into battle, a spearhead of hope for Britain and the world.” And he did. Churchill’s masterfully crafted speeches, defiant prose and wry wit inspired a beleaguered nation at a time when its defeat to fascism seemed all but certain. Western Europe is free today in large part because of the terrific tongue and pen of the United Kingdom’s remarkable wartime prime minister.
During times of crisis, nations need leaders capable of calming the troubled public and articulating an honest vision for victory. Statesmen who are capable of offering carefully composed words of resolve and hope can marshal their countrymen to do extraordinary things and overcome any adversity for the better. America has been blessed with such leadership before. We are not today.
Making the catastrophe worse
The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis of historic proportion and would be a tall task for any president to handle. Our current commander in chief, however, has not only failed to create colloquy to assure an anxious American people, but his erratic and outlandish statements are in fact making this medical and economic catastrophe worse.
During his daily briefings from the White House, the President has offered an enormous audience of concerned constituents contradictory statements regarding the virus and efforts to contain it, bizarrely questioned the motives of states desperately seeking medical masks and ventilators from Washington, attacked reporters for asking him tough questions in tough times and pathetically attempted inappropriate humor regarding his former sex life with models.
President Trump would do himself and the country well to take a step back from the presidential podium and Twitter handle and review American history for the many moments when presidents, during times of great difficulty, have used their words to call the country to greatness.
During the existential crisis of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most gifted writer to occupy the White House, inspired determination in the country with his tender and lofty oratory. At Gettysburg, Lincoln said to a war-ravaged nation needing purpose: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
A seven-minute call to arms
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, America was militarily unprepared for war and its people wanted desperately to avoid it. Nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt, in a simple and short seven-minute address to Congress, called the country to arms: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. …With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”
Most of us can remember firsthand the treacherous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the fear we felt, and the uncertainty we had in our future. As a college intern working in the White House Press Office at the time, I recall the period vividly, particularly the national question of whether our inexperienced and inarticulate president would rise to the occasion. At the National Cathedral in Washington just days after the attacks, President George W. Bush certainly did: “War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing. Our purpose as a nation is firm, yet our wounds as a people are recent and unhealed and lead us to pray.”
Pettiness, vulgarity, dishonesty
President Trump was legitimately elected in a substantial Electoral College victory and took office with the prerogative to communicate to the American people in ways he sees fit. Thus far, he has chosen to continue with the same pettiness, vulgarity and dishonesty that served him well politically in 2016. If he wishes to have any useful role leading us through this current crisis, however, he should mimic the prose of effective presidents past and abandon his boorish style of speech now.
Winston Churchill once said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” He did, and it was. President Trump will not be composing his own history; and, without an immediate course correction in his leadership, it will not be kind to him.
Andy Brehm, of St. Paul, is a corporate attorney, television and radio political commentator and former press secretary to ex-U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.
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