Our pandemic crisis is unique for the current generations. We have not lived through something like this before. It feels so different from the other horrors such as 9/11, or for those older, World War II. But what seems so at odds with other crises, such as the Oklahoma bombing or the Challenger explosion, is the lack of empathy from a president. In addition, is the partisan divide that has resulted in a lack of unity in a nation that has nearly 60,000 dead citizens. And that number is growing.
We have always had a president in our nation who was able to show empathy and use the office and words to bring a nation together during times of crisis. That quality of a president has never, perhaps, been understood more clearly than now when we view its glaring absence.
I was on-air at WDOR the night President Reagan spoke to the nation following the horrific explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger. In my lifetime there is perhaps no other speech that so clearly demonstrated the role of a president at times of national crisis, or the heights of rhetorical balm that can come with the office. I sat in the broadcast studio and was moved to tears. Contrast national moments such as that one to the current occupant in the White House who continually stokes the anger and resentment of people for partisan advantage.
Trump is not able to either resist being mean or fails to grasp the need and the ability of his office to lift others up when they need the nation’s support. For instance, I can not get out of my mind how Trump refused to keep the White House flag at half-mast to honor the late Senator John McCain. It was only belatedly that he allowed his staff to put out a mildly laudatory statement in his name and allow the flag to be lowered.
Character matters. We say those words often but also take the concept for granted. When the lack of character is so obvious and smacks at us daily, it becomes a reminder of how much this nation lost when Trump secured the votes of the Electoral College.
One of the recurring features of the Trump years has been the president’s knack for detonating so many of our powerful shared experiences into us-versus-them grenades. Whether it’s the anniversary of a national catastrophe like the Oklahoma City bombing, the death of a widely admired statesman (Senator John McCain) or a lethal pathogen, Mr. Trump has exhibited minimal interest in the tradition of national strife placing a pause upon the usual smallness of politics.
Mr. Clinton, historians said, always appreciated the power of big, bipartisan gestures, even when they involved incendiary rivals. “He understood the healing powers of the presidency,” said Ted Widmer, a presidential historian at City University of New York, and a former adviser to Mr. Clinton who assisted him in writing his memoirs. He mentioned a generous eulogy that Mr. Clinton delivered for disgraced former President Richard Nixon, after he died in 1994. “There is a basic impulse a president can have for when the country wants their leader to rise above politics and mudslinging,” Mr. Widmer said.
In that regard, Mr. Trump’s performance during this pandemic has been a missed opportunity. “The coronavirus could have been Donald Trump’s finest hour,” Mr. Widmer said. “You really sensed that Americans wanted to be brought together. But now that appears unattainable.”
For whatever reason, Mr. Trump seems uninterested in setting aside personal resentment, even when some small gestures — a photo op or a joint statement with Democratic leaders in Congress; a bipartisan pandemic commission chaired by former presidents — could score him easy statesmanship points.