Last Thursday, the US announced a record-setting, economy-wreaking 3.3 million jobless claims, numbers that shattered the worst periods of the 2008 financial collapse or even the Great Depression. Sometime on Sunday, somewhere in the United States, the 2,404th person died from Covid-19, surpassing the death toll of Pearl Harbor. Sometime on Monday, the 2,982nd American died, pushing the grim toll of the novel coronavirus past the total death toll of the 9/11 attacks. By the end of today, the Covid-19 American death toll will surpass that of Hurricane Maria, the 2017 storm that devastated Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
And yet, as Americans locked at home prepare to enter their second month living this unprecedented, still-unfolding, and worsening crisis—an event that in its suddenness, response, and wide-ranging effects seems to encompass multiple crises, part-Depression, part-9/11, part-grotesque natural disaster—the United States continues to experience a titanic leadership void. For months, as the coronavirus has migrated from an epidemic overseas to a full-blown global pandemic and epic economic calamity, America has waited, hungrily, for leadership and inspiration.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a clear opportunity for history-making leadership; given that the nation—and the world beyond—faces a threat and a challenge unlike anything else in modern history, a crisis that is simultaneously unfolding in nearly every community, city, county, province, and state, and country on the planet, the opportunities for leadership would seem to be endless. Yet the scale of the economic and public health calamity seems to dwarf the imagination of most of our nation’s leaders.
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To understand why our leaders have collectively struggled in this crisis, one must understand what makes for successful crisis leadership: Just as detectives weed out suspects by thinking about means, motive, and opportunity, past crises have shown there are traditionally four ingredients required for transcendent leadership: opportunity, boldness, frankness, and capability. Leaders need all four to come together for greatness to be thrust upon them by future historians.
So far, we’ve not seen anyone assemble all of those ingredients. No single leader has emerged to embody the hope and inspiration in the model of Rudy Giuliani on 9/11, FDR of the Great Depression and World War II, Hank Paulson of the financial crisis, or, during Hurricane Katrina—after the nation watched the fumbling by George W. Bush and FEMA director Michael “Heckuva Job Brownie” Brown—the swashbuckling, impossible-to-ignore “Rajin’ Cajun” Gen. Russel L. Honoré. Erik Larson’s new book about Winston Churchill’s leadership during the Battle of Britain tops today’s national bestseller charts, even though (and perhaps because) none of us have seen a leader rally the country in the way that Churchill’s stoic nature and stirring words promised that his nation would never be defeated.
Quite the opposite: The challenge for the country so far in the Covid-19 spring is that, one by one, most of the leaders we’ve traditionally turned to have fallen flat—internationally, nationally, and locally.
Frankness has been in short supply at the White House, for one. After spending weeks downplaying the threat of the emerging epidemic, Donald Trump has repeatedly since failed to heed Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” mantra for the presidency. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said at one early coronavirus press conference. His Oval Office address on the crisis was a disaster, the stock market has seen huge plunges as he’s spoken, and he’s badly fumbled some of the most basic softballs about how to reassure a nation in extremis. His inability to muster the slightest empathy for those involved—he mocked news that Senator Mitt Romney is in self-isolation—remains perhaps the least presidential aspect of his ability to rise to the occasion.
Boldness, in both decisive action and good models of behavior, has been lacking in the national response, too. Coronavirus press conferences, which crowd the nation’s top leaders together and has featured no shortage of handshaking, send precisely the wrong message at a time when social distancing is the mantra for the country—not to mention literally endangering those involved from a continuity of government perspective. FEMA director Pete Gaynor, who belatedly was put in charge of the federal government’s virus response just days ago, similarly fumbled his public debut last weekend and has spent the week trying to catch up in a nearly impossible Herculean task.
Congress, as is often the case during major crises, seems incapable of stepping into a national leadership void. It’s become a bickering, partisan afterthought at best and an institution filled with thoughtless, head-in-the-sand opportunists at worst; senators apparently sold their personal stocks after receiving confidential briefings on the virus’s impact, and Senator Rand Paul tested positive for Covid-19 on a day where he spent the morning working out in the Senate gym and lunching with colleagues.
That lack of decisiveness and inspiration has also rung true at the local level. New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s response to the crisis—at a moment when New York faces a historic epidemic and death toll—has had all of the moral authority and urgency of a collapsed, week-old soufflé. Beyond his hemming and hawing, he was roundly criticized for trying to squeeze in one last workout before his favorite YMCA gym closed to the public.
(And, of course, after enduring his rapid reputational descent of recent years, his butt-dials, conspiracy theories, and too many Bloody Marys, it’s worth noting that today’s Rudy Giuliani is clearly not the bold Rudy of yore: Earlier this month, he tweeted about what an insignificant death toll the novel coronavirus actually had yielded thus far. By last week, he was downplaying the virus’s significance, and over the weekend he was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation about the virus.)
International leaders have hardly fared better. Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian president, tried to dodge responsibility for the outbreak, and the country continues to dissemble about its on-the-ground reality. Italy’s sclerotic national leadership was slow to react to its spreading epidemic, turning the nation into a cautionary tale for other countries. The UK’s floppy-haired Boris Johnson, who seems to enjoy playing prime minister more than he does being prime minister, has seemed uniquely ill-suited to respond, and charted the UK’s unique course to its national response; he now faces a steadily worsening crisis and has been diagnosed with his own infection after weeks of ignoring medical advice to stop shaking hands so gleefully.
A few countries overseas, like South Korea and Singapore, have fared well in their response to the crisis, but have done so quietly, with national leadership that has not translated far beyond their borders. Perhaps the strongest example of leadership internationally has come from Germany, where Angela Merkel has been speaking bluntly to her country and setting a good example in her personal behavior. The chancellor, who lives in a modest apartment in Berlin and often does her own shopping, was recently “spotted” buying wine and a single roll of toilet paper, her own not-so-subtle message to avoid hoarding and panic buying. By the end of last weekend, Merkel found herself in self-isolation after having had contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case.
So what does history tell us about what the public looks for in crisis leaders?
The first necessity of history, most clearly, is opportunity. Being a wartime president conveys an instant sort of gravitas, unachievable regardless of peacetime success. As Todd Purdom wrote last year, “[Bill] Clinton sometimes lamented that he was serving in times of broad peace and prosperity, because true presidential greatness was granted only to those leaders who governed in war or crisis.” Dwight Eisenhower, who similarly presided over a period of broad economic growth and societal advances even amid the rising tension of the Cold War, seemed frustrated that he didn’t get the credit he felt he deserved for not leading the nation into war. When asked about his proudest accomplishment in the closing moments of his presidency, he said, “We kept the peace. People asked how it happened—by God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.”
Mishandling a war or similar crisis, similarly, can doom even otherwise solid reputations. Lyndon Johnson, for the good he did on the Great Society and on civil rights, was consumed by Vietnam and its quicksand of illogical logic and lies. “He had one tragedy, a war whose commitments he could not break and whose tenacity he did not perceive,” his aide Jack Valenti would later write. “It was the Vietnam War that cut of the arteries of the LBJ administration.”
The second ingredient for crisis leadership is frankness—best understood by looking to the example of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential model through the Great Depression and World War II. Stepping into an unprecedented economic calamity in 1933, FDR proclaimed in the first paragraph of his first inaugural, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.” He continued, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
In the months ahead, it was FDR’s steady, reassuring, familial “fireside chats” that rebuilt the country’s societal fabric and the national will that had been crushed by the unrelenting Great Depression. It would take most of a decade for the country to recover monetarily, but spiritual healing was almost instantaneous. As Jonathan Alter wrote in his history of FDR’s first hundred days, The Defining Moment, FDR’s strength came from “a supreme self-confidence in his ability to lead the country when it was, as he later put it, ‘frozen by a fatalistic terror.’”
The third ingredient is boldness, either in personal behavior or decisive action. This is where Rudy Giuliani shined after the September 11th attacks. The images of him striding through the debris and chaos around Ground Zero—even as he actually made few critical decisions that morning—conveyed on him a certain political immortality and national respect that led to his much-trumpeted moniker as “America’s mayor.” It became the defining moment of his political career, one he reminded the nation of so frequently that Joe Biden in 2007 joked that Giuliani only needed three things to make a sentence: A noun, a verb, and 9/11.
The fourth ingredient is capability, where Hank Paulson shined during the financial crisis and General Honoré excelled during the response to Hurricane Katrina. As a leader in a crisis, inspirational words coupled with a willingness to act boldly and be frank about the problem only gets you so far: You must, most simply, be able to do something about the crisis. Think of this as the old line attributed to Joseph Stalin after the pope criticized him: “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Stalin is said to have asked. If you can’t actually do anything about the problem, it doesn’t matter how bold your tendency to act and how inspirational your words might be.
Paulson, working with the leaders of the Federal Reserve and other members of the Bush administration, was able to mount formidable financial rescue plans, twist arms, and launch initiatives of almost unimaginable scale in relatively quick order. In New Orleans after Katrina, after days of seeming inaction by the federal government, General Honoré, the commander of the First Army, arrived on the scene with the 82nd Airborne, Fifth Army, and tens of thousands of National Guard troops in support, marshaling a can-do attitude that seemed in the moment to be delivering results.
Examining the landscape of the leaders tested by the Covid-19 crisis, all have been given the opportunity of the moment, but none has pieced together all four ingredients.
Americans have been buoyed by the frankness of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a previously obscure government role that has placed him in the center of the Covid-19 response. His calm, sober, fact-oriented presence led The Washington Post to dub him “the grandfatherly captain of the coronavirus crisis.” Yet being a staffer has meant he’s been limited in both his capability and his boldness for action. In Fauci’s case, the White House seems particularly set on ensuring he doesn’t overshadow the president, and Fauci himself knows he’s second fiddle; as he said last weekend in an interview remarkable for its clarity and bluntless, “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.” Moreover, it seems clear that the improvisational, shoot-from-the-hip president and the man Science magazine called “the representative of truth and facts” are set for a collision course as the bite from the nation’s abrupt economic halt worsens. Trump spent much of last week laying the groundwork to ignore medical advice in the days ahead, tweeting, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” While Trump backed away from that on Sunday, saying he’d extend social distancing through the end of April, it’s clear that if Fauci was given freer rein, he would be acting more boldly. Plus, of course, Fauci is but one adviser among many, and has not been given the authority to marshal the federal government’s response.
Similarly, it’s this fourth ingredient for historic success, capability, that has held back New York governor Andrew Cuomo from being able to be the national model for the Covid-19 crisis. Cuomo is the closest to a breakout leader we’ve seen so far, mixing strong action with strong words, and just a dash of humor. When railing against the federal government earlier this month and the state’s limited capacity to test only 200 New York residents for Covid-19 each day, he said, “Two hundred! It’s nothing. That covers just the neurotic people in my own family.”
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Most of all, though, Cuomo has simply been willing to assert, for better or for worse, that he’s in charge. “I accept full responsibility,” he said in announcing the state’s equivalent of a stay-at-home policy. “If someone is unhappy, if someone wants to blame someone, or complain about someone, blame me.”
Columnists have begun to praise Cuomo’s leadership.
Yet he’s ultimately been stymied because, as a governor stuck between the public health and economic crisis at the local level and a sclerotic, slow-moving, and poorly organized federal response, he simply doesn’t have the capability at his fingertips to address the Covid-19 crisis at the scale necessary. Many smaller crises can be addressed at the local or state level, but a pandemic is simply too big, even for a state with the resources of New York. Cuomo has no armies at his disposal, no factories to force to manufacture ventilators, no armada of cargo planes with which to launch a Berlin Airlift–style plan to resupply the doctors and nurses on the front lines.
Instead, he’s been left to fume about the federal government’s need to act more boldly, penning op-eds directed at the president and complaining about the inaction in his daily press conferences. Griping about others’ inaction, even when you’re right, is never a good way to earn a place in the history books.
The nation (and the world beyond) has warmly celebrated the first responders and front-line health care workers who do have the capability to respond—at least on the local level—and some of them have even engendered national attention for their frank words and boldness of action, yet, again, the problems dwarf their ability to have a national impact.
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For mayors, governors, and even the president, contemplating how history might view their leadership in this moment, it’s worth returning to the example of September 11th. When I interviewed Andy Card in the summer of 2016, as Donald Trump careened toward the White House, about what it was like to be White House chief of staff on 9/11, he spoke about the transformation he saw in President Bush that day as the enormity of the terrorist attacks sunk in. “I know President Bush took office on January 20, 2001, but the responsibility of being president became a reality when I whispered in his ear. I honestly believe as he contemplated what I said, [he thought,] I took an oath. Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. It’s not cutting taxes, it’s not No Child Left Behind, it’s not immigration, it’s the oath.”
Card continued, “When you pick a president, you want to pick a president who can handle the unexpected. This was the unexpected. That’s what the president was wrestling with that day. He recognized the cold reality of his responsibilities.”
One of the things we forget now was that it took Bush nearly a week to assemble the four ingredients of successful crisis leadership. September 11th, in fact, provides a good case study in how there is room and time—albeit brief—for leaders to grow and rise to the occasion.
What originally created the space for Rudy Giuliani to be seen as the day’s decisive leader came after President Bush was whisked aboard Air Force One in the opening hour of the attack and then fumbled his first utterly forgettable address at Barksdale Air Force Base in the late morning. Bush spent much of the day hidden aboard Air Force One and at two military bases before returning late in the day to the White House to speak to the nation from the Oval Office. In hindsight, he took the right set of actions to preserve the office of the president that day, a need to put his own safety, for continuity of government purposes, above the need to inspire the country, but it cost him initially as a national leader.
By the end of that September Tuesday, his strong Oval Office address began to rally the nation, and by the end of the week, an improvised line, while standing atop a crushed fire engine at Ground Zero and speaking through a bullhorn, had the same effect. Addressing a crowd of rescuers and first responders, Bush had been thanking them for their work when some firefighters shouted they couldn’t hear him. “I can hear you!” he turned and shouted back. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd dissolved into prolonged chants of “USA! USA!” It was the boldness and frankness that the nation had been searching for that week.
As president, too, he had capability, and he marshaled in the days ahead not just the rescue and recovery efforts but also the sweeping, decisive invasion of Afghanistan. That combination of opportunity, boldness, frankness, and capability helped launch him, even after his initial bout of criticism, on a trajectory toward a 90 percent public approval rating, one point even better than his father had achieved after the resounding, inspiring victory of the first Gulf War.
Today, the man in George W. Bush’s seat seems constitutionally incapable of being bold and frank. And absent Donald Trump’s willingness to step up and lead the nation, it’s unclear whether any other leader will be able to match the moment. It’s likely, in fact, that solving and addressing the Covid-19 crisis will come entirely at more localized levels, with a patchwork tag team of front line health care workers, mayors, governors, and federal officials each doing their own part—often in anonymity—to solve their own little corner of the problem.
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