In "The Splendid and the Vile," his new book about former Prime Minister Winston Churchill's stewardship of Britain through the desperate early months of World War II, Erik Larson details the seemingly hopeless circumstances confronting the country. Germany had overrun Europe and was poised to begin a bombing campaign aimed at obliterating British cities and, if that didn't force England's surrender, to invade England. By late 1941, 45,000 Britons had been killed and 52,000 injured. Three hundred thousand British soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk, certain to be captured or annihilated. German submarines were preventing supplies from reaching Britain, which was effectively on its own.
Churchill was defiant. "We shall not fail or falter," he proclaimed. "We shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle nor the long-drawn trails of vigilance and exertion will wear us down." His people knew that he was as tireless as he was asking them to be. "Papa has served them with his heart (and) his mind," Churchill's daughter wrote in her diary, "and they have given him in his finest and darkest hour their love and confidence."
It is fair to say that Americans have not been similarly blessed during the current crisis. The Daily Dissemble, the White House "briefings" on the novel coronavirus, are substantially mixtures of misrepresentation and nonsense. The president has two signature specialties. One is making claims demonstrated within 24 hours to be misleading or simply false. The other is settling upon a truly meaningless banality ("It's very important that our economy be strong. A strong economy is very, very important. Really important.") and just repeating it endlessly, as though doing so makes it less meaningless. Both have been on full display during these briefings.
One bright spot has been New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who, like Churchill, has had to deliver continuously dreadful news while inspiring confidence. Americans confined to their homes have taken to tuning in to the governor's daily press conferences not only to hear about the state of things in New York but also to get reminded of what leadership looks like. It has been 90 years since Americans made it a regular point to listen to what a leader had to say. Our grandparents and great-grandparents gathered to listen to then-President Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats during the Great Depression because they felt they could trust him: to tell the truth, to know what he was doing, to have a plan of action, to empathize with them. Cuomo brings these qualities to his briefings, and Americans living nowhere near New York tune in because of it.
In truth, even a leader merely playing with the proverbial full deck of cards would be a sight for sore eyes for Americans, who have been deprived of this for three years. But Cuomo has been just what the doctor ordered. In contrast to the president's profound unreliability, Cuomo exudes command: Here is Plan A. Here is why it is urgent that Plan A work. Here are the problems that we face making Plan A work. Here is what we are doing to solve those problems. Here is Plan B.
Cuomo, a tough political gut fighter, has provided both humanity and inspiration while showcasing hands-on management. "This is going to be a long day, and it's going to be a hard day, and it's going to be an ugly day, and it's going to be a sad day," Cuomo told the National Guard before deploying it to assist reeling New Yorkers. He reaffirmed the words of his late father and predecessor, Gov. Mario Cuomo, on what a democratic government is supposed to mean. It is, he reiterated, "family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings — reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race or sex or geography or political affiliation." Cuomo's management and words have reassured a deeply anxious nation, one that is grateful to him for his finest hour.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.
Photo credit: Pat Arnow