A few years back, I visited Lincoln’s Cottage, where the president stayed to escape the heat and humidity of summertime Washington.
Like the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, there’s not much to see. The effect comes not from examining physical objects but from knowing you are standing within the same rooms once inhabited by an extraordinary human being.
But what struck me the most was a story told by a guide from the National Park Service.
While Lincoln may have escaped the worst of Washington’s heat, he never escaped the burden of leading a nation torn by civil war – nor the loss of his beloved son Willie, who died in 1862, at age 11, from typhoid fever.
In August of that year, a colonel barged into the house and sought the president’s help in retrieving the body of his wife, who had recently drowned.
The colonel’s grief was understandable; his actions were not. He had no business troubling the commander-in-chief for a matter of admittedly great importance to him, but not to the nation at large.
When the colonel arrived, in late afternoon, Lincoln had been reading reports of a looming battle at Bull Run. The strain of war got the best of him.
He snapped, “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?”
Lincoln slept fitfully. Though justified as perhaps no president before or since for a fleeting fit of temper, he faulted himself. The next day, he called on the colonel at his hotel. He apologized for being “a brute.” He granted the colonel’s request.
Imagine a president with such empathy, willing to take responsibility; ready to right his wrongs, even merely perceived wrongs; acting with grace in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.
Now consider the reality of what may turn out to be our greatest national emergency since the Civil War:
presidential press conferences which, it is clear, have become substitutes for Trump’s political rallies – a way to spread misinformation, settle scores, draw attention to himself.
Trump boasts, deceives, and makes wild promises about how the economy is going to “skyrocket” once the “invisible enemy” is defeated. It’s inane happy talk, not fit for children, all the while declining responsibility for any problem or failing.
The president’s penchant for complimenting himself is so striking that one commentator noted it as the main difference between Trump’s press conferences and those of Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister.
Despite being a bumptious, crazy-haired politician somewhat similar to Trump, Johnson has risen to the crisis, delivering the sober, factual reports needed to combat the coronavirus.
So are America’s governors, such as Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York.
From the White House, not so much. It has become the stage for an embarrassing daily soap opera. Will the good doctor, Anthony Fauci, M.D., a world-renowned expert on infectious diseases, be clever enough to contradict the president without drawing his wrath, thereby providing information that might help save lives? Stay tuned!
The sad thing is that if Trump simply said nothing and allowed his medical experts to speak, he could take some credit. But it’s not within him to give up the spotlight.
He congratulates himself constantly for the Jan. 31 China travel ban. (Trump vastly exaggerates the “courage” of his decision. It was at the recommendation of experts with his administration’s Health and Human Services Department.)
But one of the most important ways to fight the virus is through social distancing. For this to happen, people have to take the disease seriously.
How does Trump fare on this score?
Jan. 22: “We have it totally under control.”
Jan. 24: “It will all work out well.”
Feb. 10: “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
Feb. 23: “We had 12, at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better. Many of them are fully recovered.”
Feb. 29: He promised a vaccine would be available “very quickly.”
March 10: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
And on and on.
No wonder the spring breakers in Florida weren’t concerned. Neither was the president.
Inexplicably, on March 17, Trump also said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. So Trump knew there was a pandemic when he held a March 2 rally for thousands of his followers in Charlotte, N.C.?
What kind of leader does this? The answer, of course, is a leader who thinks only of himself, a leader who accepts no responsibility for his actions. A leader, in other words, as unlike Lincoln as could be conceived.
Postscript: Two writers last week responded to an earlier letter of mine. Though barely seven days old, their letters haven’t aged well.
There’s no point in my replying to them. Time and events already have.