• Narratives of Illegitimacy

    American politics are awash with narratives of illegitimacy.  We’re not just questioning the judgment of our rivals, we’re questioning their loyalty, their commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution, as well as their patriotism.  In other words, we’re questioning whether our political opposites are, truly, American.  It’s difficult to imagine a more serious threat to the American experiment.

    The playbook is familiar at this point.  Republicans—including then-citizen Donald Trump—openly challenged whether Barack Obama was born in the United States.  They demanded he release his birth certificate.  They said he was educated in a “madrassa” or Islamic religious school.  They used that language to stoke fear in some corners of a black man with a funny-sounding name becoming president.  They did so to undermine Obama’s presidency, they openly wished for his failure, and they claimed that his loyalties lay with America’s enemies—in particular, with Islamic extremists.

    Many on the left have never recognized the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency.  Obsessing over the loss of the popular vote for the second time in less than two-decades, they claim that Trump is not their president.  They point to Russia’s intervention in the American election in 2016 to help Trump as grounds for questioning the loyalty and integrity of the president and his political allies, like Senator Lindsey Graham

    Even now, two principle narratives of illegitimacy hang over the 2020 race.  The first, pushed by President Trump and his allies, contends that mail-in ballots are susceptible to fraud and will make the outcome of the 2020 election unreliable.  The other is the open fretting of some, not limited just to the left, that President Trump may not leave the White House peacefully if he loses the election in November. 

    The danger in all of these stories is that they depict our political rivals as illegitimate.  Legitimacy speaks to whether an individual has the standing, the appropriately conceived authority, to act within our governing system.  If you believed Barack Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen, then you didn’t believe he was the legitimate president of the United States.  If you believe that Donald Trump is compromised by Russian blackmail, then you question the legitimacy of his administration.

    Some might dismiss my reasoning as a false equivalency—that I shouldn’t equate “birtherism” with the well-documented attack by Russia on American democracy and President Trump’s peculiar deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  But this essay isn’t about the truth, it’s about narrative, and what happens when both sides see their rival’s political power as inherently illegitimate.

    If, for political expediency, we dismiss our rivals as illegitimate, then we dismiss the rule of law; we dismiss the Constitution; we dismiss the fact that elections have consequences.  Governing, in that environment, ceases to be about service to the nation and bringing Americans together to solve common problems.  Instead, governing becomes about power—who has it, who wants it, and what will they do to preserve it.  By any measure, left or right, this is the path to political violence and tyranny.

    These aren’t new forces in American politics.  In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy used fear and innuendo of communist subversion to further his own political fortunes at the expense of the lives and careers of the people he smeared.  Even in the first decade of the Republic, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to protect President John Adams and his political power from Republican critics in Congress and the press. 

    In each of those cases, the fever ultimately broke, not because it was destined to—federal courts prosecuted 26 individuals under the Alien and Sedition Acts between 1798 and 1801—but because individuals rose to fight it.  Often, the heroes were members of the press like Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and James Callender in the 1790s.

    In today’s very different media environment, where social media makes every citizen a purveyor of information, it falls to each of us to check the impulse to dismiss those who disagree with us politically as “other,” as “foreign,” as “compromised,” as “less American than me.”  That’s the only way we avoid the trap of seeing this amazing nation divided into “Democratic cities” and “Republican cities” or “Red states” and “Blue states” whose challenges—whether COVID infections, or opioid addictions, or social injustice—are viewed as little more than parochial, partisan issues.

    These are the United States of America, after all, and we’re in this together.

  • Why I Laugh

    2020 has been the longest decade of my life.  It’s not even close.  The year that began with presidential impeachment, has, so far, brought us also a pandemic that continues to ravage the United States and the world, massive unemployment, the murder of George Floyd, protests for social justice, and violent confrontations in cities across the United States set against the backdrop of perhaps the most important U.S. election since 1860. 

    On top of that, the U.S. government has confirmed the existence of UFOs, there are “murder hornets” in the northwest, and late last week scientists announced their intention to dive into a mysterious blue pool at the bottom of the ocean. My only reaction for those scientists is this: READ THE ROOM!

    We the people are tired, cranky, and we really need a good laugh.  So unless that blue pool is the portal to the wisdom of Atlantis, maybe just let it be.

    When I sat down to think about what I wanted to say today, I debated with myself whether I really wanted to talk about laughing.  It seems a little flip and not worthy of the importance of this moment, but, then again, maybe it is.  I learned the importance of laughter in my home as a child.  My Mom and Dad laughed a lot—they still do.  I recall one friend of theirs whose out-sized personality and sense of humor left everyone in tears of laughter on a regular basis.  To this day, if you make my Mom really laugh, it becomes infectious and we’ll laugh until our faces hurt.  And my Dad, who is no stranger to public speaking, taught me, early, the power of humor to engage an audience and settle them in for often difficult issues that need to be discussed.

    In a moment when the world seems chaotic, when so much bad news swirls around us, when so much seems at stake, maybe, just maybe, we need to find some joy and, yes, some laughter in our lives again.

    There’s a long history of humor in dark times.  I remember reading Bob Hope’s autobiography decades ago and being fascinated by his account of telling jokes about Hitler.  Long before Mel Brooks made mocking Nazis his signature, while American GIs were fighting and dying to liberate Europe, Bob Hope was mocking the German leader.  It was a way of knocking him down to size, of making him smaller.  As Bob Hope told it, it was a red-letter day in the free world when comedians learned Hitler’s family name was really Schicklgruber.

    Like Bob Hope had done previously, David Letterman understood the power of comedians to diminish America’s adversaries after 9/11.  On his “Late Night” show, Letterman mercilessly mocked Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who had just murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, not because it was comedy-gold, but because it was what the country needed—a bit of humor, a bit of lightness, a bit of relief from the terrible.

    I’m not clever enough to know what’s funny now, or even hopeful that I could make you laugh if I tried, but I know we need to keep laughing.  We need to find humor even when times are tough—maybe especially then. 

    Humor and wit are signs of both IQ—intelligence—and EQ—emotional intelligence.  One of the least appreciated aspects of public life is the ability of a politician to tell a good joke—or even engage in some self-effacing humor.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech about his little dog Fala was heart-warming, human, and funny.  John Kennedy used humor to take the sting out of the criticism that he was just the child of a rich man buying his way into the White House.  And President George H.W. Bush absolutely loved Dana Carvey’s impression of him—so much so that he invited the Saturday Night Live comedian to the White House and shared the podium with him.  Can you imagine President Trump inviting Alec Baldwin to do the same?

    I’m not saying we don’t face serious issues and that times aren’t hard—exceptionally hard—for a lot of Americans.  They are.  But in times of trial and conflict, we need to find that release, to seek it out, and to breathe deeply in the air of freedom that lets us mock our tormentors and feel alive in our laughter. 

    In the Soviet Union, jokes were often subversive.  In Afghanistan under the Taliban, public laughter was a crime.  Authoritarians don’t want us to laugh because in laughing we challenge authority just as surely as we assert our individuality, our conscience, and our freedom.

  • Irresponsible or Tyrannical?

    Every week, I try to share some insights from history, from my scholarship, or from my experience working in Washington.  I am mindful that it would be easy to look at my resume and dismiss me as a partisan.  And so I try to be careful about the language I use and the points I make.  The truth is that I’m actually a passionate moderate—if that’s not an oxymoron—who is much more comfortable working with centrists from either party than I am with fringe movements on either end of the political spectrum.

    So I was very careful in my preparation this week.

    Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been watching events in Portland, Oregon, with a growing sense of alarm.  Federal law enforcement, dressed in camouflage and kevlar—the stuff of American infantry patrolling in a battle zone—are dispersing protestors with aggressive tactics, and even abducting protestors from the streets and transporting them in unmarked vehicles.  The acting-Secretary of Homeland Security says his personnel are “proactively” arresting Americans.

    In the editorial pages of America’s leading newspapers, respected columnists are asking “Can we call it fascism, yet?”  They wonder if this means Trump may try to hold on to power if he loses the election in November.  They warn about the creeping authoritarianism of the Trump administration and wonder what happened to the principled Republicans who previously expressed grave concern about the expansive power of the federal government.

    A couple of summers ago, I read a short book by Timothy Snyder, one of the best scholars of 20th century authoritarianism out there, titled simply On Tyranny.  In it, Snyder describes the hallmarks of authoritarianism and offers advice to those who would resist it.  Several of his lessons came flooding back to me watching events unfold in Portland:

    • “Do not obey in advance,” says Snyder.  Authoritarians are counting on you to surrender your freedom to their exercise of power. 
    • “Defend institutions,” he says they are the instruments that preserve our democracy. 
    • Don’t let them fall, he warns, to the “one party state” that castigates its rivals as illegitimate or criminals. 
    • “Be kind to our language,” Snyder says.  Don’t simply repeat the talking points and crude characterizations we hear from political leaders or in social media.
    • “Believe in truth.”  Freedom requires a belief in knowable facts that can inform debate and lay the basis for criticizing power.  That may require us to research and learn before we speak, or post, or tweet about an issue.  But care for the truth is a decidedly anti-authoritarian task.

    There is much more, and I strongly recommend the book to anyone who cares about freedom and worries about this moment, but one final passage stopped me cold when I re-read it this week.  “Listen for dangerous words,” warns Snyder. “Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.”

    Set that warning against the way the president talks about “radical left Democrats” who “will destroy our country as we know it.” He said the situation in Portland was “worse than Afghanistan,” where the United States has been fighting an insurgency for 20 years.  He claims his hand is forced by failed leaders, all of whom are “liberal Democrats” who run cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Oakland.  He describes the protestors in Portland as “anarchists.  These are people who,” the president says, “hate our country” who have cowed and physically intimidated the elected mayors, senators, and governor of Oregon. Then the president said, “And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”

    The President of the United States is playing a dangerous and cynical game—dismissing Americans who are protesting for social justice as anarchists, warning that his rivals will destroy the country, using force—or the threat of force—to bolster his political base—and generally acting like a would-be strongman. 

    If history teaches us anything, it’s that tyranny arrives wrapped in the cloak of patriotism on the backs of politicians more interested in power than in service to others.  At best, the president’s rhetoric and deeds are irresponsible.  At worst, they are the stuff of tyranny, and we, as citizens, need to be on guard.

  • A Matter of Trust

    In what would have been a shocking twist in any other administration, over the weekend, journalists began reporting that the White House was circulating talking points questioning the judgment and credibility of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  President Trump, himself, told Fox News that Fauci, who had increasingly distanced himself publicly from the pandemic characterizations and recommendations of the president, “is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.” In an op-ed earlier this week in USA Today, White House trade official Peter Navarro questioned Fauci’s credibility, warning that he greeted the esteemed doctor’s recommendations with skepticism.  White House Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino posted an editorial cartoon on his personal Facebook page portraying Fauci as a gushing faucet whose cold water messages were drowning the economy and the country’s return to normal life.

    The attacks on Dr. Fauci aren’t a coincidence.  They are a campaign designed to discredit Fauci, one of the most well-regarded public health officials in the world because his willingness to tell the truth to the American public puts him at odds with the perceived political needs of the president.

    This isn’t the first-time this has happened.  In fact, President Trump has a long and troubling record of not just lying, but of attacking any independent source of news or information that he sees as a threat to his grip on power:

    • In August of 2018, the president attacked Google search results, alleging via Tweet that the U.S. government was receiving complaints about bias in search results on Google, Facebook, and Twitter.  Larry Kudlow, the president’s economic advisor, said subsequently that the administration would look into possible regulation of the tech giants because of that bias.
    • The president’s attacks against Robert Mueller were legion—accusing the respected former FBI Director of leading a band of “angry Democrats” involved in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
    • Prior to those broadsides, the president claimed to revoke the security clearance of former Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan whose public warnings about Russian interference in our democracy threatened the president’s preferred narrative.
    • Since the earliest days of his administration, the president has attacked journalists as “enemies of the people”  because of critical reporting about him and his administration.
    • Finally, on other issues, the president has repeatedly undermined the expert opinions of the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military.

    The common thread that runs through all of these examples is the president’s apparent desire to undermine the credibility of any independent source of information—from Google to the CIA—that dares to offer a view different from that favored by Donald Trump, himself.

    This week, we find Dr. Fauci’s reputation under assault, and even the most-casual observer can link it easily to his willingness to tell the American public the truth about a pandemic that appears only to be intensifying all over the country—a reality the president believes hurts his political chances this fall.

    It’s against this backdrop that so many viewed with alarm the reporting in Tuesday’s New York Times about a plan to shift the collection of COVID infection data away from the CDC and transfer that function to the Department of Health and Human Services—whose assistant secretary for public affairs is long-time Republican political strategist Michael Caputo.  The administration’s explanation of the switch, detailed by the Times, is that CDC’s system was antiquated and cumbersome.  But researchers, modelers, and public health officials all over the world rely on CDC’s data which is generally regarded as credible and transparent.  The concern—whether valid or not—is that individuals at HHS—who are traditionally more political than the public health officials at CDC—would be in a position to manipulate the public’s understanding of the true extent of the pandemic to benefit the president’s political fortunes.

    Ultimately, our politics, like so many things in life, run on trust, and after 20,000 documented lies, repeated attacks on independent sources of information, as well as smears and obfuscations, many Americans simply don’t trust President Trump or his administration.  That’s not politics and that’s not bias: that’s the fruit of efforts to distort and mislead over years.

  • It’s Complicated

    I watched the president’s speeches at Mount Rushmore and on the South Lawn of the White House commemorating July 4th last weekend. They were not great speeches, if I’m honest, but they have lingered with me. In his inaugural address, the president spoke of “American carnage,” and the theme of a decaying America came through loud and clear. But I was more troubled by his open assertion that the decay is being advanced by his political opponents.

    Now let’s be honest, warning that your political opponents are “ruining the country,” is as old as politics. But there’s something new and disturbing in the way this president talks about his political rivals: they don’t just disagree about policies and politics, they are un-American, intent on teaching “our children . . . to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but . . . villains.”

    I’ve had a hard time processing this because there are people who see in American history nothing but brutality and violence and racism. I’m working with a local historical society on a series of small group discussions about the current state of civics, and after our last discussion I told them I worried we were focused exclusively on what’s wrong with America. In my opinion, that’s a mistake because there is so much in our founding and in our history about which we should be proud.

    The problem I had with President Trump’s speech wasn’t his desire to celebrate America’s heroes, but that he delivered such a sanitized version of American history.

    Understanding our history as a nation and as a people means acknowledging all of our contradictions, our successes and our failures, as well as our sources of pride and our sources of shame. They are, often, two sides of the same coin. The ideals Thomas Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence are universal and should be celebrated. But our application of them to the humanity on these shores has been uneven for centuries and remains so today. Jefferson asserted that all men—all people—are created equal. But the nation permitted slavery for its first 76 years and legalized discrimination for nearly a century more. Jefferson and Washington, among many others, were slave owners. They owned other human beings. Women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920. Native Americans have seen their lands possessed, their rights curtailed, and their heritage appropriated.

    The president’s approach to U.S. history under-estimates the capacity of the American people to know the truth and love this country with a deep conviction borne not of ignorance or wishful thinking, but of a deep appreciation for the ideals of our founding and the sacrifice of flawed men and women over centuries who fought to make those ideals real.

    At Mount Rushmore, President Trump criticized “cancel culture”—the idea that we are going to remove from public life anyone whose history or utterances offend present sensibilities. I took note of that not because the president described it as the “very definition of totalitarianism,” (which it is not) but because another American president spoke of it recently, too. Last October, former President Barack Obama warned young people to “get over” cancel culture. “The world is messy;” he said, ”there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

    On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglas delivered his iconic Independence Day oration “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” It is one of the most important speeches in American history. In it, Douglas, a former slave from Baltimore, Maryland, captured the central contradictions inherent in the American experience. He celebrated the founders and heralded their “saving principles,” but also described the brutality and inhumanity of American slavery.

    Knowing that history, acknowledging those tensions isn’t a “left-wing cultural revolution . . . designed to overthrow the American Revolution,” as President Trump described it. It’s a full-throated celebration of America in all of her complexity.

    I love my country, not because I don’t know her faults, but because I know her ideals and I know the courage of patriots to help her live up to them.

  • The Story in the Data: Wear Your Mask!

    On Monday of this week, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control, told the Journal of the American Medical Association that COVID-19 is not under control in the United States because “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now.”  It’s a staggering admission, but we know it’s built on real data.  Compare that to the actions of some state governments who have actually pulled data down from public websites because it paints an undesirable picture of the crisis playing out before our very eyes.

    In Florida, Rebekah Jones was a data scientist for the state department of health until early May when she claims she was fired for refusing to manipulate data that would have shown that Florida was not ready to reopen. But this wasn’t the only story of data manipulation to emerge from Florida in May.  On May 8, Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago documented a variety of ways the administration of Governor Ron Desantis was shading numbers.  Early that month, the governor’s administration moved to bar county medical examiners from releasing death data.  He also resisted calls by journalists to release data on coronavirus in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.    

    Governor Desantis wasn’t alone in shaping the data to justify reopening.

    At the end of May, the state of Texas was already nearly a month into reopening.  Governor Greg Abbott claimed he was making data-driven decisions and that the rate of positive tests  was a key factor in his decision to re-open the state.  Except the data was skewed and expert observers called it out.  The state was combining both antibody tests (which assesses whether an individual has ever been exposed to the virus) and PCR testing which tells someone whether they are currently infected.  To put this in mathematic terms—they were inflating the denominator—effectively increasing the pool of “tests” even if they weren’t all the kind of tests in question.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the White House, too, has a problem with the data it pushed as recently as two weeks ago.  On June 16, Vice President Mike Pence published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal taking issue with the media’s portrayal of a “second wave” of the disease, claiming that the United States is better prepared now than it was last March because we have so much more testing, with low positive test rates in many states, a plateau in cases nationally, and declining death rates.  Nearly all of that was based on a selective interpretation of the data.  There is not one big fire threatening the United States—there are more than 50 wildfires, each affecting local communities differently, and each with their own potential to flare out of control.  In this case, looking at national data swapped tremendous progress in the northeast—which was hard-hit in the spring—for back sliding in the south and west, obscuring the flames that were burning even then.

    Now, as we head into the July 4th weekend, rates of infection are surging across the United States, including in places like Florida and Texas, but also California, and Arizona.  Public health officials across the country reported more than 42,000 new cases on Wednesday of this week—alone—with records for new cases set in Georgia, Texas, Alaska, North Carolina, and Arizona.  Ominously, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on Tuesday that the United States could be on its way to 100,000 cases per day.  The virus is not controlled.

    The reality is that this virus does not care how tired we are of living like this.  It doesn’t care that we hate wearing masks.  It doesn’t care that we want to go back to work, or over to a friend’s house, or even just down to the bar to grab a beer with our friends.  It doesn’t care that we want to hug our older parents.  The virus exists for one purpose: to reproduce, and it does that by infecting hosts who then infect others.  It will wait us out—unless we are smart.

    And smart starts with wearing a face mask.  A peer reviewed analysis of face-mask declarations in 15 states and the District of Columbia between April 8 and May 15 found that states with mandates cut the spread of the disease.  A separate analysis from the Philadelphia Inquirer  found that states with less stringent face mask policies and orders had substantially larger rates of infection. The city of Hong Kong has 7.5 million residents, but since the outbreak of the disease, they have had only 1,234 confirmed cases and only 7 deaths.  Compare that to New York City where, while things are improving now, over the last four months, 215,000 cases have led to 17,757 deaths, so far.  The biggest difference between the two cities is simple: since the outset of the pandemic, an estimated 97% of Hong Kong’s morning commuters wear face coverings. 

    In the United States, people more concerned with holding onto political power and restarting the economy than listening to the data opted to politicize mask wearing.  The tragic reality we all must confront is that lives are being lost and the economy will continue to sputter because of it.

  • The Warning They Are Shouting

    America is on the precipice of a dangerous crisis.  The warnings are being signaled to all of us in public.  If it explodes into view, it’s legacy will cut to the core of what it means to live in a republic, what it means to maintain a standing Army in our nation, and, yet, its importance is under-appreciated by most of us.  Let me explain.

    Sunday night was a dangerous and violent night in many American cities.  Peaceful protests of the murder of George Floyd gave way to physical altercations, vandalism, and looting in several cities.  Monday dawned and the president sought to assert his authority amidst the break-down of civil order. Word leaked that the president berated state governors for looking weak in the face of the protests and warning he would send U.S. troops into the streets to restore order.  Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was quoted telling the governors they had to “dominate the battlespace.” 

    On Monday evening, just before the president spoke in the White House rose garden, uniformed secret service and mounted police drove peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue.  After speaking with the press, President Trump walked across the park for a photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Secretary of Defense Mark Esper joined him, as did Attorney General William Barr, and other members of the president’s team.

    By Monday night, military helicopters were hovering low over protestors in Washington, using the down-wash of their rotors to try to disperse the crowd.  By Tuesday, reports were circulating that elements of the 82nd Airborne and the 91st Military Police Battalion were deployed at military bases in the DC area.

    The combination of the threat to turn the U.S. military against U.S. civilian protestors and the scenes from Lafayette Square sparked something among those who have had the highest authority in the U.S. military in the Trump administration and others.  It began with a Tweet just before 7 PM on Monday from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Demsey, USA.  He wrote, “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”

    On Tuesday, Jim Miller, a former Obama-era defense official, publicly resigned from the Defense Science Board.  In his letter, he cited the oath he took to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” and Secretary Esper’s characterization of America’s streets as a “battle space.”

    Elsewhere, others much closer to the administration sought to distance themselves from rhetoric that risked putting American troops into American streets to fight American citizens.  President Trump’s hand-picked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, USA, reminded the service chiefs and their troops that they swore an oath “to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it,” including the promise that citizens have a right to “freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”

    Also on Tuesday, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, USN, wrote powerfully in The Atlantic that “Even admidst the carnage we are witnessing . . . American cities and towns [are] our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not ‘battle spaces’ to be dominated, and must never become so.”

    On Wednesday, June 3, Chief of the National Guard Bureau General Joseph L. Lengyel, USAF, expressed his outrage at the death of George Floyd, and the loss of others to “extrajudicial violence.”  He acknowledged America’s painful history on race and urged all citizens to do better.  Then he reminded those who serve in the uniform of this nation that they take “an oath to uphold the Constitution and everything for which it stands.”

    Finally, by the end of the day on Wednesday, we were all reading the statement from President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis, USMC. He began by heralding the “tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values. . . as people and . . . as a nation.”  He referred to the oath he took to the U.S. Constitution 50 years ago and admitted that “never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens. . . .”  Like others, he repudiated Secretary Esper’s characterization of America’s cities as “battle space” to be dominated.

    Taken together, these statements are a stunning rebuke of President Trump and Secretary Esper from a collection of retired civilian and uniformed military leaders.  With one voice, they warn about the dangers of thinking of American citizens as insurgents to be suppressed and American cities as “battle space.”  They remind all of us that we are citizens of a republic who owe our loyalty to our Constitution and the values it enshrines, not to any individual politician.

    As inspired and as hopeful as I am that these men, who all committed their lives to service of the United States, spoke out, I am alarmed that they felt compelled to do so in such rapid succession, one after the other.  That is the crisis playing out in these passages. Seasoned American leaders who have been entrusted with the gravest of responsibilities, recognize the peril to our Constitutional form of government and to our republic—not from protesters in the streets, but from the ill-informed, ill-advised, and ill-tempered man in the White House.

  • 781 Per Day

    Grieving is a highly personal experience.  When I worked in the U.S. Senate at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had the solemn privilege of attending several funerals for fallen American service members at Arlington National Cemetery.  For all of the precision and uniformity of a military ceremony, each funeral, each graveside service, was different—reflecting the wishes of family or the fallen heroes themselves.  The one constant was that each was unbearably sad.

    In the eight years of the Iraq War (2003-2011), the United States lost 4,497 service members.  That’s about 2 deaths per day in that war alone.  In World War II, an average of 297 Americans died on each day of the war.  In America’s most deadly war, our Civil War, the rate of death for Americans on both sides of the battle was about 520 deaths per day.  But in the 128 days since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States (January 21, 2020), more than 100,000 Americans have died—that’s an average of 781 deaths each day for more than 4 months. 

    In today’s media environment, we can stare at a fixed point with surgical precision 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Reporters will camp outside a Congressional witness’ home for days or even weeks to grab footage of the person in the limelight.  Media can bring us together to grieve for one person with reverence and poignancy, peeling back the layers of meaning in an individual’s life.  And media can help us grieve in mass casualty events—such as after Sandy Hook or Charleston or even 9/11.

    But today’s media—both broadcast and print—is ill equipped to report on the 781 lives lost each day over the last four months.  Even before local newsrooms started hemorrhaging jobs and reporters, the sheer volume of death makes that kind of hyper-local reporting impossible to do on a national scale.  There just aren’t enough reporters or column-inches.  As a result, there is no single repository of memories of those lost to COVID-19.  There is no “Faces of the Fallen” for people struck down by this virus.  There is no opportunity for us to grieve and remember, collectively, our fellow-citizens.  There are, instead, the most impersonal statistics about infections and deaths all expressed in line graphs.

    It’s here that leadership matters.

    In this moment, we need leaders who will lead: in our mourning; in our grieving; and ultimately, in our healing.  Leaders shouldn’t be so afraid of the virus that they ignore or gloss over the frightful human toll it has taken on on our country, on 100,000 families, on thousands of communities.  We need leaders to help us find meaning in all of this loss, to buoy our resolve for the difficult challenges that still lie ahead.  We need leaders to tell families and friends of all those who have died that this great nation mourns with you.

    At some point, we will have a conversation about the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. We’ll debate whether their actions were sufficient.  We’ll argue over whether there was more that could have been done—that should have been done. 

    But for now, I’d be content for a leader to emerge who understands that in this moment we need someone who will walk with us through the challenges of life.  Who willingly leaps into the trenches with us when the fighting is dirty and the loss weighs heavy on our souls. 

    The most searing memory I have of the funerals I attended at Arlington was for a soldier whose wife found in his death more pain than she could bear.  I recall her standing in the sunlight that day, her shoulders heaving with each sob, and hoping she knew that she wasn’t alone in her grief.  Assembled on the grass in section 60 of the cemetery that day were two U.S. Senators, several generals, chaplains, honor guards, family members, friends, and others.  We did not all know her or her husband, but we were all there to show our respect and to offer comfort, even if it was with nothing more than our presence.

    With a virus that makes in-person, collective mourning impossible, now more than ever we need leaders who can bring us together to mourn as a nation; to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, as one people; to remind us that love is real; and that, yes, we will get through this together.

  • We Will Never Surrender

    On Monday afternoon, the stock market responded to news that an experimental vaccine had successfully produced an antibody response in the first six individuals to receive it as part of a phase 1 clinical trial.  One day later, the market dropped precipitously in its closing moments on news that it was too early for this particular vaccine candidate to be declared successful.  It was a whip-saw reaction that feels particularly apt in this moment.  We’re all so eager to get back to normal that we leap at unvetted news from a corporation about a product it’s developing with the determination of a drowning person reaching for a life-saver.

    I get it.  We all want this thing to be over.  We want our lives back.  We want our jobs back.  We want to see our friends and our families.  We want the virus to just disappear.

    But as my sister likes to say, “Wanting ain’t getting.”  And hope is not a strategy.

    The closest historical analogy I’ve been able to come up with is “war weariness.”  There are countless examples throughout history when a people grew tired of the sacrifice and the hardships of continued combat.  It’s a problem for any society engaged in war, no matter how they are governed, but it’s especially dangerous in democracies where public support is essential to the legitimacy and ultimately the success of the war effort.  Once people no longer support a war, a democracy won’t long be able to fight that war. 

    That was the moment facing the British Empire eighty years ago this month, in May of 1940, after the British Army had to be evacuated from Dunkirk.  Having suffered a great defeat on the continent, British politics split between those who favored accommodation with Germany and those around Winston Churchill who believed they should fight. 

    Despite the recent Hollywood portrayal of Churchill taking inspiration from the tenacity of the British people, make no mistake it was Churchill’s leadership that steeled British resolve and steadied a nervous nation.  It was Churchill’s bombast and bravado, his precise understanding of what was at stake, and his ability to communicate determination and to find martial valor in unqualified disaster that sustained the British war effort through the war’s darkest hours.

    That is what great leaders do.  They don’t simply win elections.  They stand for things greater than themselves, greater than any one of us.  They call us together.  They inspire our confidence, and they make us believe that we can prevail in the face of great peril even at the expense of great sacrifice.

    Today we face an adversary in the form of COVID-19, and after three months, we are all tired of living this way.  We would rather go out without face masks.  We would rather be able to hug our parents or grab a beer with our friends.  We want to be able to dine in restaurants, get our hair cut, and just get back to normal.

    That spirit, that sentiment is as old as humanity and it manifests itself anytime we face grave dangers like war and disease. 

    But history teaches us that we don’t always pick the timing of our wars, and we don’t ever pick the timing of pandemics—not when they start, and certainly not when they will end. 

    And if our fight, in this moment, lacks a Churchill to guide us through dark days or replace our war weariness with resolve, then we can write our own history in the countless acts of individual Americans led by science and compassion to wear masks, to social distance, and to look out for the most vulnerable among us.

  • Living with Neurological Disease with Lisa Genova

    Rebroadcast Dates: May 18-24, 2020

    Air Dates: July 8-14, 2019

    An estimated 5.6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s today. Another 100,000 are living with ALS—or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lisa Genova is a brain scientist whose best-selling novels describe not what it’s like to die from these diseases, but what it means to live with them. 

    Dr. Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who broke into the public’s consciousness with her novel, Still Alice. Likened to Oliver Sacks and Michael Crichton, her fiction combines her mastery of brain science and her insights into the human condition. Her other novels include Left Neglected, Love Anthony, Inside the O’Briens, and, most recently, Every Note Played.

    In 2015, the Pell Center honored Genova with the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. She’s a scientist and a story-teller who sees the power of storytelling to harness empathy that can change the world.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.