When faced with a national tragedy or crisis, who does the nation turn to?
By Paul Gilbert & Dave Spencer
There was a time not so long ago that the President of the United States was considered the leader of the free world. Now, amidst a perfect storm of a pandemic, the free fall of the US economy and massive civil unrest over police killings of blacks and racial inequality, we have a president who has proven time and time again that he possesses none of the leadership qualities that the office demands.
It often defies belief, but somehow Donald Trump continues to lower the bar for inflammatory rhetoric, irrational action (and lack of action) and any sense of empathy. But rather than search for novel ways to criticize the president, an exercise in futility, we can instead look back over the last forty years, to see what previous presidents said and did when faced with national tragedies and crises. Republicans and Democrats alike, they were each able to rise to the occasion and speak with compassion and conviction, reaching out to all Americans to unite the country. In times of disharmony, trauma and fear, they acted truly presidential.
On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger blasted off the launch pad, with roughly 17 percent of the populace watching on live television, many because of the presence of high school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, America’s first civilian astronaut. 73 seconds into its flight, the spacecraft broke apart killing all seven crew members aboard.
The space program had long been a source of patriotism and pride and the explosion shook the psyche of the entire nation. It was up to President Ronald Reagan to frame the disaster in a way that both paid tribute to the astronauts and their families, and to reaffirm our commitment to explore the galaxy. One of Reagan’s greatest skills was his ability to communicate honestly and with real authenticity, and in a moment of loss and sorrow, Americans needed their president to convey both sorrow and fortitude. His ability to go above the din of Washington, and speak directly to the American people also made his sympathy more genuine.
“For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”
On April 19, 1995, a rental truck exploded with terrifying force in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The powerful explosion blew off the building’s entire north wall, killing 168 people, including 19 children in the day care center, and injuring 650 others. The blast was so intense it damaged or destroyed over 300 buildings in the immediate area. And this was Americans committing a heinous act of violence against other Americans.
It was up to President Bill Clinton to address a nation reeling from this unprecedented act of domestic terrorism and in many ways, it became a classic example of a president, whose main achievement during his first two years was losing Democratic control of the House, growing into the job of a leader — absorbing and assuaging the country’s trauma with a combination of comfort and reassurance. Clinton not only communicated the government’s commitment to rally and rebuild the community, but to honor the dead by standing strong and adhering to our core principles.
“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes. Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.”
No one will ever forget the unspeakable horror of the World Trade Center Towers collapsing on September 11, 2001. With America attacked for the first time on its own soil, leaving almost 3,000 dead and 25,000 wounded, there was a visceral sense that our world had tilted on its axis and we weren’t safe in the face of terrorism. While President George W. Bush may have floundered in his first eight months of office, he rose to the occasion after 9/11 in what may have been his finest moment of leadership, uniting us to support each other and defy the forces of evil that threatened our nation.
“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”
The other thing Bush said that was so important was that we had to differentiate between the Islam that Americans practice and the Islam of terror and war, which allowed Americans to say well, if the president says that, I can feel that way, too.
“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
As staggering as the terrorist acts of Oklahoma City and 9/11 were, the mass shooting that killed 20 young children and six adults at a school in Sandy Hook, CT on December 14, 2012, staggered the entire country in shock and despair. The task of helping Americans comprehend such an inhumane and unconscionable act fell to President Barack Obama. In addition to addressing the public, he also visited the home of each family, knowing there is nothing worse for a parent than losing a child, especially in such a gruesome and senseless manner. Obama’s morality, veracity and integrity spoke volumes about America’s failure to address gun violence.
“Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?”
“I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
Now, we come to the present, where the current occupant of the Oval Office sows seeds of discord with his demagogic tweets, habitual falsehoods and rambling, at times incoherent, press conferences. Whether addressing the coronavirus, the economic devastation wreaked on Americans or police violence against the black community, the vacuum of leadership has never been more obvious. After the murder of George Lloyd and amidst the resulting nationwide demonstrations, who spoke of the change that our country desperately yearns for? It was left to Vice-President Joe Biden to deliver the presidential speech we all needed to hear starting with the words, “I Can’t Breathe.”
“I’ve said from the outset of this election, that we’re in the battle for the soul of this nation, and we are in the battle for the soul of this nation. When we believe it may be most importantly, who we want to be, is truer today than it has ever been, at least in my lifetime. And it’s in this urgency we can find a path forward.”
“We’re a nation in pain. We must not let our pain destroy us. We’re a nation enraged. We cannot let our rage consume us. We’re a nation that’s exhausted, but we will not allow our exhaustion defeat us. As president, my commitment to all of you is to lead on these issues and to listen, because I truly believe in my heart of hearts, we can overcome.”
As we approach the 2020 election, more and more people don’t want a president who’s going to keep burning down the house; they want a leader who’s going to help us trust our government again and find ways that we can work collectively, not how we can be divided. To do what’s best for all Americans, not just what’s best for him or his base. That’s what real leadership is. What America needs is a president who during times of crisis, speaks with honesty, intelligence and empathy, wholly committed to bringing us together, no matter how daunting the challenge.