WASHINGTON – In the rubble of buildings and lives, modern U.S. presidents have met national trauma with words such as these: “I can hear you.” “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything.” “We have wept with you; we’ve pulled our children tight.”
As diverse as they were in eloquence and empathy, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each had his own way of piercing the noise of catastrophe and reaching people.
But now, the known U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is fast approaching 100,000 on the watch of a president whose communication skills, potent in a political brawl, are not made for this moment.
Impeachment placed one indelible mark on Donald Trump's time in the White House. Now there is another, a still-growing American casualty list that has exceeded deaths from the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. U.S. fatalities from the most lethal hurricanes and earthquakes pale by comparison. This is the deadliest pandemic in a century.
Actual deaths from COVID-19 are almost certainly higher than the numbers show, an undercount to be corrected in time.
At every turn Trump has asserted the numbers would be worse without his leadership. Yet the toll keeps climbing. It is well beyond what he told people to expect even as his public-health authorities started bracing the country in early April for at least 100,000 deaths.
“I think we’ll be substantially under that number,” he said April 10.“ Ten days later: ”We're going toward 50- or 60,000 people." Ten days after that: “We’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000.” Though critics have said the toll shot up because he was slow to respond, he contended Tuesday it could have been 25 times higher without his actions.
The scale and swiftness of the pandemic's killing are unlike anything that confronted Trump's recent predecessors. Yet the calamity offers no where-were-you moment — no flashpoint turning blue skies black, no fusillade at an elementary school. Instead the toll unfolds in stages of sickness.
The pandemic is playing out in a divided country under a president who thrives on rousing his supporters and getting a rise out of those who don't like him, whether that means forgoing a mask, playing golf while millions hunker down or thrashing opponents on Twitter. He lowered flags to half staff to recognize those who have died from the virus but had them back up days before the 100,000 marker was reached.
His feelings on Tuesday? He tweeted to “all the political hacks out there” that without his leadership the lives lost would be far worse than the “100,000 plus that looks like will be the number.”
Early on, when only a few hundred had died, Trump was asked at a briefing what message he had for Americans who were scared. “You're a terrible reporter, that’s what I say,” he responded. “I think it’s a very nasty question.”
In the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook school and other national nightmares that brought flags to half staff, presidents found more soothing words for the frightened and grieving than Trump's boilerplate line that one death is too many.
Empathy was Clinton's wheelhouse. The rhetorically fumbly Bush grabbed eloquence by the bullhorn. The cool and controlled Obama cried.
Trump? “I've never seen a president with less capacity for empathy,” said Andrew J. Polsky, a political science professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, who has studied such leadership traits for decades. “He doesn't even try. ... It's way outside his emotional comfort zone."
Clinton's touchy-feely ways are forever symbolized by his assurance that “I feel your pain," which did not come from a tragic moment at all but rather an epic smackdown of a heckler. Challenged by an AIDS activist in New York in 1992 who said the Democratic candidate was more about ambition than achievement, Clinton told the man “I know how it hurts ... I feel your pain” but “quit talking to me like that.”
“I'm sick and tired of all these people who don't know me, know nothing about my life ... making snotty-nosed remarks about how I haven't done anything in my life,” Clinton told the crowd and the activist.
But Clinton's remarks as president at the memorial service for the victims of the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist attack in 1995 exemplified compassionate leadership and helped dig him out of a political hole.
“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything,” he told the bereaved families. “And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
Henry Cisneros, his housing secretary, told the University of Virginia's Miller Center that Clinton that day and Bush at smoldering ground zero six years later did what presidents are called to do.
“There are moments when — and I think 9/11 was that for President Bush — you realize this is not about politics and this is not about momentary victories and this is not about your own legacy,” he said. “It's about the burden you’re carrying for the people.”
Bush, in off-the-cuff words through a bullhorn to New York firefighters straining to hear him, bellowed: “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” That was three days after Islamic terrorism laid waste to the World Trade Center and a chunk of the Pentagon.
Three days after that, Bush visited a mosque to make common cause with American Muslims facing hate on the streets because of the extremists from abroad. “Islam is peace,” he said. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America.”
Masterful oratory brought Obama to national prominence, and measured calm marked his demeanor as president. Unlike his emotional vice president, Joe Biden, Obama practiced his own kind of social distancing, to the point of aloofness.
The murder of 20 “beautiful little children” and six adults at Sandy Hook brought a different Obama to the podium the day of the attack, as he swiped at his tears a half dozen times in a brief statement and spoke of hugging America's children and his own “a little tighter” than before.
He told mourners at Newtown's prayer vigil two days later that “all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight." He talked about the teacher who told terrified kids in a barricaded room, “show me your smile," and about the child who told terrified teachers: “I know karate. So it’s OK. I’ll lead the way out.”
Obama spoke admiringly during his presidency of “the incredible strength and resolve” of Bush's bullhorn speech, despite their differences over the Iraq war and other matters of policy. In the midst of a catastrophe or when looking back on it, presidents cite the words of predecessors to project continuity and grace.
This, too, is not Trump's way. He attacks Obama and snorts at Bush's appeal from retirement for empathy and unity at a time of national emergency.
“He’s a human being with certain qualities,” Polsky said of Trump. In this crisis, “these qualities haven’t been useful because they don’t unite people, they don’t express concern for people’s well-being.”
Trump came to power mirroring the grievances, anger and resentment of those who felt forgotten, Polsky said, and he remains angry, resentful and aggrieved — you could say true to himself.