The coronavirus has exposed millions of people to potential illness. It has also exposed something equally alarming and extremely concerning for the long-term health of the world as we know it. The coronavirus has exposed the death of statesmanship.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 America rallied together around President Bush and united in the efforts to rebuild and to protect ourselves against future attacks. Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, was the Senate majority leader. Ironically, he was sharing good conversation and a cup of coffee with Republican Sen. John Glenn of Ohio on the morning of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Mr. Daschle didn’t criticize President Bush. He didn’t blame him or conjure up images of Mr. Bush somehow laying the groundwork that made America vulnerable to such an attack. He didn’t pick and parse at every phrase the president uttered in the hours and days after the attack.
Instead, the Democratic senator and Republican Speaker of the House Denny Hastert gave brief unifying speeches from the Capitol, followed by members of Congress and staff from both parties and holding hands and singing “God Bless America.” In this dark hour of American history, statesmanship and unity carried the day.
Likewise in 1981, when President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in an assassination attempt, partisan bickering was absent. Reagan famously joked with the doctors immediately before his surgery that he hoped they were Republican. Dr. Joe Giordano replied to the President, “Today Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”
The speaker of the House at the time was a Democrat from Massachusetts, an Irishman by the name of Tip O’Neill. O’Neill and Reagan did not see eye to eye on any number of political issues, but the very first person to visit with the president in his hospital room, other than family and top administration officials, was Speaker O’Neill. There was no attempt to exploit the moment for political gain. Instead, the two men prayed together.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the United States suffered an unprovoked attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 Americans were killed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was widely reported to have displayed a calm and steely determination in determining America’s response. The following day in an address to the nation, Roosevelt called on Congress to declare war on Japan. About an hour later, Congress did exactly that. Every senator and every Member of the House except one, supported the president’s call to action. The good of the nation clearly took precedent over politics as usual.
In 2020, however, such statesmanship appears to be dead.
The coronavirus came to the world’s attention in January, and by Jan. 31, President Trump had called for restrictions on travel to/from China, the place of origin for the illness. His prompt and decisive action was met by derision from Democrats. Some inexplicably called it racism. In a Feb. 5 tweet, Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said “the premature travel ban to and from China by the administration is just an excuse to further his ongoing war against immigrants.”
As it turned out, Mr. Trump’s quick action may have been an essential step in minimizing the impact in the United States. European countries did not embrace such a travel ban in the same timely manner and as a result have had far higher rates of infection. In fact, throughout the crisis the U.S. has consistently remained among the lowest infection rates per capita of all the countries on earth. The statistics are constantly changing, but these numbers will help clarify how important Mr. Trump’s early action was.
Country infections per 100,000 population
South Korea 15.5
United States 0.5
Considering the markedly lower infection rate per capita than most of the world, clearly someone in the U.S. government is doing something right, but that hasn’t stemmed the criticism from the opposing political party.
The same Chuck Schumer who criticized the Trump administration for acting too quickly with the China travel ban took a different approach as the coronavirus crisis wore on. He deleted his earlier tweet and on Feb. 24 and issued a statement accusing Mr. Trump of “towering incompetence” and saying that the “President has been slow to take action to confront the virus abroad.” Fact check: When the president took action there were 6 cases of coronavirus reported in the United States and no deaths.
On March 10, Mr. Schumer upped the political game even more. “I’m going to be blunt,” he said. “We are very worried about the President’s incompetence and lack of focus on fighting the spread of coronavirus. One word could describe thus far the administration’s response. Incompetence.”
Please see the above statistics with the U.S. infection rate vs. the world. They seem remarkably competent.
Democrats must have worked up a talking points sheet on the issue because Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was singing from the same hymn book as Mr. Schumer, complaining of “incompetence and recklessness.”
What is really reckless is putting politics above national unity in a time of trouble. Exploiting the fears of millions of Americans in hopes of gaining a political advantage is the exact opposite of statesmanship. It is disgraceful.
We have seen such recklessness from other parts of the globe. A Saudi writer accused Qatar of paying billions to plant the virus in China with the somewhat dubious logic that it was done to harm the launch of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. Bahrain’s interior minister accused Iran of “biological aggression.” Last week, Iran’s foreign minister accused the United States of “medical terrorism” and this week, China’s foreign ministry suggested the U.S. may have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, China.
Granted, the Saudis, Iran and China are not necessarily where I would expect the apex of statesmanship, but I do expect more out of the leadership of a major American political party.
On Thursday of this week, former Vice President Joe Biden held a press conference to unveil his approach to handling the pandemic. It was an opportunity for the Democratic frontrunner to appear presidential. He started out hitting the right notes, calling for unity and working together. He offered some specific suggestions on ways to address the issue. Mr. Biden, however, couldn’t resist the temptation to criticize our president and criticize he did. By my count, there were eight different areas in the speech where Mr. Biden took Mr. Trump to task, criticized him or outright blamed him for issues relating to the coronavirus. Mr. Biden’s roadmap, as he called it, could have been a highlight, an essential element in his quest for the presidency but instead dissolved into an exercise in partisan bickering and shameless self promotion. Even the old school statesman couldn’t be a true statesman when the moment called for it in 2020.
In the late stages of the 2012 presidential race between incumbent President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, America was attacked. On Sept. 11, 2012, radical Islamists stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, set it on fire, fired rockets and killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. That same day in Egypt, angry radical Islamists stormed the American Embassy in Cairo, tore down and burned the American flag, and hoisted the black flag of al Qaeda. Similar actions took place in Tunisia.
For months, Mr. Obama had been claiming that al Qaeda was on the run. It would have been easy for Mr. Romney to capitalize on the glaring weakness our foreign policy demonstrated on that fateful day. It would have been simple to exploit the video of Mr. Obama that was played the very same day at an Arab gathering where he praised Arab Spring, but to do so would have further weakened not only the president, but also the U.S. standing around the globe. Mr. Romney chose statesmanship over politics in a time of international upheaval. It may have cost him the election, but I am willing to bet if you asked him, Mr. Romney would make the same choice again.
Where is such statesmanship in 2020? If the coronavirus really is the worldwide pandemic that elected officials are proclaiming on a daily basis, why are they not striking a chord of unity? Why are they not explaining to America how together we can overcome this challenge, but instead telling Americans from coast to coast they should be upset with the administration for it? Why is Nancy Pelosi not sitting in the Oval Office with President Trump making plans together?
It seems the greatest casualty of the 2020 coronavirus death toll may be statesmanship itself.