What’s Missing in This Crisis? A Truthful President
The coronavirus is not the first national crisis that has confronted the United States. But it is unique in at least three ways. Unlike the great wars of the 20th century this crisis is focused on American citizens; and unlike the great depression this crisis threatens individuals’ health as much as their financial conditions. But the third unique condition is equally disturbing as it is both unnecessary and a direct contribution to the current condition — the absence of presidential credibility and candor.
From the very beginning, President Trump has failed to face the reality of the coronavirus threat. He has understated it, he has compared it to seasonal flu, he has predicted it would magically vanish, he has suggested cures that aren’t cures, and he has promised the immediate arrival of aid that is nowhere in sight. Most disturbingly, he has diminished and confused the clear and sober assessments of pandemic experts who are left with the uncomfortable duty of correcting him, often in his presence.
There is a proven playbook for presidents to follow during times of crisis. One of the lesser known American crises offers a good example, that being sixty years ago — the May 1960 shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, an ill-timed crisis confronting the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower in its last year.
When the U-2 failed to reach its landing field in Norway, Eisenhower’s senior staff knew the plane was down, but not that it had been shot down. The following day the administration released a pre-planned cover story that the missing plane was a NASA aircraft conducting high-altitude weather research, and had evidently wandered off course because of a mechanical problem. The cover story was feasible but was premised on the belief that a U-2 pilot could not possibly survive being shot down from the extreme altitudes where the aircraft operated.
But the cover story began to fray two days later when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced to a gathering of the Supreme Soviet that the plane was on a spying mission and had indeed been shot down deep inside Soviet territory. This revelation led Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Hagerty, to urge the president to release a statement refuting the allegations. However, Hagerty pushed this approach unaware of the U-2 program itself, much less the reality that Eisenhower himself tightly controlled it.
Knowing that any presidential statement would be a lie, Eisenhower’s principal staff aide, army Brigadier General Andrew Goodpaster, convinced the president to stick with the cover story. “We believed that others might do so, but the president himself could not lie to the American people,” Goodpaster would later recount. Accordingly, the weather plane cover story continued to be advanced by government spokesmen at both NASA and the State Department.
Two days later, however, Khrushchev added to his earlier bombshell by announcing the Soviets had captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, and were holding him in custody. The cover story previously spun by both NASA and the State Department suddenly was no longer tenable.
Some urged Eisenhower to deny responsibility for the program, but he refused to do so. Four days later he called a press conference where he announced that he had approved the flights (that had been on-going for four years) as they were essential for obtaining information about Soviet military activities and capabilities. As a result of this admission, a multi-lateral summit meeting with Khrushchev in Paris the following week, one that Eisenhower had hoped would capstone his presidency, collapsed when the Russian walked out after Eisenhower refused an apology.
How does the U-2 story relate to our current circumstances? It does in two ways. First, President Eisenhower had built up a reservoir of goodwill with the American people over his many years of service to the nation, most notably as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. Americans trusted and respected him, and he fully understood that such trust was an invaluable asset in times of crises. Taking responsibility and telling the truth was in his view the only honorable option. Accordingly, the public stuck with him. Although Eisenhower’s approval rating took a brief dip during the U-2 crisis, he left office eight months later with an approval rating of 60%, close to his average while in office.
Second, Eisenhower and Goodpaster knew that there would be times where the government would have to do “distasteful” things to keep its secrets. But if there was a need for public evasion or dishonesty, that should be handled by presidential aides and subordinates, not the president himself.
In the current coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration operates with these basic concepts turned on their head — as is obvious every day. Trump has constructed a professional career built on dishonesty and deception. His ardent supporters seemingly don’t care about his lack of credibility, but those disinclined to attend his staged rallies clearly do — and he has done nothing while in office to appeal to them or assuage this view.
And in stark contrast to Eisenhower, when Trump takes the lectern at his daily press briefings, he is the one propagating the daily “cover story” and leaving it to his subordinates to correct and condition his untrue or excessive assertions. Eisenhower personally told the truth and accepted responsibility; Trump does the opposite passing the burden of telling it like it actually is to others such as Dr. Anthony Fauchi and Dr. Deborah Birx.
Trump would do himself and the country a favor by adopting the Eisenhower approach and only saying something when he has something useful and accurate to say. In this case there is no cover story that needs to be advanced; we would all benefit if Trump would stop pushing one anyway in his efforts to dominate the daily news cycle and deflect from the shortcomings of his administration in dealing with this deadly pandemic.
M. Thomas Davis is a retired army Colonel and former corporate executive. He once worked with retired General Andrew J. Goodpaster at the Atlantic Council on nuclear weapons and national security issues.