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What Americans are looking for from leaders at a time of extraordinary loss

More than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 so far -- a number unimaginable before the pandemic began. The U.S. has nearly 30 percent of reported deaths worldwide. How does this tragic moment fit into American historical context? Judy Woodruff talks to Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a toll unimaginable to many before the pandemic started. More than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 so far.

    To try to get some perspective on this moment, I'm joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Andy Slavitt. He's former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He's been a notable health voice about all of this. He hosts a podcast, "In The Bubble."

    Welcome to both of you.

    Michael Beschloss, to you first.

    This is a number that's, I think, almost impossible for us to conceive, this many deaths in such a short time, just a matter of three months. Is there any calamity in American history, what — or maybe I should ask, what calamity can you compare this to in American history?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, this is — even if the deaths did not grow any larger, this would be one of the great calamities and one of the terrible experiences of American history that our descendants will unfortunately be reading about.

    And you have to go back to the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. That was 670,000 Americans who lost their lives. But that was over a century ago, and that was the time before modern medicine. To think that we could suffer losses like this, and they may be growing and they may be a lot larger, that's something that's going to loom very large in American history.

    It's a somber evening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andy Slavitt, I looked it up. This — the United States has something like 4.5 percent of the global population, and yet our number of COVID deaths are around 30 percent of the global number.

    And yet here we are, the richest country in the world, with some of the most as advanced medicine and science. How could this have happened?

  • Andy Slavitt:

    Well, I think we're going to have a couple of levels of regrets.

    You know, first, I think, in advance of the — of COVID coming here, not recognizing what was going on in Beijing, and then in Wuhan, even as we were being warned, not keeping a stockpile ready, not being prepared to contain the virus, you know, those are all things, I think, that are pretty well-known.

    And I think there are some estimates on lives that could have been saved. I think, once things came here, our response was a little bit more hands-off and tepid than in other countries around the world. I don't think the federal government wanted to embrace ownership of the challenge, as had happened in other parts of the world.

    And so you — even seeing the president come out every day wearing a mask would have made an enormous difference, in taking a little bit of medicine early, so that we could have saved some lives. We would have opened up the economy earlier.

    And, today, I think we're still in a similar spot, where we are declaring victory in a manner of speaking, deciding that this is over, when the virus is really still here. It's still as deadly. It's still as contagious.

    And so I worry that we continue to make some of the same mistakes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, how do you compare this president's leadership at this time with the leadership of other presidents who have led this country through war, through pandemics, and the rest of it?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Right. That's really what you have to compare it to, Judy.

    And here's a case where, you know, in a time of war, a time of Great Depression, you know, you want a president, first of all, to show empathy, that he understands what's going on.

    Abraham Lincoln, for instance, at the height of the Civil War, so many people were dying. They came to Lincoln and they said, we need to build another cemetery. Where do you want it? And Lincoln said, build it near my summer home, so that every single day I see the graves being dug, and I'm reminded of all the casualties that are occurring because of the decisions that I'm making.

    People might say Lincoln was making mistakes, but they never doubted that his heart was in it and he was trying to work 140 percent to try to get this war over as soon as possible.

    Another thing that people expect in a crisis like this is a president to unify the country. That's part of his oath to defend the Constitution, you know, make this a more perfect union.

    You don't normally, in crisis times, see a president who is doing any less than that, any less than trying to get Americans to come together behind a plan.

    And the other thing is that, in a political year — you know, we have had presidents run for reelection before. 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term at a time that many Americans were terrified of a war with Japan or Germany that might kill members of their family.

    Rather than try to say, I'm an isolationist, to get votes, Roosevelt said, to try to keep war away, we need to strengthen our defense, and we also need a military draft. Lost him votes, but it was the right thing to do.

    That's what great leaders do in time of an election year that's at a time of crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And pick up on that, Andy Slavitt.

    You mentioned masks a moment ago. You mentioned the slowness in some quarters. Clearly, there are some people who praised President Trump for closing the country off to visitors from China.

    But there's also been a lot of criticism. What else do — does one look for at a moment like this from a president, at a moment of health crisis?

  • Andy Slavitt:

    Well, look, I think Michael has it exactly right.

    What I think, from a communications standpoint, the president probably underestimated and I think still underestimates is Americans' tolerance for bad news delivered straight that helps them. I don't think the public here expect any more of a miracle than we — was expected anywhere in the world.

    We expected competency, direct facts, transparent information. And I think, if he would have delivered that — look, it's impossible to get an A in this. This is not a crisis he invented. He inherited it.

    But, as David Frum said to me, it is easy to get a B. And getting a B is a lot about what Michael talked about. It's about showing empathy. It's about being transparent. It's about being straight with people.

    A number of governors have done that. And while those things, day in and day out, may not have been as important as some of the things that I mentioned earlier in terms of preventing lives, they would have helped keep this country sustained and get people through a difficult time, and probably, for his own political standpoint, would have been a — I think he would have been rewarded politically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, I want to finally ask both of you about the American people.

    How have Americans come through crises like this, calamities like this in the past, and what does that say about how we're likely to come through this?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, the good news, Judy, is, look at all the things we have been through since the beginning of this country, from Valley Forge, to terrible natural disasters, to depressions and wars, and all of that.

    Here we are in 2020. The American people have this amazing ability to bind together and to be resilient, even if their leadership is not perfect. So, I would say that, if history tells us anything — and, in my line of work, we think it tells us a lot — it would suggest that the result of this will be, assuming that we survive and assuming that the country sticks together, we will survive and prosper in a way that might even make this a better society.

    At the end of World War II, we came back from Europe and from Asia, our soldiers did, and said that we only finished part of the job when we defeated the Germans and the Japanese. Now we have to bring equal rights to all Americans. We have to make sure that every American gets the blessings of American prosperity.

    That had not happened before World War II. So, the optimistic view is to think that perhaps at the end of this crisis, we will be in a situation where we discover needs and ambitions that we didn't know before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Andy Slavitt, just in about 30 seconds, how do you see the American people coming through this?

  • Andy Slavitt:

    Well, look, I'm not going to repeat what Michael said, because he's exactly right.

    What I think we should do on a day like today is just salute and thank every single first responder, essential worker, health care provider, doctor, nurse. They have been true heroes. And we owe them a debt of gratitude that is going to be very difficult to repay.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure. And we cannot say that often enough. We thank each and every one of them.

    And we thank both of you, Andy Slavitt, Michael Beschloss. We appreciate it.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thank you.

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