WASHINGTON — Not since 9/11 has the importance of eloquence been so apparent.
For the past several days, Americans have heard two public officials’ very different ways of speaking and learned why fluency and persuasion are so critical in times of crisis. This is true not only of content but also of bearing: How do the words and poses chosen by our leaders inform morale as we hunker down in our homes?
On one screen Monday, President Trump spoke at length about himself and at times about COVID-19. More than once, he wandered off script, at one point talking about how many billions of dollars he could have made had he not become president. But, he added, he was glad he had because he’s now a wartime president and, presumably, one was to infer, the country needs him.
How are people supposed to feel when they hear this? To each his own, but I fear that a selfish child is in control of our fates.
On another screen, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo updated New Yorkers and the nation on the virus in his state. Unlike Trump’s self-indulgent soliloquies, Cuomo’s statements were straightforward, honest, factual and, despite the dire statistics, refreshingly reassuring. He understands that adults can absorb information and respond appropriately.
As of Tuesday, Cuomo reported that New York had more than 25,000 cases of COVID-19, about seven times more than New Jersey, which has about 3,600 cases, and more than 10 times the number of the next two most infected states, California and Washington, each of which have around 2,200 cases. The apex of New York’s crisis will come sooner and will be higher than expected, he said. The state has only about two to three weeks before the worst-case scenario arrives. Cuomo said the state needs 30,000 ventilators before then.
Cuomo came down hard on the federal government for stockpiling 20,000 ventilators desperately needed in New York. He suggested that the feds deploy the ventilators according to need, then rotate them out to the next state as its apex is reached, and so on.
“How can we be in a situation where you can have New Yorkers possibly dying because they can’t get a ventilator, but a federal agency saying I’m going to leave the ventilators in the stockpile?” he asked. “I mean, have we really come to that point?”
No doubt, many are wishing Cuomo were president right now, as suggested by a hashtag trending on Twitter — #CuomoForPresident. His in-charge demeanor and straight talk remind us of what a leader looks and acts like.
Trump has done some good things, such as closing down traffic from China and speeding up the use of experimental drugs, but there’s more he could and should do. Only on Tuesday did reports emerge that the administration would formally implement the Defense Production Act to secure production of masks and test kits. This is such an easy call, but Trump dilly-dallied. He equivocated. He scared people.
Monday, he and Cuomo expressed nearly the same idea but in such different ways. Guess which one was terrifying and which sounded plausible and realistic?
Trump signaled that he was thinking of “opening up” the country to avoid allowing the cure to be worse than the problem. He probably meant that shutting down the economy might hurt the U.S. more than the virus. His solution, however, would be to end lockdowns even as the virus is spreading.
Cuomo framed nearly the same idea in a vastly different way. Explaining that we had hit pause to grapple with the sudden crisis, he said it was now time to begin thinking about how to re-enter the private sector. He suggested that young, healthy people might be able to go back to work, as could those who have had the virus and are now immune.
One man drops a word bomb; the other explains his thoughts in logical fashion so that people can follow his reasoning and arrive at the same conclusion.
We like to say that some people are just “born leaders,” but we all know, instinctively, that the best leaders are not so much born as made, made in unexpected moments they didn’t choose and could not have foreseen. George W. Bush’s most-eloquent moment consisted of 11 words. “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you!” he shouted through a bullhorn to first-responders as they dug through the debris of the World Trade Center. In those few words, Bush connected the world to America and made America’s loss the loss of a wider world.
Cuomo’s moment has arrived. As he wrapped up Tuesday morning, his throat seemed to tighten as he expressed his love for New York and said: “At the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day … love wins, always, and it will win again through this virus.”
Give that man a bullhorn.