Erik Larson’s latest best seller, the “Splendid and the Vile,” is a fascinating telling of the challenges faced by Winston Churchill and the British people in 1940 and 1941. It’s hard not to contrast Churchill’s leadership and public reaction to today’s events and the leadership of President Donald Trump.
It highlights why President Trump’s approach to leadership will likely fail. He has not risen to the occasion, as many governors have done. He cannot pull his country together around a collective national strategy to fight the war on the pandemic. His vanity clouds his judgement and produces missteps and lost opportunities. He’s good at aspirations; lousy at realistic expectations. His latest action, taking hydroxychloroquine, is irresponsible.
Larson quotes many memorable Churchill lines – “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” One that is not included because it wasn’t delivered until September 1943 at Harvard is “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
Contrast those words with President Trump’s when asked about shortcomings in coronavirus testing on March 13: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Testing is still a problem as Trump waffles between declaring victory — “we have prevailed” — and blaming previous administrations – “the shelves were bare.”
On March 6, he declared, with his Centers for Disease Control director and Health and Human Services secretary beside him, that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.” Two months later, May 11, he said again “If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.” It wasn’t true in March and it isn’t true now.
It’s a consistent pattern. He blames others when challenged. He disputes science, argues with experts and accepts and promotes bizarre and dangerous theories. In March, he started promoting hydroxychloroquine only to be convinced that giving the malaria drug to COVID-19 patients may be dangerous. Yet on May 18 he stunned reporters and medical exerts when he announced that, despite warnings from his own administration, he had been taking it for about two weeks.
In late April he suggested that injecting disinfectant into the body and irradiating it with UV light might be treatments for the virus. He did note, “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”
Many of his supporters will forever argue that his off-the-wall comments are just a matter of Trump being Trump. They point to policies they like as enough to dismiss the foolishness.
Larson in his book also looks at the German side of the war. He quotes one of Germany’s top fighter pilots, Adolf Galland, who called Hermann Goring’s Luftwaffe intelligence chief, Beppo Schmid, “a complete wash-out as intelligence officer … Goring was easily influenced by a small clique of sycophants ... his favor could only be won by means of constant flattery, intrigue and expensive gifts.” Larson writes that Goring “trusted Schimd as a friend but, more importantly, reveled in the happy news that he seemed always ready to provide.”
Across the English Channel, no one reveled in happy news. Instead, in September 1939 England was preparing for bombings and an invasion to come. A flyer, Beating the Invader, urged everyone to “heed any government advisory to evacuate.” It included specific instructions to disrupt the enemy. The government issued 35 million gas masks to civilians. It wasn’t until May 1940 that the bombs started to fall. But the plan for the civilian population was in place and being executed.
On May 10, Churchill became prime minister. On May 13, Max Aitken -- Lord Beaverbrook – agreed to head aircraft production. According to Larson, “Beaverbrook could be counted on for candor … and to deliver advice without regard for politics or personal feelings.” Churchill wasn’t looking for flattery, or intrigue.
Just over a month on the job Lord Beaverbrook gave England’s War Cabinet his first update on aircraft production. He had “infuriated other ministers,” but he was getting the job done quickly -- aircraft and engine production were both up nearly 50 percent from just a month earlier.
In Washington recently, in testimony and a whistleblower complaint, Dr. Rick Bright, who was fired as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, accuses the president and his administration of failing to protect lives of front-line workers. He points to failure to take control of mask production and distribution. Bright cited the lack of a “single point of leadership” and lack of a master plan. He still thinks that’s the case as he pleads even today for action.
Donald Trump needs a Lord Beaverbrook. Instead he too is surrounded by sycophants. With few exceptions, the capable, the ones who “speak truth to power,” the ones with experience, the ones who prepared plans and practiced for the eventual pandemic are gone. And so too is American leadership to address a world-wide crisis.
Carl Gustin is Gloucester resident who writes occasionally on national, regional and local issues.