Calvin Coolidge’s stance at the Boston Police Strike of 1919 catapulted him to national prominence, to his party’s vice presidential nomination a year later, and eventually to the presidency. Herbert Hoover’s achievement in feeding starving Europeans after World War I gave him the heroic status that led to the White House.
Wars, strikes, natural disasters, horrific spikes in deaths: They provide political leaders with immense challenges even as they display inherent character. So, too, has the COVID-19 virus that has become the greatest political challenge and revealer of political character of our time.
The 2020 pandemic has brought out remarkable strains of character from coast to coast. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State returned more than 400 ventilators his state received from the Strategic National Stockpile to the national inventory to assist states with fresh surges of the virus. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky declared one of the earliest states of emergency and put aside partisan differences to work closely with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of his state. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan stood firm under attack from President Donald J. Trump.
But four American political figures stood apart from the rest — and their life-saving and life-enhancing performances may eventually hold them in good standing, either in their own states or in eventual White House candidacies. Indeed, 17 of the nation’s presidents, including four of the five presidents between 1977 and 2009, had been governors.
“Recently we lost track of the important roles governors play,” said former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a onetime Democratic presidential candidate. “They hold a unified command and get ahead of a fast-moving crisis. These skills are not the scapegoating, stage buffoonery that excites the base. They are the leadership skills that save lives when a crisis hits.”
Here are four standout governors among many who have done just that:
Gavin Newsom, Democrat of California. Newsom slowly but deliberately shut down a nation-state with a population larger than Canada, two major metropolitan areas, 72 cities with populations over 100,000, 1,000 school districts, 12,234 preschools and day care centers, 76,201 restaurants and nearly 40 entertainment companies.
He created a series of testing “hubs” in partnership with the University of California campuses in San Diego and Davis, beat back rivals who questioned the closing of schools, and developed creative initiatives to provide child care for vital health care workers.
“He’s done a remarkable job,” said Mike Madrid, a California Republican political strategist. “I’ve been critical of his policies and the way he has handled governance. But he has set himself as one of the most effective governors in the country.”
Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio. A veteran political figure seldom known for inspiration or innovation, DeWine has been calm, even courtly, in guiding his state through the virus crisis.
He leaned heavily on state health director Amy Acton. The first governor to shut down schools, limit public gatherings and close bars and restaurants, he moved to postpone the state’s presidential primary.
Before a single case was diagnosed in Ohio, DeWine took the dramatic step of winning a court order to shut down much of the Arnold Sports Festival, which was expected to draw 18,000 athletes from 80 nations and provide an infusion of $53 million for the Columbus economy.
“He’s done very well,” said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who unseated DeWine, then the incumbent, in a bitter Senate race 14 years ago. “He’s got good character. He was smart, did things early, and listened to scientists and doctors. His actions saved lots of lives in Ohio.”
Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York. Even Democrats regarded Cuomo as arrogant, overconfident, overweening, even heartless. In this crisis, he has shown the warm compassion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of his Albany predecessors, and the steely intelligence of Mario M. Cuomo, his father.
He has spoken with feeling about the heavy losses his state has suffered, with determination in his effort to bring testing kits and ventilators into his state, and with unvarnished emotion as he told his broadcaster brother, “I love you.” His briefings became the kind of national television moments that politicians yearn for and yet they were delivered without self-consciousness and self-promotion.
“I’ve spent a lifetime on the other side of the Cuomos,” said former Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, a top Capitol Hill Republican elected to the state assembly the year Mario Cuomo became governor. “I’ve never been in love with them politically. But Andrew Cuomo has done an outstanding job. His honest advice, admitting when he hasn’t been right and publicly agonizing over difficult decisions have given the American people strength and encouragement through this crisis.”
Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland. He conducted a statewide “moment of prayer and reflections,” displayed social distancing by showing Marylanders his remote video meetings with his grandchildren, and created separate observation and isolation areas for residents of nursing homes as COVID-19 clusters emerged at more than five dozen senior care facilities.
Moreover, he put his characteristic bluntness in service, not only by invoking his position as chair of the National Governors Association to tell Trump that fellow state leaders were “not satisfied” with the federal response to the crisis. He also spoke frankly to state residents. “I want to be clear,” he said. “We now have a widespread community transmission. This virus is everywhere and it is a threat to nearly everyone.”
“He’s been excellent in being quick to advocate social distancing and has ratcheted it up in a timely fashion,” said O’Malley, who preceded Hogan in the governor’s chair in Annapolis and who in the past described him as the most corrupt governor since Spiro Agnew, who resigned the vice presidency in 1973 in the wake of disclosures he received kickbacks from Maryland contractors. “He has not been a science-denying governor and he’s done better than most.”
Now a note from the columnist: In this exercise I sought to pair my description of each governor with a quote from a prominent figure in the opposite party. I worried it might be difficult to find such comments. I placed four initial calls, one in each state. Four out of the first four calls — perhaps a national record for a columnist! — responded. It was a comforting reminder that the American tradition of fair-mindedness is not dead today.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.