People who know me well are aware that I have no heroes. All of them were murdered in the troubled 1960s. Since then, no one person emerged as a true hero, although Barack Obama came close. When he was elected, I fooled myself into believing that America had changed, that the bigotry and willful ignorance I had seen growing up in Memphis had receded and that great times lay ahead. I was wrong. As the Obama presidency proceeded, the Republican Party morphed into essentially what it is today and managed to block many of Obama’s greatest potential achievements.
The final blow to my aspirations for the country came when a relic of our ugly past, the Electoral College, worked to put Donald Trump in the White House. Every day of his administration is a tragic reminder that we could have had an intelligent, articulate, committed woman as president. A lot went wrong, of course, not just the flawed Constitutional structures put in place to placate rural and southern interests and that handed the national leadership to Trump with a minority of votes. It doesn’t much matter now. Trump is president and, as fate can do, his incompetence and corruption have been laid bare for the world to see, a bleeding open sore on what was one of the greatest countries on the planet, flawed but pure of aspiration, in need of much work but full of hope and promise.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a catastrophe for humanity. It was also an opportunity for the putative “leader of the free world” to show that, for all his obvious flaws, he could rise to the occasion and steer the country through one of its greatest challenges in a century. It was an opportunity to put to rest the oft-stated concern that, faced with a genuine crisis (threat of nuclear attack, for example), Trump’s staggering incompetence would destroy us. COVID-19 is not a nuclear attack but Trump still failed in almost every way imaginable. In the future I will devote much of my time in this blog illustrating those failures in the hope that the people of this country will rise to the occasion as Trump did not and remove him from office once and for all.
Meanwhile, I want to recognize another leader who emerged from the gloom and despair of the pandemic to do what needed to be done, to say what needed to be said, who did the right thing. He was already an experienced leader of government, the political head of the state with the largest Gross Domestic Product per capita, a major driver of the national economy: New York.
New York City, the centerpiece of the state and the gateway to the nation for travelers from around the world, became the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. As of today, the World Health Organization reports 8,385,440 total cases and 450,686 deaths worldwide. The United States leads the entire world in both cases and deaths: 118,365 souls lost. New York City, the most densely populated metropolis in the country, quickly developed the most infections and ultimately, so far, more than 17, 546 deaths, as it was flooded by millions of travelers from Europe who brought the virus with them while the federal government hyper-focused on China. In my neighborhood alone, there were 616 cases and 43 deaths. Yesterday, there were fewer deaths than that in the entire city.
Mt. Sinai West Hospital sits immediately adjacent to our apartment building. You can walk to the Emergency Room 50 steps or so down the street. As the city emptied out under the lockdown that started in mid-March, way too late, we were witness to the relentless parade of ambulances bringing critically ill patients to the hospital.
There are two points to be made here. One, the president held a series of daily “press conferences” involving a task force headed by the Vice President and the leading medical authorities at the Center for Disease Control, among others. It quickly became apparent that these events were really for the president to promote himself as the successful defender of the country against the virus, even as the cases and death toll continued to rise. He simply denied any facts that made him look bad. He paraded a random group of corporate leaders in to praise him. He descended into a clown show in which he proposed that the government health authorities investigate injecting bleach into the body or using light of some kind. He promoted the use of drugs for which there was no medical support and which multiple studies indicated could be dangerous to large swaths of the public. He stopped the conferences when his staff finally convinced him that they were counterproductive to his goal of self-promotion and re-election.
Second point: in New York, people who were paying attention saw a completely different approach, one based on scientific facts and evidence. These were the daily briefings by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. In the last of these briefings, the Governor reported that a total of 59 million viewers had watched these presentations, each of which involved an opening statement and questions from reporters. The Governor always had staff and sometimes important guests, with him to help address questions, most notably Melissa DeRosa (Secretary to the Governor). In the wake of the George Floyd murder, Cuomo devoted substantial parts of each briefing to addressing the issues around policing practices. He proposed specific legislation that was passed immediately and signed at one of the briefings.
Cuomo proved to be a lifeline for many of us who were quarantined in our apartments.
My wife and I found great comfort in his rational, fact-based approach, his appeal to the better selves of New Yorkers and his repeated admissions that this was personal for him, too. In March he proposed Matilda’s Law, an executive order with the force of law, named for his elderly mother and aimed at protecting the elderly and the vulnerable by putting New York “on pause” with special guidelines for the elderly. We tuned in almost every day, as did millions of people around the world seeking some truth and objectivity in the maelstrom of falsity and self-serving lies from Trump and his enablers.
I won’t go on about this. Cuomo, like all prominent political leaders, has his critics. But whatever mistakes may have been made in his management of the COVID-19 crisis, they appear to be very few and given all the circumstances, understandable and not consequential. I do not believe anyone can legitimately say he did not do his best for the people of New York. The results are clear and undeniable. The cases and deaths attributable to the virus are now the lowest in the country. As the Governor put it, “from the worst to first.”
I urge you to watch this video of Cuomo’s final statement and the video that follows it. It’s less than 13 minutes long. Compare this to Donald Trump’s performance on any issue on any day. This is what actual leadership looks like. What a refreshing experience, even in the midst of the most terrifying situation. Cuomo’s handling of these events will be written about in textbooks and studied in leadership programs for years to come. The 13 minutes you spend watching this will be well spent.