It came in the twinkling of an eye for our 43rd president, George W. Bush. He had arrived in the White House just eight months before, with the agenda which was supposed to define his presidency starting to gain steam: domestic initiatives, tax cuts, economic growth, cultural renewal – and no nation-building. It was a beautiful autumn Tuesday, and he was innocently reading a book to second graders in Sarasota, Florida.
And then, the moment which will, like Pearl Harbor, live in infamy: the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We all remember that look in the eyes – and soul – of George W. Bush upon word of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, his sudden realization that his presidency would now instantly transform to a wartime footing.
Our 45th president likely did not experience that type of single moment when he realized the entire focus of his administration would have to change. But it probably didn’t take Donald Trump long to realize he would now be challenged in a way that made everything from Russia collusion to impeachment look like child’s play.
Let us not sugarcoat the landscape suddenly appearing before us: Donald Trump will be challenged down to his core in ways every president knows are possible, but precious few are forced to experience. FDR on 12/7/41, Bush 43 on 9/11/01 and LBJ on 11/22/63 were the modern-day presidents who fell victim to the sudden occurrence of national nightmares. Each passed the test set before them, not via a straight line, but rather through long and winding roads of calming the nation, demonstrating command, and making one hard call after another on a day-to-day basis.
We should not understate the emotional toll this must be exacting on the president. He is forced to stand by and watch an economy he has worked so hard to strengthen – the very centerpiece of his presidency – now tanking before his eyes, with little he can do to stop it beyond the usual stimulative measures prescribed by government at a time of financial crisis, including near-zero interest rates and cash on the barrelhead for every American. Yes, the market could come roaring back once this crisis has passed, but we could also descend into a deep recession – along with the rest of a world we cannot control – with the election just around the corner. The fact is that nobody knows. Predicting human behavior during and after a panic is among the most perilous of all pursuits.
On the other hand, could Trump actually, ultimately benefit from the opportunity set before him, to function in disaster and demonstrate a resolve in the face of a true national crisis? Can he prove to the American people that he does indeed possess skills he had previously not been required to demonstrate? Sure, but we are a long way from knowing that answer.
Beyond that, the president is dealing with a crisis unique to our modern history in one profound way: It affects literally every single American. No person in this country, we are told, is immune from either carrying the virus, catching it, or suffering the fallout from its spread. The people of the South, the Heartland, and the West were certainly emotionally rocked by Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, and 9/11, but those tragedies did not reach into their very homes as COVID-19 has. And now, we have not just ourselves, but everyone else and the nation as a whole with whom to concern ourselves. And that is before we even stop to add up the inevitable carnage of shuttered businesses, lost jobs and wages, and the astronomical cost of recovery.
Trump has proven repeatedly over his legendary life that he is nothing if not nimble, a quality now required of him every single day as he calls upon Americans to sacrifice – something no president ever wishes to do. But he is also being called upon to reach deep within himself and extract other skills not comfortably in his wheelhouse.
Can he convince the American people that he is doing everything within his power, and that he is in control of the situation? Can he keep the nation calm? Can he bring down the temperature of an elite media covering this crisis as if it was another in a long line of Trump scandals?
Crucially, can he win the confidence of so many Americans who have found him repulsive? Can he demonstrate leadership to the point of building genuine national unity on a subject which every reasonable person agrees must be immune from political partisanship?
Trump will also be required to swallow the bitter medicine of potentially reckless federal spending – the equivalent of dropping cash out of airplanes – which will blast apart any semblance of fiscal or economic discipline and leave him and the Congress with a mighty mess to clean up when the dust clears.
Trump’s posture should properly be to eliminate partisanship from his own repertoire, as he has largely done these past two weeks, and publicly exhort leftists and their allies in the media to hit the pause button on their personal attacks, so that a nation threatening to reach the breaking point can at least unite in the battle against this plague on all our houses.
To punctuate the point, the president could even publicly welcome the media to resume its partisan attacks as soon as we can be reasonably certain that the worst of this has passed and we are free to focus our attention once again on politics.
The anti-Trump Fourth Estate must get over itself for just a breath, and project to the nation the reality that we have only one president, like him or not. They need to refresh their understanding of why freedom of the press was granted in the Bill of Rights. It was for the crucial function of informing, not influencing, the public. Rarely has that been more imperative than right now.
As each day brings new problems, and more infections, deaths, and restrictions, we will surely find out much about this man we elected to shake up the status quo, and who now ironically finds himself desperately seeking to preserve it. Perhaps Barack Obama can sympathize, having run on a platform of fundamentally transforming America, but who was forced to employ drastic measures immediately upon taking office following the Great Recession of 2008, just to keep from sinking into the abyss.
Indeed, Trump might be wise to seek advice, counsel and solace from the only four men who can truly understand what he is going through, having lived through the same pressure cooker of the hardest job in the world: the four living presidents, all of whom faced more crises than any of us could possibly know. Three of them – Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter – are from the opposite party, but should that even matter? If George W. Bush and his bitter opponent, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, could share a heartfelt hug on the floor of Congress in the aftermath of 9/11, Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, et al. can certainly be expected to offer nothing short of full mutual support. Whether an ordinary citizen, or one in the realm of politics or the media, can we not reduce our thinking – just for now – to what each of us can do to help?
For better or worse, we have only the man in the White House upon whom to rely for the leadership required at this never-to-be-forgotten juncture in American history. And we all have more time on our hands for deeper thought these days. So why not take a minute to contemplate, in a hopeful and prayerful state, the same question about President Trump which was asked in the biblical account of Queen Esther, heroine of the faith, after accepting the charge to protect the most vulnerable at a time of great peril.
Who knows whether he has not come to the nation for such a time as this?
Read more from Tim Donner.
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