First there was: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
Then there was: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’
Now there is: ‘We have so much testing. I don’t think you need that kind of testing or that much testing, but some people disagree with me and some people agree with me.’
The first quote is from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Inaugural address in January 1933 during the nadir of the Great Depression. It is worth quoting the prelude to that famous sentence and, especially in these times, his explanation of what the phrase meant:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
For FDR the “truth” was that “fear” was the root of the problem. The attitudes and actions provoked by fear were preventing Americans from pulling themselves out of the Great Depression. A psycho-analyst could not have put it more succinctly to the most desperate of patients. FDR was calling for a wholesale change in outlook on economic, social, and political life to bring recovery.
The rest of the speech is full of hard truths about what it takes to survive and then flourish in trying times. There is no blame attributed to wicked Wall Street tycoons, immigrants overrunning the country, or the failures of past Presidents.
This is the kind of Leadership that most of us pointed to over the course of the twentieth century. It is the sort of leadership America has lost – not only for its own citizens – but for the rest of the world too.
The second quotation is from President John F. Kennedy at his Inaugural Address in January 1961. He focused on the problems of the day: poverty, the arms race, the last vestiges of colonialism and human rights cross the globe. The most prescient part of the speech is:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
JFK was speaking at a time of increasingly hot wars around the world, resulting from the end of nineteenth century colonialism, and the onset of colonialism from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that led to the Cold War.
This had led to a build-up of nuclear weapons sufficient to extinguish humanity. In that stressful period he was calling not only for Americans but people around the world to work towards freedom for all humanity.
He was also urging people to use that freedom not just for personal gain but for their country as well, for it was the community people represented in a democracy that has the power to make real change for everyone.
His pitch was that when we work together as individuals through a democracy we all get wealthier and healthier. This too was American leadership at its finest.
The third quote is from President Donald Trump on May 5th 2020 in a Q&A with reporters. It came at a point when there had been 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID- 19 and over 76,000 deaths. Meanwhile the unemployment rate had reached almost 20%, and a majority of the population had been under stay at home orders for six weeks. Here is the quote in full:
We have the best testing anywhere in the world, not even close … Look, we have so much testing. I don’t think you need that kind of testing or that much testing, but some people disagree with me and some people agree with me. But we have the greatest testing in the world, and we have the most testing in the world.
Granted this is not President Trump’s Inaugural Address. We’ll get to that in a moment. This is the President’s answer to the question: are there enough tests for people in the U.S. in order to reopen its economy?
It perfectly encapsulates the President’s style of leadership: cocky, bragging, dismissive of anyone who disagrees with him; demonstrating an utter disregard for the American people he governs, and unwavering focus on…himself.
Further, he is saying we have everything we need to reopen because we are the best. The truth, as many of us know, is quite different
This is in line with his Inauguration Speech from January, 2016.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country … We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/the-inaugural-address/
This is best summed up as: ‘America is broken and suffering from helping out the world; this was caused by greedy politicians; by disregarding our commitment to the world and getting rid of these politicians we can be awesome again. Federal government and foreigners are holding us back and by doing away with them we can realize our greatness.’
This is the end of American leadership. Far from the introspective challenge laid down by FDR or the self-sacrifice called for by JFK, we have a President who blames others, who, he says, we need to be rid of in order to fix our troubles.
But Americans do have homegrown problems – lots of them. And we’ve had them for a long time. It is precisely these domestic issues that led FDR and JFK to make their exhortations during equally challenging times.
Leadership demands change from within and then shows the way. The current President seems to think we don’t need to change ourselves to make life better for all – we can just lay the blame on others and avoid focusing on ourselves.
There’s no hard work, no sacrifice. It’s all about finding the next person to blame, while we wallow in a perceived notion that there is nothing wrong with us. There could no better example of this than the character of the President himself.
It may not need to be said but if the U.S. wants to be great again, it needs to return to the values of hard work of FDR, the ideals of JFK, and be rid of Donald J. Trump.