Pandemic Politics

“Pandemic” was an adjective before it was a noun.

It means, “prevalent over a whole area, country, etc.; universal, general . . . .” It is usually applied to disease, thus giving rise to its use as a noun, “a pandemic,” meaning, “a disease which is pandemic.” But it could really be used for almost anything that is widely distributed over the world. 

Politics is pandemic. As was oft remarked of Chickenman, “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!” 

No, Fair Reader, you can’t escape it; for, as Aristotle observed, “Man is a political animal.”

In the midst of our current angst over COVID-19, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat. Trump’s opponents have been accused of weaponizing the fear of a dread disease. Players on both sides of the line of scrimmage are ripping up the Astroturf, wailing, “Unfair! They are politicizing a national disaster!” 

So, what else is new? 

If you read this blog regularly—a Recommended Best Practice—you may wonder, “Whence comes this commentary on current events? Is not this blog supposed to be about ‘seeking fresh meanings in our common past’?”

Okay, Dear Reader. You asked for it:

It Was Ever Thus

Politicians have made political hay out of all things sacred since the moment after time started. Many earnest combatants believe that everything is political; that exploiting all events to advance one’s political agenda is the purest form of service. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel, 2008.)

Those who seek to serve society must understand the political context in which they operate. Military leaders, in particular, often feel that war should be exempt from politics. But they would be extremely foolish to suppose that it actually is.

General Promotions

Elihu B. Washburne U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, Minister to France. Mathew Brady-Levi Corbin Handy photo. Public Domain.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant showed a canny cognizance of the political winds which blew all around him. In that conflict, almost every general, North or South, was appointed and advanced politically. Even Grant, who demonstrated the highest ability, would never have received the opportunity to demonstrate that ability without the sponsorship of his local Congressman, Rep. Elihu Washburne. The Congressman put Grant in for a brigadier general’s star, immediately began thumping for his promotion to major general, and in every possible way championed Grant’s career.

In 1863, Grant was tasked with taking the city of Vicksburg, which President Abraham Lincoln saw as “the golden key” to unlock the Confederacy. Take Vicksburg from the rebels, and you re-open the Mississippi River to Union navigation. At the same time, you dreadfully complicate Confederate efforts to get men and materiel from the Trans-Mississippi West (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). Vicksburg in Union hands would be the beginning of the end of the rebellion.

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

Trouble was, Grant’s first try—aided by loyal subordinates Sherman and Macpherson and the ambitiously disloyal McClernand—had come to naught, for reasons beyond Grant’s control. “The strategical way according to the rule,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi.” 

However, “At this time the North had become very much discouraged. . . . It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.

What Grant delicately omitted was that political powers in Washington wanted Grant removed and replaced with McClernand—an officer who, despite his loyalty to the Union, was unfit for high command. So long as Grant was actively campaigning against Vicksburg, it was not too hard for Lincoln to resist these demands for his scalp. But any movement that appeared to be a retreat—back to Memphis, for example—would  most likely seal his fate. I am not the first to suggest that if Grant had done anything other than what he did—go forward through the Mississippi lowlands with no established supply line, feeding his army off the land—he would have lost his job. So that’s exactly what he did.

Grant could not afford to ignore politics.

In the end, he found a way to win without losing his job.

So What?

How does this history apply to the present day? Simply in this: Those who wish to serve the country need to be entirely apolitical; but they cannot afford to ignore the politics of the situation.

There are a lot of players, political and otherwise. One is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an interesting figure. He is on the opposite political team from the president—but neither of them can afford to make trouble with the other in facing the coronavirus challenge, both for political reasons, and for the sake of people’s health.

Cuomo, like any experienced governor, knows quite a bit about handling emergencies. I saw him on TV the other day, revealing one of the key things about emergencies—a lesson I learned years ago as a worker in Wisconsin’s state emergency operations. There are two things, Cuomo said—I’m loosely paraphrasing—two things: One is the objective state of things: the resources, the damage, the things that need to be repaired; or in the case of a pandemic disease, the infection rates, testing kits, all that operational stuff. The other thing is the public perception of the situation. The latter is what drives rumors, panics, compliance with relief plans or the lack of compliance, etc. Often, Cuomo said, that second factor, the public perception, gets to be a greater problem than the disaster scenario itself. 

Cuomo is dead accurate on that. (Your New Favorite Writer’s note to self: Write a blog post sometime about the 1996 Weyauwega, Wisconsin, train derailment.)

The only thing leaders can do about the second factor, the public perception, is to provide a steady flow of factual information from official sources. Credibility is key. People know when they’re being lied to, and it’s the kiss of death in handling an emergency.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. NIAID photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his sidekicks Dr. Deborah Brix, Admiral Brett Giroir, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. These people are the key medical players on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. They are physicians with impeccable credentials and experienced public health leaders. Their usefulness on the task force is based on their ability to help move key decisions. But just as important is the straightness of their dialog with the American public as principal briefers of this ongoing emergency. 

What makes them useful is that they never say anything that is not factual. Their credibility is gilt-edged. It is a remarkable feat, day in and day out, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from the epicenter of a hurricane of fear, anxiety, and political games. 

As Executive Branch employees, they work under the authority of President Donald J. Trump—a gargantuan figure and one who speaks in momentarily expedient approximations. Fauci ranks as a genius, saying what is true and correcting what is false, while affirming truths uttered by the president and never crossing swords with him over statements that may be less reliable. 

Without being himself a politician, Anthony Fauci knows how to survive in a tough political environment, giving good service and straight advice with an easy grace. 

He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant, who made virtues of necessities and got the military job done without having to bother Abe Lincoln overmuch with messy details.

Funny how often parts of the present resemble parts of the past.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

4 thoughts on “Pandemic Politics

  1. I just hope Dr. Fauci stays well!

  2. Praying for his good health, and everyone else’s.

  3. He could be your brother! Do you see the resemblance? But you’re correct, he is an amazing communicator…just the right tone, information without talking down, calming, and inspiring. With people like him leading the way, we may make it through this challenging time.

    • Helen, my theory is that once you are old enough, you look like everybody else who is old. But I’m so glad to have you join our little conversation! Best wishes, and hope you are comfortably hunkered down for the duration.

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