By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
During tough times, I often take refuge and inspiration from history and the leadership that helped people get through the worst moments.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused unimaginable disruptions to our daily lives and poses a serious health and safety threat to possibly tens of million Americans, and hundreds of millions more around the globe. But it is not the first calamitous threat a nation has ever faced.
Exactly 80 years ago another deadly enemy was on the move causing whole nations to be swallowed up in just weeks.
The Nazi war machine was spreading across all of Europe faster than the COVID-19 contagion. Countries were falling like dominos. In just a few months during the spring of 1940 Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Finland, Denmark, Norway and France were overrun by the Nazis, soon North Africa too. The year before, parts of Eastern Europe fell victim to the German army rout.
And suddenly England stood alone. Just a few miles across the English channel the enemy prepared to strike. This was truly an existential moment for the Brits. They endured the blitz from above with hundreds of bombs reigning down on their cities every night, destroying buildings and killing thousands.
Enter Winston Churchill. If President Trump says he is now a “wartime president” in the fight against the Coronavirus, he would do well to read Churchill’s monumental account of World War II. When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, the nations of Europe were already besieged by Hitler’s Storm Troopers. Churchill inherited a mortal crisis like none other. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlin, wasted years appeasing the German dictator and now his country was imperiled.
Churchill could have blamed Chamberlin for the dire situation, he could have boasted as to how he alone could fix everything, he could have minimized the risk. But instead, he spoke to his country with unwavering honesty. He gave them the facts no matter how desperate. But through his eloquence and the courage of his demeanor, he inspired a nation to common purpose. He did not attack his rivals, of which there were many, nor did he criticize the press for reporting the truth. Churchill spoke of the national sacrifice that lay ahead. The “blood, toil, tears and sweat” that he offered and would be shed in the national interest. But in the end, it would be England’s finest hour…and his.
And consider how Franklin Roosevelt rallied a nation in the grips of a Great Depression as he assumed the Presidency. The stock market had crashed, 25% of the workforce was unemployed. Soup lines and breadlines dotted every big city in the nation. Farmers lost their farms and food production was crippled. Roosevelt did not blame Herbert Hoover who presided over the economic calamity for three years. Instead, his buoyant optimistic fireside chats with America gave us hope from his clear and unequivocal direction.
Who can forget his very first words as President on March 4, 1933… “This is the time to speak the whole truth, frankly and boldly and not shrink from honestly facing conditions in this country. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor is essential to victory.” There was no rancor in his words only a fearless confrontation with the facts of our national situation. He understood that overcoming the enemy of fear was as necessary as repairing the economic collapse.
Great leaders rise to the occasion by giving honesty, confidence and direction to their people. There is no time for bluster, false bravado or wishful thinking. There will always be critics and second guessers. But great leaders look beyond that and instill a sense of national purpose based on the proposition that we are ALL in this together. That is how we succeed. That is how we have always succeeded.