Five months into our pandemic crisis, I was starved to recall what leadership looked like. Not just leaders in our day to day world, but in our most dire collective moments of crisis. In all my historical reading, I mostly knew Winston Churchill as a sort of an empty icon. I had seen the movies and pictures. He was a key figure in the World War II histories I love but at no point did I pause to focus singularly on Churchill as a leader. I fixed that problem and just finished “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson. Larson is a favorite author and was well up to the task. After closing the book for the final time last time, my overall feeling is one of longing. Longing for leadership.
The book begins the moment that Churchill met with the king to become prime minister. There could be no more dire moment. Hitler’s Blitz was rolling across the low countries, the French army was in collapse and the British Expeditionary Force was in full retreat to Dunkirk. Churchill knew two things on the day he took office. The bombers would be coming for his cities and a German invasion would soon follow. I thought about the idea of unwanted peril. President Trump endlessly complains that no one knew the virus was coming and that everything was going great except for the virus. But history is something that happens to everyone. No one gets to choose the flow of events. All we can do is look for evidence of what is coming and respond when the worse happens. The remarkable thing about Churchill is that he was eager to stand in the path of history. He had anticipated the tyranny of Hitler and was delighted, yes delighted, to be at the center of history in that awful moment. He never once declared himself a victim. No self-pity. No recrimination. Just action and focus.
Trump set the terms of how he would lead in the pandemic by looking away. He told himself, and all of us, that it would go away and given warnings, he ignored them. Beyond the needed infrastructure to confront Covid-19, the greatest failing of Trump in this crisis was to not prepare the American people for what he was being told would come next. A nation leader knows that turning a nation to face a crisis is first about setting expectations and creating a common understanding of the problem. That becomes the place from which a leader unifies a people to confront the onrushing crisis. What is remarkable is that both Churchill and Trump were bathed in privilege, but Churchill saw that privilege as a duty to the whole, not the preservation of the one.
Three days, just three days, after becoming prime minster, Churchill addressed the nation from Parliament. You may be aware of his famous line from that speech, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But it is what followed that line that leaves me most in awe:
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
What we see here is an enormous trust. Churchill trusted that he was the person who could lead his country in a crisis, but more importantly, he trusted that if he told the British people the truth, they were strong enough to hear it. Trump has no faith in the American people. He fears their judgement and lives in terror of taking responsibility. There was a moment, early in this crisis, where a leader could have unified us all by telling us the brutal truth. Americans have always been divided in one way or another. FDR was attacked mightily in his third reelection campaign. In his wartime tenure, twice Churchill invited votes of no confidence and crushed both efforts with will and brutal honesty. An American public, treated with respect, told the unvarnished truth, would not be troubled by increasingly shaggy hair or missing bacon and eggs at their local greasy spoon. A leader lifts a nation above triviality.
We have never been challenged with a national goal in this crisis. As someone who has done a little political messaging, the goal is just lying there to be picked up. I dream of a national campaign built around a simple number, the R0 (R naught). If the data tells us that every infected person is only infecting 1 or fewer people, we are winning. It’s stunningly simple. Imagine if 2 months ago President Trump had said that our national goal was “Below One.” Posters, commercials, every public statement could have reinforced the simple message. Consider a country having a such a national purpose, the equivalent of the famed “stiff upper lip” of the Brits under the nightly bombing of the blitz.
Churchill had the same problem as Trump. His industrial base was not ready for the German bombers that were coming. The manufacturing of those fabled Spitfire and Hurricane fighters was uncoordinated, adrift in a bureaucratic malaise. From the moment he was installed, Churchill unleashed a torrent of what they called “minutes” or memos, using the power of his office to unleash the private sector to meet the new challenges. He installed an old friend, an irascible and stubborn man, called Lord Beaverbrook, to rip up how they built fighters and within months the British were outproducing the Germans. Beaverbrook was no family lackey like the Boy Prince Kushner. No, Beaverbrook and Churchill had such a contentious relationship that the Lord resigned 14 times, only to have Churchill say no. Imagine the trust it took to keep up that dance between friends. Churchill knew he had the best man, not the easiest one. At no point in our current crisis have we unleashed the power of American innovation and industry. Even today, in Oregon, we lack swabs to do testing.
Most of us have seen the pictures of Londoners in the underground Tube stations, avoiding the bombing above. What I never knew was that only 15% of civilians had access to those stations. Everyone else stayed above. People slept in slit trenches in their gardens. The argument of the day was whether it was better to sleep in your basement and be crushed in a collapse or sleep on the upper floors and risk shrapnel coming through the walls. The blitz went on for a year, the war 4 more years after the blitz subsided. We complain about not being able to buy a cocktail or go to the beach. How did they do it? Simple: Churchill.
From the first bombing, even before the bombs stopped falling, Churchill was in the neighborhoods, taking to survivors, shouting encouragement. Over and over, he went into all the bombed cities in England. People would shout, “Look, Winnie is here for us!” Ever seen Trump at a hospital or at a virus testing station. 10 Downing Street had elaborate bunkers and Churchill used them, but he didn’t stay safe there all the time. He drove his security crazy by being out in the streets of bombed cities across the nation. He once, had his train halt just outside of a city at night as it was being bombed so he could be first in at the morning light. The people of England knew that their leader knew their suffering firsthand. When it got most bleak, that alone gave them faith, but more than that, he had the ability to transmute their suffering into joyful, stubborn faith. There is no greater evidence than that by the end of the blitz, people stayed outside to douse the flames of incendiary devices with buckets of water, dirt and extinguishers. The called it “getting a bomb.” Unlike, our president, cowering in the White House, behind his private testing devices, Churchill was able to inspire fearlessness. Fear begets fear. Churchill knew that to his core. Each time he went out into the destruction, he did so with predetermined purpose.
I read this book to remember what is possible in leadership. It inspired and saddened me. America is adrift now. Trump has led us to the worst of all possible outcomes, the sacrifice of a haphazard lock down without a national goal and an unplanned opening that will put is right back where we began, except millions more Americans will be in food lines. Deprived of national leadership, we are more divided than ever, subject to the self-serving whims of a man who is clearly afraid and over-matched by history. In spite of his endless, jingoistic bluster, he doesn’t trust us. He doesn’t believe in us. We are merely extensions of his need for approval, and the ultimate approval, reelection.
It is good for us to remind ourselves what is possible with good leadership and national goals. Churchill was a deeply flawed human being in so many ways but that too is a good reminder. We don’t need perfect people to lead us, but we do need our presidents to have courage and focus. I fear the last three years have eroded our understanding of what good leadership looks and feels like. I recommend you spend some time with “The Splendid and the Vile” to reinvigorate your picture of what a leader can and should be. It will help you recognize the real leaders all around you, and perhaps, see what is possible in yourself.