We're traveling in a crowded subway car somewhere under Manhattan when, without warning, the car comes to an abrupt halt in a tunnel in between stations. The subway car is plunged into darkness, and our own growing anxiety, along with that of our fellow passengers, is almost palpable. After a while, a measured, authoritative voice comes over the public address system and calmly tells all us stranded, semiscared passengers a) what has happened; b) what is now being done to fix the problem; c) that we will be safe and on our way within a finite amount of time; and d) what we can do in the meantime to help the rescue process along. That is what the voice of leadership sounds like.
That was what Americans heard on Jan. 28, 1986, when their president, Ronald Reagan, spoke the seven names — Michael Smith, Gregory Jarvis, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Christa McAuliffe — of the astronauts who had perished in the space shuttle Challenger explosion: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for the journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"
The president alone can speak to all of us and for all of us. After the failed U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba he had authorized, the president of the United States took sole responsibility for the failure ("I'm the responsible officer"), adding "victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."
Thus spoke John F. Kennedy, whose epitaph may have been best written by a young man who explained why he gave up two years of his life and volunteered to join the Peace Corps Kennedy created: "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish, because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked."
Commanding five-star general of the victorious Allied forces in World War II that destroyed Hitler's Third Reich, Dwight Eisenhower warned against the militarization of America: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Ike refused to romanticize combat: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
President Gerald Ford, in hopes of healing the divided nation he had inherited and ending waves of political recrimination, ignored the political consequences and his own reelection prospects by pardoning his disgraced predecessor, the resigned Richard Nixon. That decision probably cost Ford the presidency, but he explained "The ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take. … Political courage can be self-defeating, but the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all."
Then we have the words of a president who, speaking to a nation aware that the mysterious and deadly coronavirus is changing the way they live and work, said: "So, if we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better." Another presidential statement: "There's a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus." He has called the outbreak "a hoax" and blamed it on the Democrats and the press. You really miss the voice of leadership when you don't hear it.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.