Our wartime presidents have had the courage to take personal responsibility for their actions – and, equally courageous, for their inaction.
By Robin Umberg and Thomas J. Umberg, Special to CalMatters
Robin Umberg is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and former Undersecretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, [email protected] Thomas Umberg is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, currently serving in the California State Senate, a Democrat representing the 34th Senate District, encompassing parts of Orange County and Long Beach, [email protected] He served three overseas tours and is a Bronze Star recipient. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.
Donald Trump often boasts that he is a “wartime” president. Those of us who served in wartime wish that were true. Successful wartime leaders have one thing in common – courage.
Courage comes in many forms. It may be the physical courage of the hospital custodian who cleans the rooms of those poor souls on ventilators. Or the grocery store cashier who comes to work each day not knowing if she will bring home COVID-19 to her children. Moral courage is not as easily recognized – but is borne of a similar fortitude – to act in the face of personal jeopardy.
Our wartime presidents have had the courage to take personal responsibility for their actions – and, equally courageous, for their inaction. The courage to admit error and learn from it. The Union sustained a long string of battlefield defeats in the first years of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln did not blame these losses on the generals, the Union governors or anyone else. Instead he made the hard and unpopular decision to pursue the war – fully expecting that it would cost him his reelection.
Keep tabs on the latest California policy and politics news
Franklin D. Roosevelt, facing a deeply divided America, called upon a fearful nation to become the “Arsenal of Democracy” – in an election year. Afterward, when we suffered devastating defeat at Pearl Harbor, he did not blame Hawaii for ill preparedness. He took responsibility for the loss, as well as the huge sacrifices of blood and treasure yet to come.
Future president, then Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the overall commander of forces for D-Day believed taking responsibility the sine qua non – the essential condition – of leadership. In fact, he had already written his mea culpa should the June 6, 1944 invasion fail: “If any blame or fault attaches to the [failed] attempt it is mine alone.”
Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “wartime” president, needs to show the courage of true “wartime” presidents – the courage to take responsibility for the failure of the federal government to stop the bidding between the states that drives up the price and availability of face masks for health care workers; the courage to create and enforce a uniform national stay-at-home order for an interconnected nation; the courage to use the Defense Production Act to produce the needed ammunition to fight this demon disease; the courage to admit he was wrong when he stated on March 6 that “Anybody that wants a test (for the coronavirus) can get a test.”
Today, nearly seven weeks later, testing is still, appallingly, lagging. In the face of the obvious lack of testing availability, the president cites misleading statistics and describes his administration’s performance as “perfect.” Contrast that with Gov. Gavin Newsom who confronted the issue directly. “And I have a responsibility as your governor to do better and do more testing in the state of California.” Little wonder Californians trust their governor by a huge margin over the president.
Trump does not take responsibility. His cowardice was on full display when he declared himself as having “total authority” and then, after realizing that with “total authority” came “total responsibility,” he “authorized” governors to make the tough decisions they were already making daily. He then attempted to hide his retreat by issuing a plan for a three-phrase return to normalcy that the governors would be required to follow before opening their states. Unable to withstand even the whispers of derision from his base, he quickly undermined his own guidance by inciting his followers on Twitter to “LIBERATE” their states and reopen.
Trump believes that the deteriorating economy mirrors his reelection prospect. Asking his followers to pressure their governors is a perfectly cowardly course of action. If a state opens early and COVID-19 continues or increases its death grip – it’s the governors’ fault. If the state’s economy spirals into depression – that, too, is the governors’ fault. Meanwhile the president, ever the benevolent ruler, holds forth daily and recounts the “gifts” he personally bestows upon ungrateful supplicants.
Governors in several states already have begun to reopen everything from gyms to tattoo parlors in blatant contravention of the president’s “plan.” The president claimed recently that he has “total” authority to override governors’ decisions. As the governors succumb to the loud mobs demanding the right to “LIBERATE” their state, is there any chance our “wartime” president will grow the courage to stand in their way to protect us from the enemy that has already killed over 68,000 Americans?
Robin Umberg is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and former Undersecretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs, [email protected]. Thomas Umberg is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, currently serving in the California State Senate, a Democrat representing the 34th Senate District, encompassing parts of Orange County and Long Beach, [email protected]. He served three overseas tours and is a Bronze Star recipient. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.
Support in-depth reporting that matters
As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on the generosity of Californians like you to cover the issues that matter. If you value our reporting, support our journalism with a donation.