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How Presidents Lead In Times Of National Mourning


The number is incomprehensible; more than 100,000 people dead of COVID-19 in the U.S. in just three months. For comparison, that is about one-sixth the number of Americans who died during the four years of the Civil War. It's about a quarter of the number of Americans who died in World War II, again, over four years. And it's almost twice the number of Americans who died during the Vietnam War, which stretched over almost two decades. We used those death tolls as a point of comparison to illustrate the magnitude and speed of these deaths and also as a starting point to compare the time we are living in and the tone set by our leaders during national crises. We're going to sort through that idea with two gentlemen who are regular presences on our program - David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School.

Welcome, you two.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

E J DIONNE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: I want to start by playing for you a moment of how President Trump has talked about the American death toll.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.

KELLY: Usually, we come to the two of you to talk politics, so let's talk about the politics of mourning. David, I'll start with you. What do you hear there about how President Trump seems to see his role, his message to the country in this moment?

BROOKS: Yeah, I guess I'd say tragedies touch us at a deeper level than politics. And at these moments, I think, what presidents do when they're at their best is they step outside their political role, and they just speak to us humans as humans, whether it was Reagan after The Challenger...


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

BROOKS: ...Or Bush after 9/11...


PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH: The victims were in airplanes or in their offices - secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors.

BROOKS: ...Or Obama after the Newtown shooting.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They had their entire lives ahead of them - birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

BROOKS: And they really come to us as emotive healers. And with President Trump, we have someone who can't express empathy. He's reacted to this crisis simply as a political exercise not as a human tragedy.

KELLY: E.J., your thoughts?

DIONNE: We look to political leaders to help us confront the horrors we experience. We don't want the horror glossed over or explained away glibly. But we do want paths to hope and solidarity and fellowship and, at least, the possibility that we can emerge from tragedy better than we were before. That's how we keep living.

KELLY: E.J., you reminded me of something that you wrote over the weekend that actually would take us all the way back to the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address to dedicate the cemetery there. We asked an NPR colleague to read one of the many stirring lines from that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) We cannot dedicate. We cannot consecrate. We cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it

DIONNE: He turned death - the carnage of Gettysburg into what he called a new birth of freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) These dead shall not have died in vain that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

DIONNE: I think we are looking to come out of this horror with a new birth, I would say, of empathy, and justice and solidarity.

KELLY: David, you ticked through a few more recent moments when a president fully inhabited the role of mourner-in-chief (ph). Is there one of those you would steer us to that feels particularly applicable right now?

BROOKS: The two that leap out at me - one is Robert Kennedy, impromptu, when Martin Luther King was killed, quoting Aeschylus; and then Barack Obama in the church in Charleston singing "Amazing Grace."


OBAMA: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...

BROOKS: And they did what Lincoln did. They went back to our sources. They went back to the mystic chords of memory, and they took things in our cultural past. And they brought us back to those core things.


OBAMA: (Singing) ...Like me...

BROOKS: And out of that, they reminded us of who we really are. And then, as Lincoln at Gettysburg, they told a redemption story out of it. I think that story is to be told. I think we are hanging in together better than I would have imagined. And I think there is a beautiful redemption story to be told and reminds us we're still a country. We, as yet, don't have someone to tell that story.

KELLY: You mentioned Bobby Kennedy and that moment campaigning in Indianapolis. He stood in the back of that flatbed truck and was the one who announced to the crowd that Martin Luther King had just been killed.


ROBERT F KENNEDY: My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote, even in our sleep pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

KELLY: That's choking me up listening to it today.

BROOKS: Kennedy took the seriousness of the moment and the feelings of the people he was addressing to a place of empathy and eventual triumph.


KENNEDY: What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.

DIONNE: There is something about honesty. I went back and looked at some of FDR's fireside chats at the beginning of World War II, when things weren't going well. And FDR, in April of 1942, was really blunt.


PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: The blunt fact is that every single person in the United States is going to be affected by this program.

DIONNE: And yet, he tied us all together. He said, of our soldiers...


ROOSEVELT: They are farmers and workers, businessmen, professional men, artists, clerks. They are the United States of America...

DIONNE: This was a president who could bring bad news and then tried to draw the country together in common purpose.


ROOSEVELT: That is why we must work and sacrifice.

KELLY: Is there a reading, a poem that feels appropriate to you in the moment that we should all be reading aloud together this week to mark this terrible milestone - 100,000 Americans dead? David.

BROOKS: Yeah. Mine is from Henri Nouwen, and his is about the art of presence in the face of grief.

(Reading) The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not healing, not curing; that is a friend who cares.

KELLY: E.J., how about you?

DIONNE: I would turn to an extraordinary column by W.H. Auden, "In Memory Of Yates." And I'll just read the last passage.

(Reading) In the deserts of the heart, let the healing fountain start. In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise.

KELLY: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown's McCourt School and David Brooks of The New York Times.

Thanks, as always, to you both.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.