Always before, there have been words. Always before, someone crafted them with writerly skill and gave them to the president to give to us. Always, before.
When seven people died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, President Ronald Reagan spoke of how, just that morning, they “waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.”’
When 168 people died in the Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton told the survivors, “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything, and you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
When 2,977 people died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush said, “Today our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”
Yet as we pass a somber milestone — 100,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus pandemic — Donald Trump says nothing. At least, not about the moment. Instead, he tweets.
“Sleepy Joe Biden …”
“Psycho Joe Scarborough …”
“Crazy Nancy Pelosi …”
“Fake news …”
Always before, there have been words for moments like this, moments of rawness and loss. Always before, the president would craft language as a vessel for our grief and a sword of our resolve; he would center us, comfort us, remind us to keep faith with tomorrow and aspire to the best version of ourselves.
In a word, he would console us. You just took it for granted. Nine people were massacred in a church in Charleston, and President Barack Obama went there and spoke of grace, even singing the old hymn about how amazing grace is, because of course he did. Twenty small children and six adults were murdered at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and Obama fought back tears and declared, “Our hearts are broken today,” because of course he did.
Because that’s what presidents do.
Or did. And we are only discovering how important that is in its absence — now that the office of president is functionally vacant.
Because 100,000 people are dead, and it feels almost as if it didn’t really happen, as if it carries no weight. One hundred thousand of our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, a college professor, a New York cabbie, a coach, a sharecropper’s son, an LGBTQ activist, a stamp collector, a jazz patriarch — 100,000 of us gone, yet there is no national moment, memorial or mourning. The sorrow feels atomized, broken into its constituent parts, so that each family and circle of friends are left to grieve alone.
As we cross this terrible Rubicon, pundits and preachers will try to fill the void as best they can. But ultimately, only a president can do what needs doing here. Only a president has the pulpit from which to address the whole of us and draw us together upon higher ground. Unfortunately, it is a task to which Trump is ill-suited and in which he has no apparent interest.
So we are left remembering how it was before, when a president might use a moment like this to send a needed message to a hurting nation. Their words might differ, but the message always was substantially the same, a sermon of hope and resilience that ennobled our pain and left us better for having listened. By contrast, Donald Trump engages in name-calling, whiny self-pity and nonsense conspiracies. People die, he tweets.
And that sends a message, too.