Tale of two pandemic leaders


John F. Kennedy strolled up to the podium inside the State Department auditorium, peering out to reporters, ready to take their questions.

It was Jan. 25, 1961 — less than a week since he was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States — and already he was making history. Right there, nearly 60 years ago, Kennedy did something none of his predecessors had ever done: He conducted a news conference live and unedited for all three major television networks.

“The fact of the matter is that the time when President Kennedy started televised press conferences, there were only three or four newspapers in the entire United States that carried a full transcript of a presidential press conference,” Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, would later recall. “Therefore, what people read was a distillation. We thought they should have the opportunity to see it in full.”

Getting a chance to watch history unfold in front of our eyes is what attracts us to the major cable news channels each day, or whenever networks cut into regular programming to bring us something live. It’s almost to the point where one might even start to scratch her chin and wonder if we even need reporters anymore with all this raw information at her fingertips.

The answer is “yes,” followed by “now more than ever before.” And all we need to point to are the daily press briefings President Donald Trump has provided during the coronavirus crisis.

Trump is carried live each day, similar to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But there’s a big difference between the two: One you can safely trust without minimal question. The other? There are more actual facts in an edition of The Onion satirical newspaper.

Trump has lied so many times, many news outlets that were trying to keep track practically lost count. He has made dangerous claims, including the promotion of untested treatment for the virus that causes COVID-19. And he’s spent more time insulting reporters who dare ask him questions than actually reassuring Americans we will get through this crisis.

Some have even called for Trump’s briefings to no longer be carried live. Why? Because reporters can then properly challenge claims that aren’t true, and provide context for others.

Usually, when a president gets up to speak to reporters, he has thoroughly researched the topic he’s presenting. But even then, he is human, and can make mistakes. Having reporters “distill” that information, and strive to ensure only accurate details filter through is exactly why the media is so important in crises like this in the first place.

Trump appears to do no preparation at all, except maybe from his Twitter feed filled with ideas we’d think even Trump might find crazy. And because Americans turn to the president for leadership, they are not coming up empty-handed, which is bad enough. They are provided guidance that just isn’t true, for the most part, and it’s the kind of rhetoric that could lead to more and more people suffering and even dying from this pandemic.

Cuomo — not usually at the top of any “nice guys” lists — has come off as just that. A nice guy. Someone who cares. Someone who will tell it like it is. Someone who doesn’t pull punches.

The governor knows it’s not just a smattering of reporters in Albany listening to him each day. It’s millions of New Yorkers, not only looking for information directly from a leader, but also for reassurance and maybe even some comfort.

Here’s the thing: They’re getting it. Cuomo has been a calming presence, a knowledgeable presence. People can go to sleep at night worried about many things, but not whether they made the right choice re-electing Cuomo to a third term in 2018.

We might dismiss any notion of a President Cuomo, but there have been many days over the past month or so where many of us have to wonder how much different this pandemic would be if there was anyone other than Trump occupying the Oval Office.

Andrew Cuomo is far from perfect. But he has indeed showed not only New York, but America, how a leader should lead during a crisis like this.

And if we’re going to continue to watch Trump live every day, maybe the president should take note.

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coronavirus, Donald Trump, Andrew Cuomo,