What Obama Gets About National Mourning That Trump Doesn’t

Presidential leadership often entails helping the country grieve.

Over the course of this pandemic, we have occasionally run across powerful stories, like this one about Dr. James Mahoney.

In the first weeks after the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, Dr. James A. Mahoney barely slept.

When he was not working his day shifts at an intensive care unit at University Hospital of Brooklyn, he was working nights across the street at Kings County Hospital Center. When he was not at a hospital, he was conducting telemedicine sessions with his regular patients from home, making sure they were wearing masks and washing their hands…

After nearly 40 years as a physician, Dr. Mahoney, 62, could have retired. Others his age, including his older brother, also a doctor, stopped seeing hospital patients as the pandemic loomed, worried that age or health issues put them in greater danger than younger colleagues.

Friends, family and fellow physicians begged Dr. Mahoney to do the same. He had been on the front lines for AIDS, the crack epidemic, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Sandy. Why not skip this one, they asked. Take a break, save yourself.

He would not do it. Dr. Mahoney belonged on the floor, and that is where he would stay, until the end. On April 27, he succumbed to the virus he had fought so vigorously.

That story is a reminder of the terrible losses we have experienced as a result of this pandemic. But the reality is that Dr. Mahoney is one of the more than 90,000 lives we’ve lost to COVID-19. About the time that the death toll surpassed the number killed in the Vietnam War, David Colton wrote about our need as a country to mourn.

So why is the grieving so hard?

The enormity of the pandemic death toll is wrapped in a wall of silence, not connecting with our politicians, the media nor the public. Thankful applause echoes nightly for nurses and caregivers, but there are few candlelight vigils for the dead; churches are shuttered; most families cannot even hold funerals.

Doesn’t our national loss deserve more than just checking the number on CNN every hour, and shaking our heads as the death toll tops 50,000, then 67,000 and beyond?

As we saw with the “Graduate Together” event last weekend, social distancing doesn’t mean that it is impossible for the nation to gather in mourning. What is missing is a national figurehead with the vision and empathy to lead the way.

For eight years, Obama was called on pretty often to address the nation at times of overwhelming loss. He gave eulogies in cities from Tucson, Arizona to Newtown, Connecticut. Two presidents (Obama and Bush) joined the service to honor the police officers who were killed in Dallas, Texas. Of course, all of us remember the leader who sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial for the nine souls lost to a gunman in Charleston.

But it wasn’t just memorial services. Whenever there were lives and livelihoods lost to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or fires, President Obama would always travel to the scene to comfort those who were grieving and remind them that, as a nation, we were there for them.

This president rarely does that. When he has travelled to the scene of a natural disaster or shooting, he has participated in cringe-worthy moments like throwing paper towels to the survivors of a hurricane or posing for a “thumbs up” picture with a baby who had just been orphaned by a shooting.

What’s interesting is that, in some circles, Trump is heralded as the politician who connects emotionally with voters, while columnists like Maureen Dowd referred to Obama “President Spock.” It is true that, especially as a black man, Obama never had time for grievance politics and considers himself to be a counter-puncher when it comes to anger. But he had tremendous empathy for those who were struggling or grieving major losses. That was always a comfort in moments of national tragedy.

Trump, on the other hand, can hardly bring himself to even mention those who have lost their lives to this pandemic, much less comfort grieving family members. He has zero capacity for empathy given that every ounce of emotional energy is dedicated to assuaging his narcissistic ego. That is why no one in their right mind would ever look to this president to lead the nation in mourning our losses to this pandemic. We’ll have to take care of that on our own.

Perhaps in this little corner of the world we can gather virtually to sing “Amazing Grace” for those we’ve lost, like Dr. James Mahoney.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.