The writer’s task

A friend messaged me the other day about an idea he had for a book to write. He wanted my opinion. He thought maybe a book about presidents and their private interactions and personal acts of humanity, gleaned from things like private correspondences with unknown citizens, phone calls, secret visits, etc, etc. The kind of thing that a president had wanted to keep private.

It’s a great idea. And my friend is quite capable of writing that book if he so chooses. Biographers, I thought, spend years searching for just such private correspondences and actions in their attempt to understand the inner life of their subject.

Of course I immediately thought about the writer’s task in writing a book such as this. It’s a book about character, as all good (in the classical conception) novels, good biographies, or books about the secret life of a U.S. president, are. It’s a book about the quality of a soul. And the process of deep reading, and especially writing, about the inner life and character of another human being, makes us examine our own souls. Inside you’re asking yourself questions about your own motives and intentions. My friend had asked for a suggestion about who his subject should be.

As for suggestions, I can’t think of one right now, but I would consider…a President you didn’t necessarily agree with politically. It’s often more interesting, in my view, to discover we share common views and a very common humanity with people or Presidents who we’ve reflexively disagreed with because of our upbringing, inherited politics, and culture….Or what we’ve been told by others and accepted, rather than from what we’ve felt and learned with authentic attention and care. For example, let’s say you want to write a book like that, then I suggest maybe you begin by reading former President Obama’s new memoir coming out in November. Why? Not because you’ll agree with him, obviously not, but because your intention isn’t about agreement or disagreement but about whether you’re able to find sympathy with the humanity of people you disagree with. In some sense, it tests our ability to be honest with ourselves….and that’s much harder than we’d all like to believe.

I feel the writer’s first obligation is to truth. This is hard. Most of us are so conditioned by our environment and biases, that we’re simply unable (sometimes unwilling) to try and understand the world from the eyes of another soul. So he (my friend) should begin, I felt, by testing his own ability to be honest and objective about someone he knows he’ll disagree with. Can the writer absorb himself in the lives of others, with the intent to understand someone we often (or always) disagree with?…with what they did or the conclusions they reached?…or the mission they dedicated their life to?…and yet still find some genuine sympathy or agreement? There’s a good chance we will, and often it’s more so than we’d like others or ourselves to know.

And so to be a good writer—or a good observer of the world—and to prepare his mind for the quality of thinking and writing needed for this book about character, I felt my friend should begin by testing his own character. It’s hard work, but the results are felt by the reader on every page.

JFK’s Four Questions for Measuring Public Leadership

President Elect John F. Kennedy delivering his Address to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, January 9, 1961

During President Reagan’s 1988 farewell address, he invoked that now famous John Winthrop phrase about “a shining city upon a hill,” to symbolize how Reagan had always envisioned America’s purpose in the free world. It was an inspiring and beautifully delivered speech.

But Reagan’s vision seemed mostly concerned with the cultural and commercial aspects of that shining city, and not its leadership. National cultures and economies may evolve into a shining examples, but that rarely happens without good leadership, especially in government.

Though he had not taken office yet, it was actually President Elect John F. Kennedy (JFK) who first gave notoriety to Winthrop’s phrase “A shining city upon a hill” during JFK’s January 9, 1961, Address to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But Kennedy, who would soon assume the highest office in the land on January 20th, used the phrase to focus attention on those entrusted with public leadership.

But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. 

“We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill–the eyes of all people are upon us.” 

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

For JFK public service was a noble profession, where citizens were entrusted to serve the public’s interests and uphold his or her oath to the Constitution and the founding ideals of this country. This was especially true of public servants elected to high office. For JFK those entrusted with power would ultimately be judged on how they used (or miss used) power—surely by God—but certainly by the great tribunal of History. JFK said History will judge a public leader by the answers to four questions—which I feel are still the best set of questions for judging any public leader, both then and most certainly now.

For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us—recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state—our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions: 

First, were we truly men of courage—with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies—and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates—the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed? 

Secondly, were we truly men of judgment—with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past—of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others—with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it? 

Third, were we truly men of integrity—men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them—men who believed in us—men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust? 

Finally, were we truly men of dedication—with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest. 

We know, as JFK did, that his 4 questions are an ideal. We know this because we’re human beings who regularly fall short, sin, and often fail to meet the high moral demands of the moment. It’s what we do. But JFK also knew we had to demand that our leaders strive for these high ideals….because that was what built and, more importantly, sustained that shining city upon a hill. The point, then and now, is that public leaders must have a social conscience and a sense of duty to others—and that we (and History) should judge our leaders by how honestly they have striven to meet the heavy demands of moral leadership.

Be a Student of the Game

“Be a Student of the Game. Like most cliches of sport, this is profound. You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. … How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.”

― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

“Let us stand together…”

I’ve been reading Kennedy by Ted Sorensen as a sort of therapy during these very turbulent times. JFK was a pragmatic idealist. He was intelligent, witty, inspirational, and a highly competent man. Reading about his life (and times) you realize he was very much a man for all seasons and a skilled leader. So naturally during times like these, when all these qualities are missing from the current President, some of us, nostalgically, like to read about great men and women of the past who, while never perfect, met the challenges of moment with a noble sense of purpose, unity, and high ideals.

Yesterday JFK would have turned 103 years old had he been alive. I was reading a few articles about JFK online and came across something I’d never seen before. Here are his final words on a note card that JFK had planned to read at a Austin, Texas, event before his life was tragically cut short on that fateful November 22, 1963 day.

Such words are meant to bring people together to meet difficult challenges and overcome obstacles. Unity of purpose and a sense that “we’re all in this together” has always been the message of great leaders in democratic societies.

A house divided cannot stand as Lincoln said. And currently we are a house that is being purposely divided. Our times call longingly for new leadership; a new way forward out of this morass of greed, selfishness, and little mindedness. Let us hope this November the nation will “stand together with renewed confidence in our cause.”

The Spike

I’ve been having a running debate with a good friend about COVID-19 versus the seasonal flu. My friend basically argues that our government’s reaction to COVID-19 is way overdone. I suspect some of you have friends saying similar things.

My friend makes these two general points: 1) More people in the U.S. die of the seasonal flu each year and we don’t lock down (stay-at-home orders) our society over that, and 2) the current mortality rate of COVID-19 (calculated at around maybe 2%) is wrong (way too high) because the current lack of broad testing means we don’t know how many people actually have (or have had) the virus—and it’s likely to be much higher—to be able to say with any accuracy what the actual mortality rate is among those who’ve contracted the virus. So, as he says, the current “numbers and charts mean nothing.” My friend thinks the mortality rate of COVID-19 will be somewhere around 002% or less when all is said and tested. In other words, he thinks, there is nothing to be alarmed about since seasonal influenza is in the same mortality rate ballpark.

Regardless of the debate over statistical measures, the problem I have with my friend’s arguments is what’s happening on the ground. The simple and stark reality is in hot zones where this virus is running rampant, like New York City, the hospitals began filling with people sick and dying from COVID-19 infections. That doesn’t happen during your typical flu season.

No matter how anyone want’s to debate the lethality of COVID-19 compared to the seasonal flu, the stark reality is we know for a fact that where COVID-19 did spread fast and wide, the hospitals began getting hit hard with COVID-19 patients, many of them sick for weeks and many others dying. So instead of talking statistics let’s just talk in simple math. Take a look at this simple graph from the New Atlantis that tracked reported new deaths, per week, from various causes we have data on, and our current COVID-19 epidemic.

As the data shows, and the New Atlantis piece explains, the spike (in red) of COVID-19 deaths is fast and almost straight up. On the horizontal line you see the weeks into the epidemic. On the vertical line the number of newly reported deaths per million. And let me remind you that during the 2017-18 flu and 1957-58 Asian flu, the nation didn’t lock down or require social distancing. So those numbers happened while our society was open and operating as normal. Notice there is no drastic spike in reported deaths. The drastic COVID-19 spike in reported deaths happened largely while the nation was locked down and people were social distancing. Imagine the numbers and the graph line for COVID-19 deaths if we weren’t social distancing right now and just carrying on business as usual, like we do during a typical seasonal flu?

When your friend tells you “Well, there were about 45,000 deaths last year from the flu and we didn’t do this,” you might want to remind him or her that number is for estimated deaths for seasonal influenza OVER AN ENTIRE SEASON or year. In the chart above the period of measure is about 33 weeks. As of this writing, it’s been about 8 weeks since the first death of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S., and the current reported death toll is at 46,785. Just do the math. And remember our society has no vaccine currently. We have no herd immunity, unlike we do with seasonal influenza.

Left unchecked COVID-19 would continue to spread rapidly and our hospital and healthcare systems would become completely overrun. If we had just let our society carry on as usual, like we do during the seasonal flu, there is little doubt the death toll would reach into the hundreds of thousands, probably millions. As the New Atlantis points out, “In the worst week of the 2017-18 flu season, New York saw 445 deaths from flu and pneumonia and 3,481 total from all causes. Last week, the state saw 4,694 reported Covid-19 deaths alone.”

COVID-19 cannot be compared to a seasonal flu. The simple arithmetic demonstrates it’s much worse. We will beat this virus once we have a vaccine, and let’s pray that’s soon.