The decades following his death have shown President Franklin Roosevelt notoriously misled the nation.
Six weeks before his death in 1945, Roosevelt downplayed rumors of his own decaying health and said he was “refreshed” and “inspired.” Few Americans even realized Roosevelt was bound to a wheelchair and couldn’t walk; he disallowed any information, especially photographs, to be leaked about his handicap. He also misled the nation in the months leading up to U.S. entry into World War II.
According to online excerpts from his 1948 book “The Man on the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy,” author Thomas Bailey compared Roosevelt’s deceptions to a “physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good.”
Bailey said it was what “Roosevelt had to do, and who shall say that posterity will not thank him for it?”
This week, journalist Bob Woodward released segments of taped interviews he had earlier this year with President Donald Trump. Among the revelations: The president knew the dangers associated with the coronavirus outbreak but that he didn’t tell the nation.
"You just breathe the air and that's how it's passed," Trump told Woodward in early February. "It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. This is deadly stuff.”
Yet he was telling Americans something else – that the virus is similar to basic, seasonal influenza and that it would soon disappear.
The president says it was intentional and that he was only trying to avoid causing national panic.
Is the president wrong for doing so? Was Roosevelt? And were other presidents who history has shown misled the nation for what they considered the greater good?
Yes. Yes. And yes.
Bailey, the aforementioned author from the 1940s, wrote that a president “who cannot entrust the people with the truth betrays a certain lack of faith in the basic tenets of democracy.” However, he followed that with “but because the masses are notoriously shortsighted … our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests.”
Bailey was right about the first part but not the second. Americans deserve to know facts and the dangers before them. They deserve a game plan.
President Trump’s knowledge of the virus early in the pandemic should have been distributed unfiltered to the nation. Privately, he knew the depth of what the pandemic could bring, but publicly, he said it was nothing to worry about.
His public comments helped craft the approach used by many of the nation’s governors and slowed the national response. The comments also diminish the president’s own criticism of Chinese officials, who he said were too slow to share information about the growing pandemic.
“It would have been much better if we had known about this a number of months earlier,” the president said in the spring.
Further, the president’s downplaying of the virus has helped create an obvious divide – those who believe in the dangers of coronavirus and those who believe most science-based suggestions are an overreaction.
The president was wrong for downplaying a crisis to the American people. But he’s certainly not the first president to do it.