In a recent press briefing, US President Donald Trump was asked why he hadn’t ordered the federal government to do more to respond to the pleas of state governors for more help in fighting the coronavirus pandemic now ravaging some of their states and exhausting their limited resources.
His reply was stunning. The federal government, he said, is “not a shipping clerk” for such potentially life-saving supplies. Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work themselves — i.e., getting vitally needed supplies and equipment to the men and women health care workers on the frontlines caring for the afflicted and protecting the rest of us.
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But what if they cannot access these critically needed items and supplies? We are left with the impression that, well, it’s not the president’s job. Donald Trump, the president of the world’s most powerful, richest and technologically-advanced nation, apparently can’t be bothered with the mundane responsibilities of a shipping clerk.
Yet grocery store clerks work extra-long hours to serve shoppers. Long haul truckers pull extended hours over long distances, sometimes through adverse weather, to get goods we all need to where they’re most needed. Teachers quickly adapt lesson plans and work painstakingly late hours to acquaint themselves with unfamiliar online teaching and teleconferencing software in order to continue teaching their students. Volunteers by the hundreds of thousands organize food drives, sew surgical masks, care for the homeless and check up on elderly house-bound citizens. Most importantly, first responders, doctors, nurses, medical technicians and hospital staff pull double shifts and endanger their own lives to care for those in need.
In the labors of all those aforementioned and of millions of others stepping up in innumerable ways in this crisis, how many are turning to a colleague and saying, That’s not my job? I bet I know: none of them.
Small But Great Tasks
The mere thought is unthinkable to them. Why? Because these women and men understand duty. In the course of a normal day’s work, one’s duty may be doing only one’s own job well. In a crisis, however, whatever one can do is one’s job. Whether it be commonplace or exceptional, whatever one can do when lives are at stake and time is of the essence must be done. It’s called duty.
Men and women who have served in the armed services or as health care workers, police officers, firefighters, or in a myriad of other professions in which crises are commonplace know that anything they can do is a duty. Doing whatever needs doing is a duty.
Donald Trump, however, apparently cannot stoop to ordering the government he leads to do what it can, in fact, do: get the right goods and supplies to where they’re needed. Perhaps, he sees his role as carrying out more noble tasks befitting his office. If so, he should heed the advice of Helen Keller, the extraordinary American writer and activist who suffered from deafness and blindness: “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” She saw the greatness of a deed not in the deed itself, but in its achievement for a good end.
And the Buck Stops… Where?
The new coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease is afflicting people around the world. If we are to overcome it, we must all summon the will to do all that is necessary, whether it’s caring for the afflicted, searching for a cure or vaccine, checking out the elderly fellow in the grocery store check-out line long after one’s shift has ended, or getting that necessary prescription medication to that home-bound woman who just discovered she doesn’t have enough to last through the night. Or simply isolating ourselves to limit the virus from spreading. Those who perform these and thousands of other tasks every day during this crisis are not doing so because it’s their job. They do this because they understand it as a duty.
Should President Trump have any doubt about his duty, he may wish to turn to the guidance of one of his predecessors, Abraham Lincoln, who led America in what may have been its most extraordinary crisis: the Civil War. “I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind,” Lincoln said in 1861. It is in Trump’s power to “assist in ameliorating mankind,” including those of his own country. It is also his duty. Because he can.
So, why doesn’t he? Can it be that the man who occupies the Oval Office that ought to personify duty and where, in the words of another of his predecessors, Harry Truman, “the buck stops,” doesn’t understand either his duty or even its concept?
I cannot know what the president thinks or how he feels. But I do know that in a crisis in which potentially 100,000 to 240,000 lives are at stake in the US alone, according to the president’s estimate, and the jobs and livelihoods of millions of others are on the line, it is his duty to do all that his august office permits him to do. That includes functioning as a shipping clerk, Mr. President.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.