In the winter of 1968, with no end in sight to the surging Vietnam War, and unable to see a way past his signature failure and the divided nation the conflict had created, President Lyndon Johnson announced to a shocked nation that he "shall not seek, and I will not accept" the Democratic nomination for president. The war, with an American death toll that eventually reached 58,000, had destroyed the Johnson presidency.
In the next day or two the Covid-19 pandemic death toll in the United States will match that Vietnam War death toll. (On Sunday night, the tally stood at 55,000.) What took nine years of jungle warfare in Vietnam, Trump and his utterly failed pandemic leadership has overseen in just six weeks time. Yet rather than conceding his failures and acknowledging his shame the way Johnson did in a self-less attempt to heal the nation, Trump has spent recent days suggesting people ingest Lysol or Clorox in order to cure themselves of Covid-19. (He later insisted, not believably, that he was joking about the deadly advice.)
Nearly 58,000 are dead, the American economy has collapsed, food lines are growing, and the unemployment rate could hit 20 percent this year. In a sense, this is Trump's Vietnam and Trump's Great Depression.
Question: Does the news coverage of Trump you see today reflect the truly historic and once-in-a-century events that have quickly unfolded this year? Do you get a sense that the news media are capturing how unhinged the Trump presidency has become and put the epic failures in firm context?
And what lessons are the press learning from Trump's Vietnam? To date, I'm not seeing the Beltway press making dramatic changes in the way they cover Trump, even though he has spent the last six weeks brazenly lying about a public health crisis that has thoroughly gutted this nation.
Make no mistake, Trump owns this catastrophe, just like Johnson owned Vietnam. In many ways, Trump's failure far surpasses the Democrat's wartime mismanagement. Whereas Johnson threw the full force of the American military at the Vietnam War, only to fail spectacularly, Trump purposefully refused to unleash the power of the federal government this winter in order to fight the looming pandemic. Trump chose instead to ignore every possible warning and essentially gave a stand down order for the virus invasion.
We still don't know why Trump has done everything in his power to make this crisis worse — why he won't help key states secure desperately needed medical equipment, why he's touting a dubious miracle cure, fills marathon pandemic briefings with ceaseless contradictions and lies, has silenced scientists, purposefully ignored detailed intelligence warnings about Covid-19, and placed his unqualified son-in-law in charge of a national emergency. And we don't know why Trump dismantled the White House pandemic team that President Barack Obama had put into place.
The government has failed us on an historic level, lying every step of the way. Today, just 23 percent of Americans today have a high level of trust in what Trump is telling the public about the pandemic, according to recent Associated Press poll.
The Vietnam War represented a turning point for how the news media dealt with the U.S. government. Misled and lied to by three straight administrations, the press slowly built up newfound skepticism about official government pronouncements and denials. That trend soon spiked with Richard Nixon's criminal Watergate enterprise.
"My experience, and that of many, even most, American journalists in the Vietnam War transformed our profession," former Saigon correspondent Andrew Pearson wrote in 2018. "We realized over the years that the government was ill-informed and even wrong about issues of life and death.”
At the center of that long-running misinformation campaign were the daily, late afternoon Pentagon briefings from Saigon, where war planners routinely misled the press about the situation on the ground. The overly optimistic updates became so unbelievable they were dubbed the "five o'clock follies."
Recently, when MSNBC cut away from one of Trump's signature dishonest briefings, which featured a campaign-style attack ad against the media, former New York Times editor Howell Raines remarked, "I think this is one of the astonishing acts of disinformation we’ve seen from a White House since the Vietnam era and the 5:00 follies of the Lyndon Johnson administration."
In truth, the Trump briefings are far worse and far more dangerous. Rather than deceiving Americans about a far-off war, Trump lies everyday about a public health crisis and actively puts civilian lives at risk with his dangerous medical musings. Trump also does everything in his power to destroy America's faith in news gathering, while playing up his petty grievances at briefings that are supposed to inform an anxious nation.
The covid-19 pandemic has become Trump’s Vietnam. Incredibly, this war is just beginning.