This is a guest blog from my dear friend of 20+ years — Karine Schomer. She has a PhD and is a writer, speaker, scholar, and a political and social commentator, amongst many other things.
It wasn’t until I heard Queen Elizabeth’s April 5 address, and started following California Governor Gavin Newsom’s daily Coronavirus briefings, that I realized how much we need to hear genuine leadership voices during times of peril.
The Queen’s Speech
Queen Elizabeth’s televised speech on the Coronavirus crisis — a whole long month ago — was directed at the people of the U.K. The immediate context was the news that both the British Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales were infected. It was broadcast around the world, however, and spoke eloquently to many in other countries.
I know it spoke to this American, who has a strong sense of both our own history and that of the remarkable island nation we revolted against two and a half centuries ago.
Listening to that short address (only the fifth such special broadcast by the Queen in her long 68-year reign), you couldn’t miss the echoes of Winston Churchill’s great World War II speeches, in which, in the unforgettable words of the American wartime broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, he “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Though the Queen has none of the charisma and eloquence of her first Prime Minister, and her delivery is as flat as it has always been, I’ve played the speech over and over again as an antidote to the collective uncertainty and fear we’ve all been feeling since the pandemic became real to us.
I also play that speech in order to wash from my mouth the bad taste left everyday by the televised spectacle of President Trump using the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings to aggrandize himself before a U.S. national audience, attack his enemies and the press, pander to his political base, contradict the information provided by the experts, improvise ungrounded and misleading optimistic scenarios, promote dangerous false cures, and display the full extent of his meandering and irresponsible mind.
The Governor’s Press Conferences
At about the time I first heard the Queen’s speech, I started tuning in to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s live press conferences on our state’s response to the crisis. These have been going on from early March, but especially since California’s March 19 statewide Stay At Home order — the first in the U.S. — went into effect.
Streamed live daily on the California Governor’s Twitter and Facebook feeds between 12 noon and 1 PM, and via satellite and pool footage to radio and TV stations across the state, they have become a trustworthy anchor of stability in the midst of all the uncertainty, chaos and fear.
Every day, I turn on my local public radio station, KQED, and listen to the Governor’s press conference while preparing lunch. The reassurance I feel makes me think of what it must have been like in the Great Depression to hear President Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats on the radio.
I’m also heartened every day by the detailed information the Governor provides about large-scale actions and plans being put in place. And by how the many resources of expertise, capital, capacity, government and the private sector available in this resource-rich state are being mobilized to work together on solutions.
Once again, I find myself thinking about the era of The New Deal, with its famous ‘alphabet soup’ of ambitious programs which, in the aggregate, saved the economy and built huge positive capacity for the future.
Each news conference opens by the Governor addressing the people of California with words of empathy and encouragement, and thanking all the front-line contributors to the state’s effort to slow the pandemic.
He next runs through the latest events, facts and statistics (whether encouraging or discouraging) and outlines in clear, detailed language the state’s progress to date, and the latest initiatives that have been or will be launched.
Newsom then hands over the microphone to various state and local officials, community leaders, epidemiological experts, philanthropists, or leaders in the private sector relevant to the briefing of the day, and they fill in with more detail.
The rest of the press conference is open to phone-in questions from reporters ranging from local media and major state newspapers as well as national newspapers and wire services.
Each question is treated respectfully and in detail, by both the Governor and the other people participating in the briefing, without attempts at any kind of spin or obfuscation.
(Incidentally, the social-distancing format has the advantage of doing away with the unseemly clamor of reporters shouting to be recognized in the old ‘normal’ face-to-face press conferences of the past!)
I find something wonderfully refreshing and inspiring about all this straightforwardness, order, compassion, strategic action and sheer competence in the art of governing during a time of crisis.
When I hear the Governor of California and his team reporting to us on progress and setbacks, and calling on us to continue our collective participation in the effort, I temporarily forget the sorry scene from the White House, and the travails of the embattled Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has to try to guide our national response under the shadow of a President who is utterly unable and unwilling to provide the kind of leadership at the federal level that is so desperately needed.
‘The Dignified’ vs. ‘The Efficient’
Like many people nowadays, my husband and I spend inordinate amounts of down time watching (and rewatching) movies and TV shows on Netflix.
Among the many riveting political dramas we see again and again are Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (the fictional drama about the U.S. presidency that functions as a basic civics lesson on how our government is supposed to work) and The Crown (the brilliant historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth and a lesson on the functioning of Britain’s constitutional monarchy).
Those of you who are also fans of The Crown will have been introduced to the famous distinction made by the 19th century political thinker Walter Bagehot. in his 1867 book The English Constitution.
The power of government, he says, has two different and equally important dimensions: ‘the efficient’ (the concrete political institutions and processes by which governmental decisions are argued over, made and implemented) and the ‘the dignified’ (the institutions and processes that have the intangible ability to inspire the hearts and minds of the people — to appeal to the civic sense that Abraham Lincoln called ‘our better angels’).
The Dignified at Its Best: The Queen Speaks ‘To Reassure and inspire’
The Queen’s speech of April 5, solemn and formal, was a classic example of the ‘dignified’ voice of leadership above politics. That’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
Queen Elizabeth addresses her nation on the Coronavirus Crisis — April 5, 2020
She started with a simple statement of empathy for the suffering:
“I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all.”
Then came thanks to the people involved in essential services, and for the cooperation of everyone in the stay-at-home protection measures:
“I want to thank everyone on the NHS front line, as well as care workers and those carrying out essential roles, who selflessly continue their day-to-day duties outside the home in support of us all. I am sure the nation will join me in assuring you that what you do is appreciated and every hour of your hard work brings us closer to a return to more normal times.
I also want to thank those of you who are staying at home, thereby helping to protect the vulnerable and sparing many families the pain already felt by those who have lost loved ones. Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it.”
Finally — the most profound and brilliant ‘dignified’ rhetorical move in the speech — the Queen struck a note that, in the words of BBC news correspondent Jonny Dymond, “recast the coronavirus crisis as a defining moment for a nation which will forever remember its collective effort to save the lives of its vulnerable” — with all the echoes this had for the people of Britain to Winston Churchill’s words in his “This Was Their Finest Hour” speech rallying the people of Britain after the fall of France in 1940.
“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”
The Dignified and The Efficient in a Single Voice: The Governor’s ‘Stepping into This moment and Doing What We Can’
We Americans, of course, are without the structure of separate ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ elements in our governmental structures. Not at the national level of the Presidency, and not at the level of Governors in the states.
The repeated scene in The Crown where Prime Ministers come weekly for an audience with the Queen and are grilled on their actions is unimaginable. Whether this is something positive or not can be a matter of debate.
The inimitable British comedian Stephen Fry, in an an op-ed titled ‘Happy Birthday America — One Small Suggestion’, has suggested, only partly in jest, that we Americans might be well served if we had an unelected ‘first citizen’ called Uncle Sam, top hat with stars and all. Uncle Sam would be above politics and regional interests, embodying the ‘values, history, character, disposition and hopes of the whole country’, and the President would be required to go repeatedly to explain himself to this austere figure above the fray!
We don’t have this, but occasionally leaders do show up who are able to function well, and speak well, in both the ‘efficient’ and the ‘dignified’ voices. We’ve lucked out here in California, in that, at this crucial juncture, we seem to have just such a person in our Governor.
Like the Queen, Governor Newsom is not an eloquent orator with the power to bring audiences to their feet. His voice, too, is somewhat flat. It’s also often hoarse from his non-stop daily schedule of speaking to public audiences, work teams, local officials, the press, community leaders, business leaders and ordinary citizens as he tries to lead the mighty state of California through these hard times.
His speaking style is that of a type I’ve come to know through my years in management consulting. It’s the Silicon Valley CEO style — confident, fluent, detail-oriented, ex temp, rapid paced, colloquial, and informed by great amounts of complex knowledge as well as a laser-like sense of planning and strategy.
It’s also full of what some have termed ‘Bay Area cool-speak’ — with popular Silicon Valley expressions like ‘owning issues’, ‘socializing ideas’, ‘framing questions’, ‘success criteria’, ‘data points’, ‘baselines’ and ‘roadmaps’, ‘key indicators’, ‘success criteria’, and referring to different sectors of the economy as ‘spaces’.
The two dimensions of Governor Newsom’s leadership voice are evident in every one of his press conferences. I’m hooked. I join those who, in mid-April national polling about the performance of state governors on the Coronavirus, gave Gavin Newsom an 83% approval rating.
The ‘dignified’ in Newsom’s press conferences comes across in an unfailing return to a number of key themes: mourning the the loss of human lives, empathy for the economic hardship suffered by so many, concern to address the needs of all the segments of the state’s society, praise for those who are playing their roles in the collective effort, an unabashed sense of pride in the accomplishments and humane values of what he calls ‘the nation-state’ of California, and confidence in the people of the state to weather this storm together and come out stronger at the other end.
April 15, 2020 Coronavirus Press Conference, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California
Excerpts from the Governor’s briefings I found particularly affecting at the ‘dignified’ level include the following:
On the loss of life:
“We sadly lost 42 additional lives last night. Over the weekend we crossed that threshold of over 1000 people that have lost their lives. And now, as of this moment, 1208 human beings in the state of California have lost their lives to COVID-19. And so, again, we express our deep empathy and recognition. These are not statistics, these are human beings, stories, journeys, each and everyone precious, and our hearts go out to their families and loved ones.” (April 20)
On May 1, International Workers’ Day:
“This May Day is particularly special as we recognize essential workers who go to work every day to ensure that Californians are cared for in our hospitals and nursing homes and in their own homes, and that we can all access essential services like food, child care and utilities during this challenging time. At the same time, many California workers have been displaced and are struggling to get by. Today we thank our essential workers and let those who have been displaced by this virus know that we see you, we appreciate you, and we have your backs.” (May 1)
Announcing a relief package for undocumented workers:
“Our diverse communities in the state of California include our immigrant communities. I don’t know if many people know this but it’s a remarkable thing. One half of our children in the state of California are born to at least one member of their family that’s an immigrant. This is a state where 27% of us are foreign born. That’s diversity on a scale that doesn’t exist in any other state in our nation. Regardless of your status, documented or undocumented, there are people in need. And this is a state that always steps up to support those in need, regardless of status.” (April 15)
Meanwhile, at the “efficient” level of the Governor’s leadership, we’ve witnessed over the last couple of months a torrent of executive orders, policy decisions, appropriations, initiatives, agreements, partnerships, and other undertakings — all concentrated and orchestrated to stem the course of the pandemic, protect the health of the population, provide an economic safety net, and recover the state’s economy.
The rate, the scale, the complexity and the sophistication of this rollout have been reminiscent of President Roosevelt’s legendary ‘First 100 Days’ that launched The New Deal. And the impacts have been widespread.
May 4 Coronavirus Press Conference, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California
Governor Newsom in his ‘efficient’ voice continues to remind us that we are far from being ‘out of the woods’ on the Coronavirus — nationally and internationally of course, but here in California too.
But it seems that the plethora of bold governmental measures taken here under his leadership has averted the very worst immediate scenarios. And that, in this state at least, we’re on a slow, careful, methodical path to moving forward into some kind of gradual re-opening and recovery.
Not a return to to the unsafe, wasteful, stressful, environmentally disastrous and reckless ‘old normal’ but the judicious and introduction of a ‘new normal’ for a future of doing many things differently. A future in which the Governor expects California to lead.
This is what highly competent, visionary, honest, service-oriented leadership can accomplish.
This is leadership — in both the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’ dimensions — that Uncle Sam could be proud of.
It’s leadership that gives me hope and motivation to continue to play my part in our collective effort against the pandemic.
Karine Schomer, PhD lives in Berkeley, and writes on Medium at https://medium.com@schomer44. In her essays, she explores the worlds of society, politics, culture, history, language, world civilizations and life lessons. You can read her writer’s philosophy in The Idea Factory.