Polio, coronavirus, and leadership

One thing about being under lock down because of the coronavirus:  you have time to do things and to think.  In my thinking time, my thoughts drifted back to the scare that polio put into the childhood of those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Specifically, I remember in the early 1960’s, as a seven or eight year old, standing in line with my parents and brothers to receive our oral vaccine, developed by Albert Sabin. Sabin had been to Cuba, and there he got the idea that the way to stop the virus was to inoculate everyone at the same time rather than waiting until they came to the doctor’s office for a visit. Thus, the lines.

Because it was a live vaccine that attacked polio in the intestines and prevented the virus from entering the bloodstream, it was more effective than Jonas Salk’s killed vaccine, which Salk had developed in 1955 and which had been widely distributed in the United States.  While the Sabin vaccine was widely distributed in many parts of the world, resistance to it by the March of Dimes and others somewhat limited its distribution in the U.S.

Still, my mother had us pretty much first up for it.  She was a worrier extraordinaire, and when it came to caution and safety measures, my mother made Ralph Nader to look like a lightweight.  My mother made my father install seat belts in our 1957 Plymouth the minute they were on the market.

She, along with every other parent in the U.S, was horrified by the pictures of children in huge steel iron lungs.  The picture of the 13-year old violin protegee Itzik Perlman lumbering onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 with braces and crutches was etched in her proud Jewish mother’s mind.  The thought of a child getting polio was terrifying to moms of the 1950s.

I started wondering: Given what we are now witnessing with the lack of tests, respirators, masks, and other vital equipment, could the United States marshal the kind of effort it took in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to quickly and widely inoculate an entire populace against a terrible disease?  Does the U.S. have the kind of leadership, the kind of cohesiveness, the kind of united sense of purpose that it takes to accomplish such an extraordinary feat today?

The United States had two very different kinds of presidents in 1955 and in the early 1960’s. The 1950’s was Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, the Midwestern, seasoned, calm, understated commander, who had led the troops on D-Day.  When you think of Ike and his first lady, Mamie, words like dowdy, traditional, white bread come to mind. But Eisenhower had a quiet determination, a steady hand that inspired confidence and trust.

Eisenhower was 62 when he took office and 70 when he finished serving.  That was considered quite old to be president. Imagine that.

While admired for his military achievements during WWII, Eisenhower’s presidency was considered by many at the time to be timid and without many accomplishments.  My father was fond of saying “We were taught as kids that anyone could become President; Eisenhower showed that we didn’t need one.”  Then my dad would have a good laugh at his own joke.  Of course, like a good liberal Jew of his day, he was a Stevenson man.

The early 1960’s was Kennedy.  Pretty much the opposite of Eisenhower. Boston sophisticate, wealthy, young, charming, and clever.  His wife Jackie was the opposite of Eisenhower’s Mamie: glamorous, fashion-setting, cultured.  Kennedy offered excitement, hope, inspiration. The Peace Corps, Camelot, and sailing.

The difference in the two presidents was like night and day.  But each in their own way had leadership qualities.  They commanded respect.  They inspired.  They listened to and followed the advice of knowledgeable people.  They respected science and learning.  They showed respect for others, including their opponents.  They could take criticism. They respected democratic institutions and traditions.

Eisenhower prepared a statement in the event D-Day failed:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Kennedy to the American Newspaper Publishers Association:

“This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.’ We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.”

More Kennedy:

“For courage — not complacency — is our need today. Leadership — not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.”

And then, of course, there is President Harry Truman’s ultimate, concise description of Presidential leadership and responsibility: “The buck stops here.”

It is impossible to imagine either Kennedy,Eisenhower, or Truman saying things like “I don’t take responsibility at all.”  Or the federal government “is not a shipping clerk.”  Or “We’re [the federal government] not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing.”  Or “State governors “have to treat us well.” Or “Is it going out the back door? Let the city take a look at it.”

Back to my question:  “Could the United States marshal the kind of effort it took in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to quickly and widely inoculate an entire populace against a terrible disease?  Does the U.S. have the kind of leadership, the kind of cohesiveness, the kind of united sense of purpose that it takes to accomplish such an extraordinary feat today?”

I’m thinking. I’m worried.

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Something else I have been thinking about: How is the seemingly endless and all-encompassing focus on the coronavirus impacting children?

I grew up in the final years of the polio scare and in the heat of the threat of nuclear disaster. We did air raid drills, hiding under our desks. Imagine that: Somehow adults thought that little wooden desktops would protect us from bombs and radiation.

We had evacuation drills. Neighbors dug shelters in their backyards. We toured them. Public service announcements instructed us on how to ensure our safety in the event of an attack. Bottom line: Nuclear annihilation was discussed constantly. It seemed real and possibly imminent.

I cannot pinpoint exactly how living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud impacted my generation, but I am sure it did. And not for the better.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California for 30 years. He currently lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, California and consults on governmental affairs, communications, politics, and business development. He blogs at www.edelsteinrandomthoughts.com. Inquiries regarding speaking engagements: ae@edelsteinstrategies.com
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