When I was a college student in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s, I often heard the chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” — a stinging rebuke by youthful protesters of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps the slogan should be updated for the Coronavirus era to say, “Hey, Hey, Donald J., how many did you infect today?”

The U.S. presidency is an extremely powerful office. A president’s decisions can be enormously consequential, his words and actions a source for good or bad.

Like the Vietnam War which LBJ inherited from his predecessor, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at our shores through no fault of Donald Trump’s. And like LBJ over a half century ago, Trump’s decisions about how to handle the crisis have been based more on political self-promotion and vainglory than national interest. As a result, many Americans have sickened and died who could otherwise have been spared.

When LBJ succeeded to the presidency — following John F. Kennedy’s assassination Nov. 22, 1963 — a Communist insurgency by Viet Cong guerillas, assisted by their North Vietnamese allies, was threatening the survival of a U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime.  As part of his Cold-War strategy, President John Kennedy had tried to counter Soviet-inspired Communist influence in the emerging nations of the “Third World,” those impoverished countries in Asia and Africa just emerging from their dependent status as European colonies.  South Vietnam was considered a test of that strategy.

Starting in August 1964, Johnson escalated American military involvement in Vietnam, expanding our forces there from 16,000 to a peak of 550,000 and engaging in a massive air bombing campaign in North Vietnam and Viet Cong-controlled areas of the South. The escalation ultimately cost the lives of over 58,000 U.S. servicemen, killed between one and three million Vietnamese, and split the American public into aggressively adversarial pro- and anti-war factions. As a result of the war, LBJ’s popularity dropped so low he was at risk of losing his own party’s nomination for re-election and opted instead to withdraw from the race on March 31, 1968.

LBJ’s behavior presaged Trump’s in a number of ways.

First, he was not honest with the American people about his plans to widen the war or its prospects for success.

Second, because of his enormous egotism, he could not bear to admit he’d been wrong by winding down U.S. military involvement without victory.

Third, he was reluctant to listen to criticism or conflicting opinions about his conduct of the war and, therefore, increasingly surrounded himself with advisers who were yes-men.

Finally, even after he came to realize the war could not be won in any conventional sense, he continued to wage it because he believed conservative hawks would label him “soft on Communism” if he allowed the South Vietnamese regime to fall. Were that to happen, he feared, he would lose political popularity and congressional support for his signature civil rights and anti-poverty programs.

Trump has persistently minimized the dangers of COVID-19, wary it would damage optimism about the economy, depress the stock market, and threaten his chances for re-election.  In now infamous remarks, he’s exuded unwarranted optimism, stating that the virus “like a miracle, it will disappear,” “as the heat comes in, typically that will go away in April,” it “is going to go away without a vaccine,” it “affects virtually nobody” and it “is like a flu.”

Trump has touted the efficacy of unproven (and subsequently disproven) cures like the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. He’s ignored and contradicted the advice of his own scientific experts, notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, about the need for masks and social distancing, and has mocked those, especially his Democratic presidential opponent Joe Biden, who’ve followed that advice.   He’s pressured Republican state governors to re-open their economies and schools prematurely and in incautious ways which have caused the virus to spread.

Worst of all, he has personally modeled unsafe behavior in order to project an image of strength and fearlessness by staging official and campaign events which have brought thousands of people into close proximity without social distancing or mandatory masks. As a result, these events have themselves become “super-spreaders” which have sickened many, including Trump himself.

Trump’s reckless handling of the pandemic has made him unpopular with the majority of Americans and has threatened his re-election. A poll taken shortly after he was hospitalized with the disease in early October found that only 37% of adults approved of his handling of the pandemic. In recent polls, largely as a result of that factor, he’s been running 6 to 13 points behind his challenger, Joe Biden.

Unlike LBJ, however, Trump won’t have the good sense or humility to withdraw from the presidential race.

The coronavirus has now spread to more than 8.3 million people and claimed over 224,000 lives in the U.S. The number of reported new cases in most states are sharply rising rather than falling.

As the ravages of this disease continue unabated, I expect to echoes of “Hey, hey, LBJ” shouted across the length and breadth of this country as the American people call Trump to account for his wanton sacrifice of lives in the pursuit of adulation and re-election.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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