woodward oped neerja

"Rage" by Bob Woodward is offered for sale at a Barnes & Noble store on Sept. 15, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. The book, based on interviews that Woodward had with President Donald Trump, are now for sale. Indian American writer Neera Kuckreja Sohoni opines: “In defense of Trump, one could argue first that his not being forthright with the nation on the gravity and the speed-of-light contagiousness of the virus was less a cover-up than a conscious decision meant to keep the nation’s morale up and to not scare them out of their wits.”  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For months, Americans and our scientists and political leaders have been debating, among others, the genesis, scope, extent, nature and lethality of the Corona pandemic. But no single aspect connected to Corona has been as vigorously contested as President Donald Trump’s handling of it. As the 2020 election date gets closer, the rhetoric has heightened with former Vice President Joe Biden seeking to replace Trump by grasping on Corona as the defining failing moment of the Trump presidency and its consequent likely demise. He has called out everything that Trump failed to do or acknowledge, accusing Trump of impassively standing by as thousands of Americans lie dead. Into Biden’s heated cauldron adding fuel to fire is Bob Woodward’s claim about Trump underplaying the magnitude and lethality of the virus, while conceding the same to Woodward in their private recorded interviews that form the basis of his book on Trump titled “Rage.”

To many, Woodward, like Dr. Fauci, is a revered figure of unquestionable professional standing and integrity. Several previous presidents starting with Richard Nixon have gone through the ringer of Woodward’s carefully researched and evidence based biographies. In Trump’s book, whatever is attributed to him is backed by authorized recording of the reporter’s conversations with the president. So, the sequence of what Trump knew, and when, what he chose to publicly air or not, as reported by Woodward cannot be doubted. What can and must be questioned are Woodward’s interpretations of the Corona events based on his own preference for what Trump should and could have done and did not, and worse, his stepping out of a reporter’s role and solemn duty to not put his thumb on the scale for or against a candidate seeking reelection. Surely the latter cannot be condoned by those who still believe in the sacredness of a responsible ethical fourth estate in a democracy.

The last line in his book, where Woodward asserts (60 Minutes, 9/13/2020) Trump is the wrong man for the job (i.e., not fit to be president or to lead the country), is so far out from Woodward’s own earlier expressed concern over loss of journalistic objectivity[1] — the independence traditionally associated with and expected of journalists. That he had all the facts pertaining to Trump’s supposedly untruthful and manipulative handling of Corona for all these past months but chose to sit tight and air his comments and concern only now, on the eve of presidential election, renders him and his motive suspicious.

In defense of Trump, one could argue first that his not being forthright with the nation on the gravity and the speed-of-light contagiousness of the virus was less a cover-up than a conscious decision meant to keep the nation’s morale up and to not scare them out of their wits. That the infectious disease control fraternity itself – led by the sagacious Dr. Fauci – was and continues to be foggy about the precise topology and trajectory of the virus only adds to the rationality of Trump’s choice to refrain from making definitive statements about the pandemic.

But there is one more reason not to pounce on Trump. Regardless of what he said to Woodward while not sharing it with the public, and accepting Woodward’s premise that in a democracy, the people expect their leaders to level with them, it is worth asking Woodward and Trump’s countless other critics, what measurable harm was inflicted on the public’s health and emotional wellbeing. For Biden and some scientists in his camp to assert 100,000 or some such number of lives could have been saved amounts to a leap in the dark, as not even the most informed skeptics and critics can causatively correlate that withholding of this precise piece of knowledge caused this precise number of people to die owing to these precise causes.

In the absence of definitive diagnostic, therapeutic, ameliorative and preventive knowledge, one is not wrong to rely on hope, and in that sense, err on the side of optimism. Like most of us, Trump is sincere even desperate in hoping ways will be found soonest to overcome this treacherous virus. If that hope seems unrealistic, and at times ahead of scientific caution, that can hardly be seen as vicious, malicious or unlawful.

In politics or elsewhere, illusion is hardly a novelty. In all facets of human life, hope is what keeps us going. Clearly hope can be illusionary, but that is no reason for one to prefer to live in despair, or to damn Trump for being an illusionist and myth-maker. Trump’s effort to downplay the pandemic or claim to have something soon that can defeat the ‘enemy’ is hardly to be deemed treacherous. But the opposing party and media have their agenda to play out. Even as cancellation of Trump’s presidency has been the guiding force behind opposition to Trump, it is sad to see Woodward descend from his august perch to muddy the already polluted world of media and party politics.

[1] ‘Bob Woodward defends journalistic objectivity in the era of Trump “My job is not to take sides.”’ By Eric Allen Been, Vox, Updated Mar 14, 2018, 10:33am. In the interview with Been, Woodward warns against the tendency to ridicule and editorialize. He thinks reporting should be as “neutrally presented as possible”. “Let people involved make their own judgments”, he concludes.

(The author is an Indian American freelance writer and published author.)

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