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August 3, 2021

David Shribman: Beware the premature victory lap

Not so fast, Joe.

Last week, President Biden spoke words that Americans have waited 16 months to hear. “We are emerging from the darkness of … a year of pandemic and isolation, a year of pain, fear and heartbreaking loss,” he said to a country that was celebrating its national day with picnics, cookouts, fireworks displays and parades.

With growing vaccination rates and with shrinking hospitalization and death rates, the president’s remarks sounded a lot like a declaration of “Mission Accomplished.”

And that’s the danger.

The last time a president proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” was 18 years earlier, when George W. Bush stood on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, a banner with that slogan behind him, and said that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

What we have here is a potentially bad case of premature celebration.

Biden’s ardor is understandable, more so than Bush’s. The country is exhausted by COVID restrictions, and it harbors enormous pent-up demand for normal human exchanges and the resumption of the customary rituals of American life — from visits to the mall or the ballpark to holiday celebrations over the embers of a broiling grill and a watermelon sliced in half with the snap that sounds like summer.

But …

But the Delta variant rages, huge swaths of many states remain vaccination deserts, and no one knows what a summer of day camps and outings at the lake will bring. Americans are surging — to the beach, to the ice cream counter, to the softball field. So might the virus.

In 1966, Sen. George Aiken suggested the United States declare victory in Vietnam and move on. That was basically the approach toward the coronavirus adopted by former President Donald J. Trump, who was 20 when the Vermont Republican made his comment and, as a young man vulnerable to the draft, perhaps may have noticed. Biden’s declaration was slightly more nuanced — he acknowledged that “COVID has not been vanquished” — but the notion was the same:

Reassure the country. Rally the country. Remind the voters of the administration’s good works.

And remember this: Bush was America’s first MBA president. Trump had a finance degree. Business leaders are accomplished in the art of converting optimism into optimal profits.

“Sometimes — not all the time, but sometimes — some things become true because you say them,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business theorist at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “Most entrepreneurs will tell you one of the secrets to success is to make things sound better than they are. You don’t say to the public that your product has troubles and you don’t know what to do about them. The ability to project a reality that is better than it really is often leads to good outcomes.”

That worked for Steve Jobs — but not for Neville Chamberlain.

The British prime minister returned from his 1938 conference with Adolf Hitler in Munich brandishing a paper he said assured “peace for our time,” an unfortunate phrase that turned out to be the opposite of reality. Within a year Europe was at war.

History is full of false dawns, from the 1848 “springtime of peoples” — when revolutions in Paris, Naples, Berlin, Vienna and Budapest sent tens of thousands to the streets to welcome the end of European autocracy, only to be greeted by anti-revolutionary forces that put an end to the celebratory mood — to the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising that seemed to signal the end of autocracy in China.

Similarly, early successes in Iraq suggested the American offensive had succeeded, though no weapons of mass destruction were present and the architecture of an Iraqi democracy was a chimera.

“This was a unilateral decision made by the president,” wrote Jean Edward Smith in his 2016 biography of Bush. “But the principal departments of the government and the military had not been consulted. By Bush’s order, the United States military moved from being liberators to being occupiers. It was downhill from there.” In a footnote, Smith said that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had not “fully recognized or understood the distinction between being liberators and being occupiers.”

Declarations of premature victories do not occur only in politics and war.

In 1957, the legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, confident that he had ridden Gallant Man across the Kentucky Derby finish line, stood up in his stirrups in glorious celebration — until it became clear Bill Hartack and Iron Liege actually had crossed the line first. Nearly a half-century later, Cleveland Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd pulled off a quarterback sack in the final seconds of the opening game of the 2002 season that he was convinced clinched the game, prompting him to rip off his helmet in celebration and to miss the fact that the play, and thus the game, hadn’t ended. That prompted a penalty that allowed a Kansas City Chiefs field goal to produce a 40-39 win.

It is not only the Biden administration but the whole country that is hoping the president wasn’t standing on some metaphorical Mafeking Street when he made his proclamation — and that he wasn’t selling vaporware, the term tech companies use for hardware or software that isn’t developed yet.

Travel through Great Britain, and you will find that nearly every town has a Mafeking Street, marking the “Relief of Mafeking.”

The 1900 relief of the British garrison during the Second Boer War — marked by the singing of “Rule Britannia,” and met with wild rejoicing on the streets and even the interruption of a Wagner opera attended by the Prince of Wales in London — wasn’t quite the victory the press heralded, and Col. Robert Baden-Powell (later known for the founding of the Boy Scouts) wasn’t the hero he was made out to be.

“The sheer desire to be free of a pandemic and a pathogen can of course lead us to declare premature victory over it,” said Jason Opal, a McGill University historian who is writing a history of epidemic diseases with his father, Steven Opal, a clinical professor medicine at Brown University. “Biden clearly wants a political victory, and he’s clearly earned some degree of a victory lap for having put in place and carried out a great vaccination campaign. But, well, it’s not over, at least not until the variants say it is.”

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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