Why is it that whenever I see President Donald Trump's near daily televised briefings on the coronavirus pandemic I am often reminded of Marie Antoinette? Married to Louis XVI, king of France, when informed that many of her subjects were too poor to afford bread, Marie was (wrongly) attributed as responding, "Let them eat cake (or more correctly brioche)."
Three years after the 1789 French Revolution, Marie and Louis lost their heads to Madame Guillotine.
Trump is a master salesman. Once he discovered that the pandemic would not disappear at his whim and coronavirus was indeed a crisis, at his briefings and press conferences the president was at his selling best, repeating all the "great" things taking place under his administration. Millions of masks and protective clothing were flowing off production lines as if this were World War II with tanks, bombers and bullets. This had been the "best" economy ever had it not been for the virus. And so on.
Backed up by his task force headed by the vice president and the top physicians in the field, the scent of optimism and competence was real. The effectiveness is reflected in the polls. A majority of Americans now approve of the way the White House is handling this crisis. And White House advisers, namely Peter Navarro, one of the architects of the tariff war with China and advocate of calling the disease the Wuhan virus, have been attacking the media for "panicking" and presenting worst-case scenarios.
Yet from the battleground of emergency rooms, hospitals and cities, an entirely different and often desperate picture is emerging. The lack of protective equipment, ventilators, test kits and other vitally needed medical material seems ubiquitous from Seattle to New Orleans to Boston. That more Americans have been infected by the virus than China -- with five times the population -- is inexplicable. Clearly, any White House would attempt to demonstrate leadership and calm. But the contrasts between 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and the rest of the country remain stark.
Governors have stepped into the breach. New York's Andrew Cuomo, at the epicenter of the pandemic so far, has been forceful, direct and honest in his briefings, as have other governors in afflicted states. Aside from Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, most of these governors are Democrats, probably reflecting that their cities contain the largest populations and entry points for international travelers who may have carried the virus.
For older generations who remember the Vietnam War, the White House briefings could risk mirroring the "Five O'Clock Follies" in Saigon. Those were held in the headquarters for Military Assistance Command Vietnam known as MACV. Too often, the briefings promised that the United States and its Republic of Vietnam allies were "turning the corner." Or the light at the end of the tunnel was burning brighter. Or with the latest influx of x thousand American soldiers, the North was on the run. And the metric for assessing progress was the infamous body count. Based on the body count, the populations of North and South Vietnam must have been in the hundreds of millions to account for all the enemy combatants who were "killed" or reported as killed in action.
Just before the coronavirus dominated life, I read Sir Max Hastings' Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy: 1945-1975. Hastings, a highly regarded journalist and historian, recorded in detail how that war unfolded from jungles and hilltops, where hand-to-hand combat took place; to the skies above North and South Vietnam; and to the capitals, where presidents, prime ministers and general secretaries planned, conspired and ultimately decided the fate of Indochina. Having spent much of 1965-67 in South Vietnam, Hastings' telling is a vivid, frightening and very accurate portrayal.
Unhealthy doses of incompetence and cynicism are laced throughout the book with Paris, Saigon and Washington bearing the brunt of Hastings' scathing assessments. The real heroes in the book are not politicians and generals but the fighting men and, for both sides, women. The necessity to fight in the truly dreadful conditions in the "bush" was soul-destroying. Villains persisted on both sides of the 17th parallel that once divided north and south.
The only potential similarity between Vietnam and the current war on coronavirus could be the insidious, pernicious and corrupting consequence of failing to know, understand and tell the truth. In many ways, the virus is a more dangerous enemy because of the number of uncertainties that make identifying what is truth or not often a guess.
We should have known better in Vietnam. We did not. We cannot repeat those disastrous mistakes today nor "let them eat cake" suffice for an answer.
Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.