By: Thom Little, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled “A Rock and a Hard Place: The Pressure to and Challenges of Reopening the States,” acknowledging the difficulty state leaders had making policy while trying to balance the health benefits and economic costs of state stay at home orders.  I had no idea when I penned that blog that the situation would only get more difficult for our nation and those who lead it. Since that blog was posted, the nation has been rocked by the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests and civil unrest in communities large and small across the nation. 

On top of that, in the words of California Governor Gavin Newsome, “We might be done with the virus, but the virus is not done with us.” As of Wednesday, June 24, over half of the states in the country are experiencing significant increases in cases with the spikes particularly high in large highly populated California, Texas and Florida. I recently read where someone wrote that 2020 was as if someone decided to combine the 1918 flu epidemic with the 1929 depression and then throw in the “long hot summer” of 1968 for good measure! Seems like a pretty apt description to me.

In light of my work with the SLLF and my lifelong interest in state legislatures, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how policymakers across the country should respond to these difficult times. There are a lot of public policy options. Should lawmakers pass laws requiring masks and social distancing? Should they allow businesses and services to re-open or return to a modified “stay at home” order to try and get the virus back under control? Regarding civil unrest, should they shift revenue away from police departments, change limited immunity policies or just wait until this all blows over? There are plenty of policy options for lawmakers to consider, but I want to suggest a different approach, at least in the short term, for them to think about.

People are scared. They are scared of catching the virus. They are scared of giving the virus to an elderly grandparent or parent. They are scared that they will not be able to pay their bills or put food on the table. They are scared their business may not survive the economic crisis. Some are scared of the police. Some are scared of the protestors. And some are just plain scared.

They want policies to help address their fears, no doubt, but at a more basic level, they want to be heard and comforted. They want to know that someone is listening to them and validating their concerns and fears. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” While good public policy solutions are always important, right now, comfort, compassion and understanding may be just as important, if not moreso, than good public policy. In times of crises, people need compassion.

Let me offer real world experience that you will all recognize. This past week, I was privileged to hear an SLLF Webinar with Andy Card, former Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, about President Bush’s response to the attacks of 9/11. Mr. Card shared with us the events of that day as well as the Friday afterward. One particular event from Friday, September 14 struck me as particularly significant. We all remember the “bullhorn” moment when President Bush responds to the comment “We can’t hear you,” by exclaiming, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” However, far fewer are aware of what happened next. Following this electrifying moment, President Bush went to the Jacob Javits Center where he was supposed to say a few words to the survivors and grieving families gathered there. Instead of speaking from the stage, Card told us, President Bush stayed more than two hours, meeting with each person there, offering an arm to lean on and a shoulder to cry on. Card summed up the significance of the moment, “The President went to every single person in the room. He hugged them. He prayed with them. He cried with them. He hoped with them.”. 

Legislators and legislative leaders play a lot of roles. They are makers of policy. They are cheerleaders of their state and nation. They are educators of the public. They are administrators of the government. They are representatives of their district. But, let us not forget that, especially in times of crisis, they are comforters of the fearful and hurting. They must offer comfort, empathy and hope to those they serve. As Mr. Card reminded us that “All of us should have emotional connections with the people who sent us to Washington or the state capitol. Don’t ever lose that connection. If you can’t cry with them, then maybe you shouldn’t be serving them.”