In late March when Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb was issuing a stay-at-home order and seeking to encourage a sense of community for the tough days ahead, he channeled a figure he knew would resonate with his basketball-obsessed state: Coach Norman Dale.
In Indiana the coach from the popular 1986 movie “Hoosiers” needs no introduction. Played by Gene Hackman, Dale led a small-town high school team to the 1952 state title in an against-the-odds tale of collective achievement.
“My team’s on the court. I’m pretty proud that people are stepping up and playing different roles, setting picks and getting rebounds and blocking out,” Holcomb told a news conference on March 24. “We’re gonna get through this.”
Like Holcomb, governors across the United States are turning to historical and iconic figures to help inspire their constituents during the coronavirus pandemic, playing a role that critics of President Donald Trump say should be his as the top elected official, but one he is not suited to fill.
The governors have, of course, drawn from political giants such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. president who guided the nation through the Great Depression, and Winston Churchill, Britain’s inspirational leader who, like Roosevelt, steered his country through the devastation of World War II.
But they have also invoked rock stars, poets and even Mister Rogers in an attempt to instill a sense of common purpose, especially as they locked down schools and businesses in March and April without detailed assurances on when they would reopen.
“Do the next right thing,” Maine Gov. Janet Mills said in an address on April 10, quoting from her granddaughter’s favorite movie, “Frozen 2,” as she asked people to check in on a neighbor, thank a health care worker and stay at home.
With their daily press conferences, speeches and frequent messages on social media aimed at informing and reassuring the public, the governors are assuming a leadership position that would normally have been reserved for Trump, said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.
“We don’t remember what state governors were saying during the Depression. People talk about the fireside chats,” he said, referring to Roosevelt’s informal radio addresses to the nation broadcast between 1933 and 1944. “The entire burden seems to be on the shoulders of governors and mayors in this crisis. That’s what is unprecedented.”
The pandemic has inflicted historic human and economic costs on the United States, causing unemployment levels last seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s and taking more lives than two decades of fighting by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
More than a third of the over 78,000 American deaths have occurred in New York, putting Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the spotlight and turning his daily news conferences into must-watch TV.
While Cuomo has been criticized by some for not acting more aggressively in the early days of the pandemic, he has also received praise for dealing in facts, not sugar-coating bad news and his use of uplifting speech to prepare the public for sacrifices while maintaining some measure of hope.
Cuomo has sprinkled his briefings with quotes from former U.S. presidents George Washington, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, while also channeling Churchill and even his own father, the former governor of New York.
“Let them know the truth, and the country is safe,” Cuomo said on Thursday, quoting Lincoln.
Last month New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy invoked the names of former Republican presidents Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as paragons of leadership to urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reverse his stance against providing emergency relief funds to help “blue states” fight the pandemic.
“They did not get small, they got big in that moment, and that is the challenge, Senator, to you and to all leaders in this country,” said Murphy, who also turned to a Bon Jovi song to celebrate New Jerseryians who had beat the disease.
“To quote a New Jersey icon, Mr. Jon Bon Jovi, ‘Who says you can’t go home?’” Murphy said at a briefing.
To comfort children who may have been upset at the closing of schools, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee quoted the iconic host of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” children’s TV show: “Everyone has lots of ways of feeling, and all those ways of feeling are fine. It’s what we do with our feelings that matter,” Inslee said on April 6.
Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist who was the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s speechwriter, said leaders cite historical figures to inspire the public but also to help relay hard truths in a way that empowers the audience.
“People actually respond to that kind of truth-telling. I don’t think Trump understands that at all,” said Shrum, director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future. “That in dark times gave people hope.”
In addition to Democratic governors Cuomo, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and California’s Gavin Newsom, Shrum gave high marks to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, for following his health officials’ advice in confronting the crisis.
DeWine, who has had to navigate pushback to his social distancing orders, has quoted Lincoln’s “the better angels of our nature,” Eleanor Roosevelt’s “no ordinary time” and Churchill in attempts to inspire and unify his state.
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,” DeWine said on April 16, drawing from a 1942 Churchill speech after German and Italian forces suffered a decisive defeat in Egypt that marked a turning point in World War II.