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Leonard Pitts: Alas, a eulogy for competence

By Leonard Pitts

Consider this a eulogy for competence. It’s an appreciation long overdue, but then, competence — the quality of being equal to the situation, of knowing what to do — was always easy to overlook. You learned to expect it, to take it for granted.

Competence was not sexy.

Another reason this eulogy is overdue is that the loss of competence — meaning federal government competence — is not recent. To the contrary, competence has been gone since January of 2017.

But the events of the last week make this an especially appropriate time for a eulogy. Seldom has the absence of competence seemed more glaring. Seldom have we been able to draw such a direct line between that absence and threats to our physical and financial health.

The mixed-up, mixed-messaging misadventures of the Trump regime as it struggled to frame a coherent response to the novel coronavirus threat was a master class in what happens in a post-competence world once a critical mass of voters decides that stupidity is authenticity and ignorance some form of native genius. It was frightening and yet perversely fascinating to watch.

In a moment that cried out for a president to be presidential, you instead had Donald Trump, having previously assured us warm weather would dispatch the disease, lashing out at his favorite foils. “Fake News MSDNC” and CNN, he tweeted, are trying to create panic. In a press conference Wednesday, he leveled the same charge at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who have criticized his response to the threat.

During that same press conference, Trump said Johns Hopkins University rates the United States “No. 1 for being prepared.” As proof, he held up a piece of paper with a chart printed on it. Trump likened the coronavirus to the flu and played down the threat it poses. “We really have done a very good job,” he said. Then he announced Vice President Pence would lead the response to the virus. Pence’s scientific acumen can perhaps be judged by his insistence that climate change is a “myth” and his claim in 2000 that “smoking doesn’t kill.”

The markets, not surprisingly, were not reassured; they spent most of the week in free fall. Nor were health officials. In contrast to Trump’s litany of vague reassurances, the CDC — whose budget Trump wants to slash, by the way — said the stateside spread of the disease is “inevitable” and advised Americans to brace for “significant disruption.”

“But we’re very, very ready for this,” said Trump. Yeah. Sure we are.

Some have likened all this to the Bush administration’s laggard response to Hurricane Katrina. But here’s the thing: That failure was noteworthy precisely because it was unexpected, flying in the face of what you looked for from the federal government.

But who among us didn’t expect this? Who would’ve bet the farm that, in the face of a global crisis, the Trump regime would act with the coordinated precision of circus acrobats? No one, that’s who. Circus clowns maybe, but acrobats? No.

Some of us have spent the last few years pretending it doesn’t matter, pretending you could indulge, normalize and make excuses for gross incompetence in the most powerful office in the world and there would be no impact, no price to pay.

It was always a lie, always a triumph of ideology and agenda over common sense and as such, always destined to unravel. Now, perhaps, it does. We are teetering on the edge of pandemic, our lives and fortunes at stake. And our leader is an idiot.

Competence has rarely been so dearly missed.

Email Pitts at lpitts@miamiherald.com

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