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The Untraveled High Road of Humility, and a President Laid Low

This weekend was, to use the clinical term, nuts. The president’s health status seemed to pinball from fine to scary. The White House’s story kept changing. No one had simple answers. When did the president first know he was sick? Who else was infected, awaiting results or quarantined? Was he really conducting the nation’s business from his hospital suite?

And why would Mr. Trump take a ride in the presidential S.U.V. so he could wave to supporters near the hospital? He did this on Sunday afternoon, which seemingly placed his Secret Service detail at risk of infection, as many pointed out. “The irresponsibility is astounding,” tweeted Dr. James P. Phillips, the chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University and an attending physician at Walter Reed. He noted that the risk of coronavirus transmission inside a hermetically sealed vehicle was about “as high as it gets outside of medical procedures.”

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, maintained that “appropriate precautions were taken” during the president’s ride. “The movement was cleared by the medical team as safe to do,” Mr. Deere told a pool reporter.

“This only confirms that there’s just this tremendous distrust about whether our political leadership is up to this moment,” said Leon Panetta, the former secretary of defense under President Barack Obama and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.

By definition, the nature of leading a diverse and complex nation is in large part a gamble, Mr. Panetta said. There is only so much even the most powerful chief executive in the world can control. “You can make up for some of that by telling the public what you think it wants to hear,” he said. But generally, the better bet is to acknowledge the limits of your authority and remind your constituents that no one person alone can fix it, he said. Be humble, in other words, or try to fake it.

That of course has never been Mr. Trump’s way. Self-doubt is for “losers.” Humility invites vulnerability. The approach has made him, depending on where you stand, an inspiring leader or an insufferable know-it-all and con man. It has made him immensely wealthy, or lent the impression of such.

In a sense, Mr. Trump has mastered the first feint of the powerful: No matter how much uncertainty swirls around you or doubt resides within, if you can sell yourself as being bulletproof, even against the potent ammunition of reason, then surely you must be.

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