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CLARENCE PAGE: COVID-19 patient Donald Trump’s sunny outlook casts gloomy shadows

Updated October 6, 2020 - 9:49 pm

Three days after he quietly slipped away to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of his COVID-19 infection, President Donald Trump returned home with his sunny side up.

“We’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front,” Mr. Trump said in a video shot after his return and then posted online. “As your leader, I had to do that. I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s OK. And now I’m better and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives.”

Is he nuts? Not in his view. He sees his presidential role quite sanely as the nation’s “cheerleader.”

But a sunny attitude is no substitute for a troubling absence of information. It leads instead to rumors, speculation and misinformation, particularly in today’s conspiracy theory-saturated social media culture.

In fact, with internet rumor mills floating the almost inevitable conspiracy theories that maybe Trump wasn’t even ill or in the hospital at all, Trump probably might say he was performing a public service with his impromptu Sunday motorcade for a vigil of supporters outside Walter Reed. ”See?” he could say. “I’m alive!”

But such stunts bring little comfort to Secret Service agents and others whose lives also are put at risk.

Trump wants his public defiance of the virus’s danger to be seen as acts of strength and courage, not recklessness. He grandly flouts public health guidelines by holding campaign rallies and White House events without masks or social distancing — and mocks those who do, especially if they’re Democrats or journalists.

Trump is by no means the first president or administration to be less than candid about the state of the president’s health. I’ll never forget how Ronald Reagan concealed the fact that he had been shot. He walked past news cameras under his own power and collapsed inside the emergency room doors before the world found out that he was bleeding under his jacket.

Trump, by comparison, has been the P.T. Barnum of ill presidents. He unabashedly wants to make everybody feel good, even when we have good reason to feel badly about the dangers the coronavirus still poses. But closer than P.T. Barnum, Trump himself has said, is Norman Vincent Peale, the New York pastor famous for the bestselling “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

Peale’s optimistic advice (“Adopt the ‘I don’t believe in defeat’ attitude” and “Never entertain a failure thought”) sounds like a theme that runs through Trump’s exaggerations, from his Inauguration Day crowd size to the coronavirus being “like the flu.”

I don’t know a lot about Peale, but one of his more popular quotes jumped out at me: “Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry,” he wrote. “Live simply, expect little, give much. Scatter sunshine, forget self, think of others.’ Try this for a week and you will be surprised.”

I am waiting to be surprised by Trump taking that advice seriously.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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