Looking back on the disaster that was Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s hypocritical Thanksgiving travel decision and the resultant trashing of his credibility…
And then comes the news Saturday night that Gov. Jared Polis and his husband, Marlon Reis, have tested positive for COVID-19. Polis was already in quarantine for having come in contact with someone who had tested positive. If anyone still questions how serious this crisis we’re facing is — as if four ineligible Broncos quarterbacks hadn’t made the point — this should about do it.
Last Wednesday I was taking notes, as I sometimes do, for future column ideas. What struck me — and probably you — were the long lines of people in airports across the country, millions of them ignoring all medical advice against visiting relatives on Thanksgiving. You shake your head in disbelief, or maybe disgust, and say to yourself that while you understand COVID fatigue, that’s not really an excuse. We’ve just passed 250,000 COVID deaths. The experts are saying we could hit 400,000 deaths by the end of February. In other words, the people who chose to travel directly risked their lives and the lives of others.
This hit me because, like most people, I stayed home with my live-in family. I mostly do, although I do take the grandkids on masked, socially distanced tours of the neighborhood. I don’t go to the office/coffee shop. I order in from restaurants. I get my groceries delivered. I know I’m fortunate to be able to afford all that. I also know that I’m old, and I have a chronic condition that makes me especially vulnerable.
And so, I wear a mask. I distance. I wash the hell out of my hands. I keep up with the scientific recommendations as they change. That’s how science works. The more information we get — like, the vaccines are (we hope) coming! — the easier it is to make better decisions, like the decision most American families, and most Denver families, made. You’re not a hero for staying home unless you think it’s heroic these days simply to do the right thing.
The message coming from all corners was clear enough. By traveling, you risk becoming a super-spreader as if, you know, you worked in the Trump White House and forgot that the pandemic is completely out of control. Those traveling either didn’t believe in the science or didn’t believe, in any case, that science applies to them.
And so I wrote down the old Strother Martin line from Butch Cassidy, because I’ve quoted the movie maybe a thousand times over the years: “Morons. I’ve got morons on my team.”
And then a little later in the day, I saw a tweet from 9News that Hancock was among the, uh, morons. And since I know him not to be a moron, I was, well, confused by his selfish decision to travel to Mississippi to see his daughter, who had recently moved there, and his wife who was already there with her. I was also angry, and not only because while Hancock was heading to the airport, his office had put out a tweet advising people to stay home. That has been his message, and Polis’ message, for weeks.
It was good advice from Hancock or his office: “Pass the potatoes, not COVID.” He advised virtual family gatherings and to avoid travel when possible.
And so when Hancock chose to ignore the science and ignore his own advice on potatoes — we had latkes at my house — I was furious for at least two reasons:
One, there is the rank hypocrisy. Once caught, Hancock immediately said the choice was between his wife and daughter coming to Denver or him visiting his daughter’s new digs in Mississippi. Those weren’t the choices, of course. The only right choice was to stay home, not to decide which family member should take the most risks. Hancock would later apologize, but to little effect, because no apology and no spin are going to help, certainly not in the short term.
This early 19th-century quote via British essayist William Hazlitt might apply: “The only vice which cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.”
We are finally putting behind us a president who showed a complete lack of leadership on COVID. For those needing advice on how to properly trash your credibility, you ignore the pandemic killing thousands daily and instead hire My Cousin Rudy as your lawyer while lying repeatedly to the nation that the 2020 election was rigged. I mean, it would take thousands of conspirators to rig the election, and maybe not even then. Does that seem plausible to anyone besides Trump and the Trump cultists? And yet, what is happening by the thousands and by the tens of thousands and by the hundreds of thousands is that people are getting sick and many dying from the coronavirus.
With Trump mentioning COVID these days only when taking credit for the scientists’ amazing work on a vaccine, and not, say, for the many White House COVID clusters, the mantle of responsibility has fallen to governors and mayors, with mixed results. The truth is, Hancock has often been ahead of Polis in making the tough decisions to keep us safe. The sad truth is, people actively look for reasons not to trust politicians anymore and often get those views validated from the ugly depths of social media. But Hancock was caught out by the mainstream media. This was no hit piece. This was no conspiracy. Every wound Hancock has suffered has been self-inflicted.
He’s not alone in this. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was recently seen at a mostly mask-free birthday party — dinner went for $350 apiece — with what was apparently five other couples, which breaks about a dozen California rules. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had announced that his 89-year-old mother and two daughters would travel to Albany to celebrate Thanksgiving with him. As social media exploded, Cuomo suddenly changed plans. There go two possible future Democratic presidential candidacies down the tubes.
So now, what do we do, and what does Hancock do?
The second part is easier. Hancock did an interview with 9News on Saturday after returning from his trip and offered up his best mea culpa. “It was unwise, it was hypocritical, it was a mistake that I deeply regret and deeply apologize for,” Hancock said. He went on to say that his decision to make the trip was “not a wise one, and I’m man enough to say it, that I should not have made the trip.”
He’s right. It was unwise and hypocritical. But he was not so much manning up as he was doing the only thing he could do.
All leaders who make decisions make the occasional bonehead decision, but this is well beyond the bonehead category and moves into brain-dead territory. One of the big jobs of the mayor is to represent his city. Hancock has plainly misrepresented Denver. He must go into quarantine — the governor is in quarantine now — and hope, once he’s tested, that he’s negative. He has work to do, a lot of work, to have any shot at rebuilding trust.
What do we do? Hancock is not resigning, and the nascent recall movement is, well, a joke. Colorado is recall happy, and for the thrice-elected Hancock, who is now term-limited as mayor, it makes absolutely no sense, especially during a pandemic. What we can do is demand our leaders do everything possible to head off the worst of the pandemic, including the Weld County commissioners who have said they wouldn’t enforce any new level-red rules — as if ignoring COVID will help — and put out a news release advising us that they’re no smarter than they were the last time the governor toughened rules.
And now the commissioners might want to note that the governor himself has tested positive. As Polis put it, no one is immune.
God knows, people aren’t perfect. We’ve been working on that project for however many thousands of years. But is it too much to ask of those we elect as our leaders to at least try to come closer? At this point, Hancock has no choice. Of course, he should have seen he had no choice when it came time for him to board that airplane.
Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.