A pandemic was ravaging America, thousands were dead or dying, and the president was infected.
His name was Woodrow Wilson and one century ago he was in a situation similar to the position Donald Trump finds himself in now.
Only then, the illness that laid Wilson low had been dubbed the Spanish flu, not the coronavirus that has infected Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and more than 7 million other Americans.
And when Wilson got sick in April 1919 while in Paris negotiating the end of World War I, his wife, Edith, quickly stepped in to make sure as few people as possible knew the president was ailing.
“Wilson’s wife was able to conceal his illness by setting up a bubble around him,” Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, told NBC News. “They explained the disease as coming from overwork, something people would have believed as Wilson was known to be a workaholic.”
Edith Wilson did the same thing a few months later when Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and she stepped in to help run the country in the waning days of her husband's presidency.
Trump, on the other hand, announced via Twitter early Friday that he and the first lady had tested positive for Covid-19 and were self-isolating. They were among the 300,000 Americans who got infected this week with the coronavirus, the latest NBC News figures showed.
“It was a very different media environment back then,” Schwartz said.
The first news radio broadcast in the United States did not happen for another year and most Americans got their news from newspapers that did not cover the president as closely or as critically as they do now, he said.
While the federal government and other institutions like Johns Hopkins University report daily how many people in the U.S. have died of Covid-19 (209,103 deaths out of 7.3 million confirmed cases, according to the NBC News tally), most Americans back in Wilson’s day did not grasp how deadly the Spanish flu was.
It wound up killing 675,000 Americans and 20 to 40 million people around the world.
“Against the backdrop of World War I, President Wilson significantly downplayed the 1918 pandemic that infected a quarter of Americans,” Dr. Howard Koh, a Harvard University professor who was the assistant secretary of health and human services during the administration of President Barack Obama, said in an email. “A century later, the deadliest pandemic since has arrived on President Trump’s doorstep. Unfortunately, pretending that a pandemic does not exist will not make it so."
Wilson immunized himself from the harsh criticism Trump has received for his bungled response to the coronavirus by simply not talking about the Spanish flu.
"Woodrow Wilson never made a public statement of any kind about the pandemic," Patrick Maney, a professor of history at Boston College, said. "As a result, it's one of the least known catastrophes of any kind."
Not that Wilson would have listened if anybody told him to focus more on the pandemic and less on the war, said John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
“Much like Trump, he did not tolerate criticism from friend or foe,” Barry said of Wilson in an interview with The New Yorker. “All this makes Wilson’s complete silence on the pandemic understandable in only one context: he would do nothing to distract him or the nation from the war effort.”
Schwartz largely agreed.
“Wilson did face some criticism for the way he handled the pandemic, but not at the level Trump has,” he said. “Part of the reason is because World War I really overshadowed the pandemic, somewhat diminishing the degree to which Wilson was criticized.”
Trump, who never served in the military, dubbed himself a “wartime president” as the pandemic was accelerating. But he has also repeatedly downplayed the danger of Covid-19 and politicized the recommended safety precautions like wearing masks by refusing to don one in public until just recently.
Not only has the Trump base taken its mask avoidance cues from the president, but so also has his family. And now, Trump himself has fallen victim to his own false messaging.
In addition, a Cornell University study found that Trump was responsible for at least 38 percent of the Covid-19 misinformation that has stymied the public health response to this plague and sown so much confusion in the American public.
Among other things, Trump promoted unproven “miracle cures” for the coronavirus and claimed with zero evidence that the pandemic was a “Democratic Party hoax” aimed at derailing his presidency.
While publicly diminishing the pandemic's danger during daily briefings or at campaign rallies where his followers rarely wore masks or practiced social distancing, Trump was caught on tape privately telling the reporter Bob Woodward back in February that Covid-19 was “deadly stuff.”
The result was a chaotic response to an unfolding crisis in a country where a big chunk of the population doesn’t seem to understand it is still in danger.
“Rather than heeding the warnings of 1918, this country has continued to underestimate this virus – and we can’t allow that to continue any longer,” Koh said.