Two speeches by prominent Kansans sum up 2020 in under 3 minutes

Steven Stites, the chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, resorted to reading from the preamble to the United States Constitution to try to convince Kansans to follow public health guidance. (Submitted)

How does an opinion writer deliver the obligatory year-in-review piece when time stopped a third of the way through the year, then crept forward in a kind of suspended animation that warped the experience of time itself, marked mostly by grim statistical updates every week and an election that as far as some people are concerned isn’t even over?

Just kidding. I feel no obligation to file such a piece, which is generally just a way of filling space during what most journalists pray is a slow news week, something we can file ahead of time in hopes of getting a day off. But I’ve been stewing about many things since Kansas Reflector launched in late July, and coincidentally almost all of it can be summed up by comparing and contrasting two of this year’s speeches.

The first took place during one of the University of Kansas Health System’s regular COVID-19 updates.

Filmed in a studio at the main hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, these updates became must-see TV for journalists covering the COVID beat and anyone else who had an interest in the health crisis. The exposure even elevated infectious disease specialist Dana “Hawkeye” Hawkinson, who is blessed with a face out of central casting, to a spot on April’s “One World: Together at Home” international telethon where he appeared with the likes of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and the Rolling Stones, among many others.

But it was a short speech in November by the health system’s chief medical officer, Steven Stites, that I’ve been thinking about ever since. (I know Stites to be a man of integrity. From 2010-2014, I was director of communications at the University of Kansas Medical Center; Stites was my boss for eight months when he served as acting executive vice chancellor from June 2012-February 2013.) When a reporter asked how many patients the hospital had turned away because of COVID overcrowding, Stites said they’d declined 140 transfers in October compared to 40 back in May.

“The struggle for us is real, the struggle for patients is real, and the only way to solve that is to follow the rules of infection control,” he said.

Then he warned viewers that he was going to get on his soapbox and began reading from a document he probably hadn’t had to study in medical school.

“It’s the preamble to the Constitution of the United States for all of those people who want to know what I’m about to do,” he said. “’We the people,’ it says — remember, it’s bolded. ‘We the people.’ It doesn’t say, ‘I the one.’”

Stites concluded by repeating the preamble’s intention to establish justice and promote the general welfare.

“How are you going to do that? It’s not hard. You wear a mask,” he said. “And for people who say, ‘I don’t have to wear a mask,’ I suspect they’re the same ones who say they should be able to smoke inside a public space and make everybody else sick. It’s like, ‘I can drive my car into a building. I can light a building on fire.’ No you can’t.”

He went on.

” ‘Secure the blessings of liberty on ourselves and our posterity.’ That’s the freedom,” he said. “But the freedom part comes with responsibility first. And it says we. We do that. And we do it together. And how do we do that? You do that by making sure your wear a mask, you keep your distance, you wash your hands, you cough into your elbow and don’t go out if you’re sick. ‘We the people.’ That’s what makes a difference. Not ‘I the one.’ ”

That a doctor had to resort to reading from the Constitution in an effort to counter anti-public-health belligerence of partisans with a twisted notion of liberty — that was 2020 in under three minutes.

Speaking of belligerent partisans, the other speech that summed up 2020 was also in November: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s enduring “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” declaration-slash-joke on Nov. 10, after the election had been called for Joe Biden.

A year that began with Pompeo’s bullying tendencies on full display in a churlish interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, and continued with an investigation into whether he broke the law by giving a speech at the Republican National Convention, neared its conclusion with the Secretary of State purposefully messing with minds in what’s supposed to be the world’s greatest democracy.

The fact that one of these two men supposedly has a bright political future also says everything that needs to be said about this year — and beyond. Good night, 2020, and good luck.