DANIEL VAUGHAN: Woodward’s book forgets the Great Elite Panic over COVID-19

Every few years, we enter another news cycle where Bob Woodward releases a new book, and people post excerpts to sell books. It’s such a predictable event that in 2011 people joked about it, referring Woodward books getting the “Washington Read.”

That’s the “phenomenon by which, through a form of intellectual osmosis, a book is absorbed into the Washington atmosphere,” because no one reads it.

And so it is with this latest book. That’s no slight to Woodward, mind you; I’ve got the book preordered myself. There’s a collection of his works growing on my bookshelves, and he often writes instructive first drafts of history.

But there’s a difference between history and the narrative around the books when they get released.

Woodward’s first book of the Trump era was named “Fear.” The upcoming book is called “Rage.” If Woodward could write faster, we might get through the other stages of grief over Donald Trump living in the White House. If that’s how Woodward is going, then we still have bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s taken four years to get us to stage two, though, so no promises.

The part of Woodward’s book most at issue centers around the coronavirus and whether or not Trump wrongly downplayed the threat. Defending his comments in Woodward’s book, Trump said: “I want to show a level of confidence and I want to show strength as a leader… There was no lie here, what we’re doing here is leading and we’re leading in the proper way.”

“I don’t want to jump up and down and shout ‘death, death,'” the president added. “I have to lead a country.”

Interestingly enough, even Fauci agrees with Trump on this point. In an interview with Fox News, the doctor said, “I didn’t get any sense that he was distorting anything.”

He added: “In my discussions with him, they were always straightforward about the concerns that we had. We related that to him. When he would go out, I’d hear him discussing the same sort of things.”

The issue here isn’t whether or not Trump, Fauci, or everyone else in public health downplayed the virus’ threat. That unquestionably happened. The real problem is whether or not any other administration would have acted differently. And we know the answer to that is a definitive and resounding “No!”

If every public health and epidemiology expert tells you the virus is a threat, but avoiding panic is imperative, what do you do? It’s a hypothetical as old as Socrates: Should leaders tell their citizens a “noble lie” to achieve better outcomes? Woodward’s book indicates there was broad agreement with the administration’s response.

In a July interview, Fauci admitted that not only did the government downplay the virus, but officials also downplayed the need for masks and other personal protective equipment for regular people to avoid losing resources for first responders. According to The Hill, “[h]e also acknowledged that masks were initially not recommended to the general public so that first responders wouldn’t feel the strain of a shortage of PPE.”

Add all those fears regarding PPE, hospital space, and general resource shortages together, and what you get is elite panic. As James Meigs described it for Commentary Magazine in May:

When authorities believe their own citizens will become dangerous, they begin to focus on controlling the public, rather than on addressing the disaster itself. They clamp down on information, restrict freedom of movement, and devote unnecessary energy to enforcing laws they assume are about to be broken.

Every part of the public health institutions in America fell into this concept. And here’s the thing: if you’re on the left, claiming to be the “party of science,” saying that we must always listen to the “science” and the “experts,” then you MUST agree with this elite panic. It’s what the experts said, after all. If you disagree with that, you’re not following the science or experts.

Perhaps that’s why when Joe Biden’s campaign finally caught some tough questioning from Bret Baier of Fox News, they couldn’t name one thing they’d have done differently from Trump. In Biden’s Democratic National Convention speech, his entire gameplan for dealing with COVID-19 might as well have plagiarized Trump’s actions since March. The subtext of all this is clear: Biden would have downplayed and done all the same things as Trump.

I agree with the Meigs piece in Commentary Magazine. The government should be more open and transparent about the threats to the populace. Hiding the ball has caused infinitely more headaches. But that’s not following public health experts’ advice; that means going against what those experts say.

There was a rational reason for telling the noble lie early on in the year. We faced stark shortages in PPE, ventilators, medication, hospital space, and the CDC, and FDA’s testing process imploded into a two-month useless morass of incompetence. It’s easy to say now, with hindsight, that transparency was better.

But that’s not what the “experts” were saying at the time. And there’s no evidence a single Democrat in Congress or running for President would have made one single different decision.

If that’s true, then this entire ordeal is just another Bob Woodward D.C. narrative that’ll flame out once everyone finds the next shiny thing. People haven’t read the book, nor do they remember what happened in the spring. That’s terrible news for our future responses to pandemics.

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