Reporter's Notebook

Kayleigh McEnany Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire / Getty

This week Donald Trump announced the departure of a press secretary who differed from all predecessors in a basic way: She didn’t do the job.

In more than eight months in office, this press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, appeared frequently on Fox programs but never once held a White House briefing for reporters. Three of her predecessors in the Trump era—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders—appeared often enough in the White House press room for their briefing styles to become the basis for Saturday Night Live cold-open routines. (This was before Sanders suspended briefings in her final months on the job.) Grisham’s briefings couldn’t be mimicked, because they didn’t occur.

Her successor will also be someone who differs from anyone who has held the job before. The new secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, will be the first press secretary to begin the job with a bone-dry reservoir of trust and goodwill from the press.


Through the modern history of this job—which probably begins with Steve Early, spokesman for Franklin Delano Roosevelt through most of his long years in office—press secretaries have been in an impossible situation. They need to be discreet enough about an administration’s internal dealings that the president will still trust them. But they also need to be open enough that reporters will still think the press secretary is trying to get them closer to, rather than farther away from, the truth. They need to speak “the truth,” to maintain trust and respect from the press. But not “the full truth”—not every single detail they know—to maintain trust from the president and other officials.

Finding the “right” position is a day-by-day struggle. If a president can’t trust a press secretary to keep some things quiet, then the secretary will be left in the dark, away from the White House inner circle. Then if the reporters realize that a press secretary is an outsider, his or her influence practically vanishes. But if reporters find out later on that a secretary was withholding information that could have been shared—or, worse, sending false signals—then the damage to the press secretary is even worse.

In the days before Trump, awareness of this struggle is what distinguished the best press secretaries. Some of them come straight from jobs on “the other side” of the press/politics divide. For instance, Jay Carney went from Time magazine to become an Obama press secretary; Ron Nessen was an NBC News correspondent and then worked for Gerald Ford. Some are longtime aides and confidants of a president. Jody Powell, a young campaign staffer, represented Jimmy Carter as press secretary, and Bill Moyers played a similar role with Lyndon Johnson. Some are “public affairs professionals,” who have done this job in other circumstances. For instance: Dana Perino, who became press secretary at the end of George W. Bush’s time in office, or Marlin Fitzwater, who worked for Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.

They came from different backgrounds, but all these previous press secretaries tried to strike the balance between giving out too much information, and not enough.


Under Donald Trump, only one press secretary seemed even to recognize this challenge. From day one, the unfortunate Sean Spicer was stuck trying to defend “largest Inaugural crowd in history!” claims. Spicer’s awareness of his preposterous position was the most appealing thing about his brief time on the briefing-room podium.

With Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the struggle abated, since her remarks were aimed at a one-person audience, Trump himself. Stephanie Grisham avoided the tension by not dealing with the press at all, and confining herself to Fox. Kayleigh McEnany is one more step down this road, since her background as a public figure was as a cable-tv “panelist” during the 2016 campaign, where her role was not to express a “conservative” or even GOP-loyalist perspective but instead to defend whatever it was that Donald Trump had done or said.

As Caleb Ecarma pointed out this week in Vanity Fair:

McEnany, like her press-bashing boss, [has taken every] opportunity to attack the news media. “The media’s best hope is for Donald Trump to suspend his rallies,” she said. “They have been wanting him to stop this, they know it’s his avenue to speak directly to the American people. So we’re going to follow the president’s lead, we’re not going to cave to the media and Joe Biden.”

There appears to be nowhere McEnany isn’t willing to follow Trump, even dating back to his conspiracies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. In 2012, when Trump was accusing America’s first black president of being born in Kenya and was thus ineligible to serve, McEnany chimed in support of the unfounded theory, tweeting, “How I Met Your Brother—Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows.”

In a 2016 CNN segment archived by Media Matters, McEnany stepped out to defend the then-candidate’s infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy” hot-mic moment, shrugging off the remark as “implie[d] consent.” [JF note: I wrote about the “grab ’em” episode at the time, here.]

Every press secretary has ups and downs in his or her relationship with the media. They add to their store of trust in certain moments; they run it down at others. The struggle between duties to the president and to the public, between saying too much and saying too little, defined the job.

Now the struggle is over. No previous press secretary has started the job with no cushion of credibility whatsoever. That’s where this one begins.

    All notes on "2020 Time Capsule" >
    An aerial photo of downtown Eastport
    Downtown Eastport, from above Courtesy of Don Dunbar

    The Rowland B. French Medical Center is the primary health-care facility for the residents of Eastport, Maine, a tiny Down East fishing town, population 1,400. Eastport was one of the first of some 50 towns that Jim and visited during our reporting across America for our book, Our Towns. We have returned there a half-dozen times since 2013.

    The French Center, along with two others in nearby Calais and Machias, together compose the Eastport Health Center. They operate on a community-based health-care model, which began as part of a rural health initiative from the era of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty to aid the underserved.

    When I first learned about the rural health-care centers in Ajo, Arizona, and then Eastport, they struck me as unusually personal and almost quaint in their attention to the local detail of the environment and the people they served. Outwardly, the two couldn’t seem more different, The Desert Senita Community Health Center in a former copper mining town in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, and the the Rowland B. French Medical Center on the powerful tidal waters of the Bay of Fundy.

    In another way, the centers shared a foundation that seemed efficient and smart in design and operation. Today, in the horrible and confusing pandemic era, I would tack on a few more adjectives for their model: prescient and exemplary.

    The key element is that long before the current emergency, both of them were designated as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC); they are two of roughly 1,400 FQHCs that serve more than 28 million people around the U.S. today. And with this designation, it meant that two of America’s smallest and most remote communities were required to make preparations for a public-health disaster like the one underway now.

    As I wrote earlier:

    FQHC designation is a godsend for rural health-care centers. It ensures that the centers will receive, among other things, enhanced reimbursements for patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, and will offer a sliding scale for those without any coverage. It promises federal malpractice-insurance coverage for providers, extra partnerships for the centers, and more specialist care. Each center is unique in its profile, depending on the community’s needs. For example, the Rowland B. French Medical Center has providers for behavioral health counseling, podiatry, radiology, nephrology, and social support. Desert Senita has a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.

    Being a FQHC comes with requirements and perks. In Ajo, I saw the stacks and stacks of paperwork required of FQHCs by the government to document every step of their compliance with governance, finances, and regulations. I also learned about the one-stop shopping so they could supply services to cover everything from dentistry, x-rays, pharmacy, translation services, rotating visits from specialists, and emergency preparedness. At the time, Jane Canon in the Ajo center described that emergency preparedness meant “self-ready” for everything from a massive power outage to an ebola outbreak. At the time, we both chuckled at “ebola outbreak.” That doesn’t sound funny anymore.


    I spoke by phone last Sunday morning with Ellen Krajewski, the director and CEO of the Eastport Health Center, to learn how emergency preparedness in Eastport has played out so far.

    We started with a few weeks ago, when it was business as usual at Eastport’s Health Center. People were coming in for their primary-care appointments, drop-ins, the usual. Then came the identification by the CDC of the coronavirus as a pandemic. As an FQHC, said Krajewski, echoing my conversation in Ajo, we are required to have emergency preparedness plans. “So,” she said, “we had a pandemic plan.” The trigger was pulled and Eastport immediately kicked into gear to engage the protocols and adhere to guidelines from the feds and the states for pandemic operations.  

    Here’s what the plan looks like and here’s how it has worked in reality:

    The pivots: The health center shifted from being an all-purpose primary care provider to accepting only acute visits in person and providing all other visits remotely, either by phone or virtually. It was tricky: While operations were clear to those inside the building, not all the residents in Eastport were aware of the news and, understandably, what that would mean to their usual healthcare behaviors. As now throughout the rest of the country, word needed to get around Eastport that the first step was not showing up at the center, but calling on the phone.  

    The center set up a series of questions by phone to determine how best to provide needed care, from those with what appeared to be illness unrelated to coronavirus to triaging patients with what may be coronavirus symptoms. The very sickest people go to the hospitals; the middle group may come to the center; the least sick generally stay at home.

    Some of both the regular patients and the potential COVID-19 positive patients needed to be seen in person, so the center set up work-arounds for organizing their physical space. They scoured the possibilities and came up with separate locations for seeing potentially COVID-19-positive patients and regular patients. They flipped a board room into a sterile room, with a trained nurse to administer COVID-19 tests. Krajewski told me that the center has a limited supply of tests, and they follow the CDC guidelines on who is eligible to be tested.

    Within 10 days, all the providers were trained and using remote technologies. “It meant a huge, gigantic change,” Krajewski said. But it was one they were generally equipped to do, despite their relatively-older, less tech-savvy provider population. Being a FQHC, the center was already heavily teched-up, and familiar with using the technology required to comply with all the usual FQHC reporting and protocols.

    On the patient end, it was more complicated. Eastport is a rural, remote area, where broadband coverage is spotty, and the population is less likely than much of the U.S. to be able to afford computers and internet subscriptions. Compounding the problems, Washington County—where Eastport is located—has one of the oldest populations in Maine, a state that has the oldest population of any in the country—meaning overall comfort with technology is rarer than usual.

    The equipment and testing: As of our last conversation, Eastport has an adequate, though limited, number of test kits; more have been promised. Test results have been slow in coming, but the speed is improving. They have not yet recorded a single positive test for COVID-19. Maine has promised some community testing sites around the state, but tiny Eastport won’t be one of them. Those will be located in a more populated area, far away from Eastport.

    Their original supply of equipment has sufficed. There are enough PPEs and masks, although the center has already back-ordered and duplicate-ordered, just in case. Eastport doesn’t have an ICU or a ventilator. The nearest so-equipped hospitals are in Machias and Calais, which are 60 and 30 minutes away, respectively.

    The staff: During our travels, we frequently heard about rural America’s challenge to entice new young staff into professional positions like doctors, nurses, dentists, and teachers. In fact, Eastport, in another farsighted effort, has already set up scholarships for high-school students pursuing medical professions, hopefully giving them a reason to stay and practice in their hometown.

    Today, the staff and providers at the center are generally older and are more likely to have comorbidity issues that come with age. The pandemic presents a new challenge to this provider base, where they naturally fear their constant exposure and feel more personally vulnerable.

    The finances: Finances for the center and payments for services are complicated now. On one hand, there has been some easing on federal rules and regulations for payments and coverage, making the system work more smoothly. On the other hand, fewer patients are coming to the clinic. Patients are reluctant to show up, and they are delaying their well visits. When Krajewski and I talked, the center’s roughly 150 visits per day had dropped to 22. Already 12 employees in the three centers of the Eastport Health Center network have been furloughed, and five others are working reduced hours. And while virtual visits are increasing, they are not replacing in-person visits either in number or revenue.

    The culture: For all of us, the specter of COVID-19’s arrival into our communities is scary and looming and bizarre. For all of us, there is a sense of unreality—until it becomes real—that maybe it won’t get here, maybe we can be immune from this tragedy. Because part of the cultural appeal of living in remote towns like Eastport and Ajo is being a good arm’s length away from national issues or intrusions, it makes sense that this instinct or temptation of “not me/not us” could be even stronger. It is a familiar and attractive idea that the virus will remain far away, like some other 21st century disasters.

    We will stay in touch with our friends in Ajo and Eastport to see what their futures hold.

    More from this series

    All notes on "Eastport, Maine" >
    The skyline of Cleveland, Ohio, in the early morning
    Morning in Cleveland, Ohio, where Belt Publishing is based Henryck Sadura via Shutterstock

    The past weeks have of course meant economic devastation for small and local businesses of all sorts, as discussed here in an item about Erie. The pressures on local bookstores and publishers, and local newspapers and other news organizations, deserve special attention (as the writers’ group PEN has argued here). My purpose for the moment is not to go into all the details and reasons but instead to offer a reminder of two action steps. They are:

    Subscribe! Whenever I hit paywalls these days, I err on the side of signing up. I’ve added several new local papers in the past few days, from all over the place—California, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Washington State. Compared with other routine outlays people make, these are not expensive, and the revenue makes a difference.

    Order and buy! Merchants need money to survive.

    And here are two books I have bought, read, and enjoyed, each about realities of under-covered America:

    Death in Mud Lick. Eric Eyre is a celebrated reporter for the Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia. He won the Pulitzer prize, and wide admiration within his state and from reporters everywhere, for his newspaper exposés of how West Virginia became ground zero for America’s opioid epidemic. If you’ve heard stories about the tiny Appalachian towns where local pharmacies were processing millions of opioid orders, you’ve learned from Eric Eyre’s work. (He and his work play a role in the upcoming movie that Deb Fallows and I have made for HBO.)

    Now he was written a gripping book about what he found and how he found it. The book is called Death in Mud Lick, and it is gripping, well-written, and revelatory. It has courtroom-drama showdowns and classic hunting-for-clues narrative tales, and overall is very much worth buying and reading.

    In The New Yorker this week, Ken Armstrong had a graceful tribute to Eyre—who has been dealing with Parkinson’s disease, and who has left his newspaper job in the same week his book was published. Read that piece, then buy Eric’s book. (Here is an IndieBound link.)


    Midwest Futures. Anne Trubek was a professor at Oberlin College, in Ohio, when she concluded that her destiny was to become a publisher and writer. Seven years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she described what went into her decision to leave a tenured position and jump into the perilous sea of the entrepreneurial life. For instance:

    It would not be going out on a limb to say that academics can be self-important. To frame the question as “Why leave? Who does that?” as I did … reveals a certain exceptionalism and a tinge of arrogance. It is a job, being a tenured professor. Just a job. Why not leave?

    And so I will.

    Since then she has started and run a magazine called Belt and a publishing house, based in Cleveland, called Belt Publishing. (She also wrote an Atlantic piece about her career change—and why the lower fixed costs of living in the Midwest made it possible—back in 2016.) The publishing house describes its mission as becoming a “platform for new and influential voices from the Rust Belt, the Midwest, and beyond.”

    “Works about this region are works of national interest,” she told me on the phone this week. “Before 2016, that was a harder case to make. But now … ! But this is a fascinating place, and it is all of our futures.” You can follow her accounts of being a regional publisher, in time of the pandemic, at her Substack site, “Notes from a Small Press,” here.

    One of Belt Publishing’s titles released this week is Midwest Futures, by the Michigan-based author Phil Christman. It’s a combination of history, memoir, reportage, and lit-crit that taught me a lot about a region I’ve reported on (and where Deb is from). The high-concept scheme for the book even has a midwestern touch. In the 1780s, the fledgling U.S. government surveyed the flat, farmable land of the Midwest into squares six miles on a side. Each square was then subdivided into 36 equal plats—six rows, six plats per row. You can see the residual effect on today’s land use in the aerial photo on the book’s cover—and also in the book’s organization. It is divided into six “rows,” on big themes, and each row has six “prose plats,” or component essays. This structure also makes it readable in short bursts.

    “The normal gatekeepers in publishing overlook a lot of people,” Trubek told me when I asked what she was looking for in her authors. “We have fabulous writers like Phil, and I was glad to be in a position where I could say yes to him.” Check it out.


    My Atlantic colleague Olga Khazan also has a new book out this week. It is called Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider, in an Insider World. I haven’t read this one yet, but I have ordered it—which as any author will tell you, is the crucial step. And—such is the bounty of one week in publishing—my colleague at New America, Cecilia Munoz, also this week is celebrating publication of her new book, More Than Ready: Be Strong and Be You . . . and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise.

    Buy! Read! Enjoy!

    All notes on "Charleston, West Virginia" >
    Josh Fryday announcing the Civic Action Fellowship in February of this year
    Josh Fryday announcing the Civic Action Fellowship in February of this year Courtesy of California Volunteers

    The coronavirus peril is global. Much of the response must, of course, be international or national if it is to matter at all. In the United States, only the federal government can pump out stimulus in the trillions of dollars, or set quarantine or travel restrictions at international ports.

    But if anything has become obvious through the past two months of American response to the virus, it is that most of what has been positive and effective has happened elsewhere than in Washington.

    The people who have taken the lead have been governors, both Republican and Democratic. Mayors, of cities big and small. Not all business officials, but many of them. The staff and leaders of universities and community colleges, elementary schools and high schools, libraries and civic clubs. Frontline health-care workers, people working in hospitals and clinics, children and parents. People and groups like these, and on down a long list, have been innovating, acting, sharing, rescuing.

    What we think America is, or should be at a time of crisis, has been demonstrated mainly on the statewide, regional, community, and personal level.

    Last week, Deb Fallows wrote about libraries’ response. Now that their physical spaces have been closed, many libraries have been innovative about extending their digital and virtual reach. Before that, I wrote about emerging plans to sustain the overall economies of “left-behind” non-coastal regions, and about why the same small businesses that have helped rebuild so many smaller cities were now critically at risk.

    Now, a look at how several groups promoting civic engagement and civic service, as a long-term project, have responded to this era’s emergency. This installment concerns California Volunteers, the civic-service operation overseen by California’s state government. Following ones will include FUSE Corps, a nonprofit organization that assists local governments;  NationSwell, promoting service around the country; the Innovation Collective, based in Idaho; and more.

    Courtesy of California Volunteers

    All notes on "Sacramento, California" >
    Sailors cheer Captain Brett Crozier aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt Reuters

    Two days ago I wrote about Captain Brett Crozier, who as commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt urged his Navy superiors to let him take his ship into port, because the coronavirus was spreading rapidly among his 4000-plus crew members.

    Two updates since that report: First, there is now additional video footage from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, of how crew members cheered Captain Crozier when he left the ship after being “relieved of command.”

    Second, I should have pointed out that Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy who dismissed Crozier, was in that role because his predecessor, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, was forced out of that job when he resisted Donald Trump’s efforts on behalf of Edward Gallagher, the former Navy SEAL who was prosecuted for war crimes in a court martial. (The Trump administration is replete with “acting” officials, who can exercise some of the powers of their offices without going through Senate hearings or confirmation.)

    Now, relevant reader response. First, from a reader with a family member aboard the Theodore Roosevelt:

    My husband is currently serving on the Roosevelt. Many family members have been reaching out to their respective ombudsmans to ask for a way to get in contact or relay our support for Captain Crozier and we have been all been told the same thing—they “don't know”  how to get in touch with him.

    We are not to speak to the media regarding anything going on with COVID-19. In fact, we have been getting “updates” (I use that term very loosely because ‘update' implies difference or a change in information, which is very much not the case) for weeks about the illness spreading throughout the ship and how we are NOT to discuss anything with the media. Which, given Operational Security requirements, is fair but also indicates leadership knew about the spread of the Coronavirus far earlier than what is being portrayed in the news.

    Anyway, I have a simple ask: On behalf of the families of all on board the USS Roosevelt can SOMEONE just tell the man that we appreciate what he did to make sure our sailors and marines come back to us in one piece? Captain Crozier risked his career and did what he thought was best to get the resources they needed. The acting SEC NAV, who amounts to a little more than a modern day mercenary (you know, on account of forgoing his national service for profit in the private sector), railroaded CAPT Crozier and it’s an absolute disgrace.

    We just want to say thanks and let him know we support him. It shouldn’t be this hard to get that simple message across.

    Thanks for reading and please don’t publish my name or email address. We’ve seen how the Navy “doesn’t like to punish” people about stuff like this.


    All notes on "Trump Nation" >
    In the middle of a tight race for reelection, which he ultimately lost, Gerald Ford released photos of himself getting the same swine flu shot he was urging other Americans to accept. David Hume Kennerly / Gerald R. Ford Library

    In his rally-briefing yesterday at the White House, Donald Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending that Americans wear masks or similar face coverings when in range of other people.

    You can see C-SPAN’s coverage of the whole briefing here, including Trump’s repeated emphases that this was a voluntary recommendation—“You don’t have to do it”—and that he, personally, would not comply. Important fact note: Trump, unlike virtually all other Americans, is exposed only to people who have already been tested for the virus, as reported here by NPR.

    Around time 3:50 in this clip, he says “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Then more definitively:

    This is voluntary. You don’t have to do it.

    I am choosing not to do it.


    This is not the first time presidents have been called upon to deliver public health messages, nor even the first time during a presidential election year.

    In the fall of 1976, Gerald Ford—who had never been elected either president or vice president, but who became president two years earlier, when Richard Nixon resigned—was in a close race for reelection. He ultimately lost, very narrowly, to the former one-term governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. (For the record: I was a speechwriter on Carter’s campaign staff then.) The race became close enough that practically every “controversial” stand that Ford took could arguably have made a difference in the outcome.

    Among the issues that fall was swine flu. Starting early in that election year, public-health officials had been worrying that the newly mutated virus could reach pandemic proportions and become a modern counterpart to the deadly flu of 1918. They launched an all-out effort to produce a vaccine, and to get as many Americans as possible inoculated.

    The story is long and tangled, both in scientific and in political terms. You can read fascinating accounts of what health officials got right, and wrong, in the 1970s swine flu era here and here, with links to other reports. One central issue was that the vaccine available by the fall of the year was a “live virus” version, rather than “killed virus,” which entailed a greater (though statistically still small) chance of side effects.

    For the moment the relevant point is: The country’s political leadership was asking the public to take a controversial step, namely getting swine flu shots. And the ultimate political leader, Gerald Ford himself as president, prominently set an example by doing this himself. Thus the photo you see above.


    The obligation to model the behavior they would like others to adopt is one all presidents have been aware of, even if they have imperfectly complied.

    They talk about faith, and most of them have gone to religious services. They say that citizens should pay taxes, and they produce evidence that they have done so themselves. They urge people to be charitable, and they know that their own donations will be scrutinized. They talk about families, and they are photographed with their spouse and children—no matter what they’re doing when photographers aren’t there.

    Some part of their brains recognizes the value of connecting with “what we [as a government] say” with “what I [as a person] do.” And they make sure the public sees evidence of them setting this example — as Barack Obama did during the H1N1 flu wave of 2009.

    Pete Souza / The White House

    Trump’s reaction to the mask-wearing recommendation—fine for the rest of you, but that’s not for me—is of course far from the only illustration of his feeling that he need not set a personal example. See also: military or civic service; marital fidelity; scrupulousness about the appearance of financial conflict or family favoritism; recognition of “no person is above the law”; etc.

    It is also not the most unreasonable stand he has taken. As NPR noted, everyone he meets is tested for the disease—so he is not likely to catch it from any of them, and they will be monitored after contact with him. And as Trump himself pointed out yesterday, the Oval Office is not a surgical operating room, and masks would seem odder there than in some other venues.

    But Gerald Ford also had reasons not to follow the advice he was giving the country. He could have said: I’m extremely busy; I’m in the middle of an intense reelection campaign; I have great medical care around me if I should get sick. I am thinking about the reception Gerald Ford would have met, if he had said: I want all Americans to be inoculated. I am just choosing not to do it myself.

      

    All notes on "2020 Time Capsule" >
    Navy Captain Brett Crozier, shown last year aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt U.S. Navy / Reuters

    The episode I’m about to mention has been receiving saturation social-media attention for the past few hours, as I write. But because the accelerating torrent of news tends to blast away each day’s events and make them hard to register—even a moment like this, which I expect will be included in histories of our times—I think it is worth noting this episode while it is fresh.

    Until a few days ago, Brett Crozier would have been considered among the U.S. Navy’s most distinguished commanders.

    He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1992 and then entered training as a naval aviator. He was qualified first as a helicopter pilot, and then in the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter planes. He was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz during the Iraq war, and he held an ascending series of staff and command jobs—as you can read in his Pentagon biography, here. He received a master’s degree from the Naval War College; he became executive officer (second in command) of the nuclear-powered carrier Ronald Reagan; and he became commander of the amphibious ship Blue Ridge. Then late last year, as a Navy captain, he took command of the Nimitz-class nuclear carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the 4,000-plus people in its crew.

    Last week, coronavirus sickness spread rapidly among the Roosevelt’s crew members. Five days ago, on Sunday, Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle published an email by Crozier, addressed to his naval superiors, asking that the ship be diverted from its normal duties so that sick crew members could be treated and the spread of disease could be slowed. Gafni and Garofoli did not say how they had received the email, but it had been copied to a large number of recipients and not marked as sensitive; Crozier must have known it was likely to become public when he sent it.

    The four-page letter, which you can read in full at the Chronicle’s site, used the example of recent cruise-ship infection disasters to argue that closed shipboard environments were the worst possible location for people with the disease. It laid out the case for immediate action to protect the Roosevelt’s crew, and ended this way:

    7. Conclusion. Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed US. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. A portion of the crew (approximately 10%) would have to stay aboard to run the reactor plant, sanitize the ship, ensure security, and provide for contingency response to emergencies.

    This is a necessary risk. It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety of our Sailors. Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care...

    This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors. Request all available resources to find NAVADMIN and CDC compliant quarantine rooms for my entire crew as soon as possible.

    “Breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.” “We are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors.” “Unnecessary risk.” In any walk of life, such language would have great power. Within the military—where terms like faith and trust and care have life-and-death meaning, and are the fundamental reason people follow leaders into combat—these words draw the starkest possible line. This course is right. The other course is wrong. Thus a leader spoke on behalf of the people “entrusted to our care.”


    The letter got widespread attention in the press, and became a PR problem for the Pentagon and the administration. A commander was in effect saying that the command structure was mis-serving the troops; the command structure was not amused.

    • Yesterday, April 2, four days after the letter’s appearance, the acting secretary of the Navy formally relieved Crozier of command of the Theodore Roosevelt. That is, Thomas Modly, the acting secretary who was himself a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator, fired Crozier from one of the most consequential command roles in the Navy. Crozier’s offense, according to Modly, was exercising “extremely poor judgment” in letting his plea become public. Also, Crozier’s letter had “unnecessarily raised the alarm of the families of our sailors and Marines.” Modly was quoted in Stars and Stripes saying that the letter “creates a panic and creates the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job, and it’s just not true.” A commander had gone outside channels and created a “perception” problem.
        
    • Last night, soon after Crozier had been “relieved,” he took his last walk off the ship as commander, down a gangway to the dock in Guam. As he left, the men and women serving with him signaled where their respect and loyalties lay. Videos that, based on current information, appear to be authentic, showed the crew heralding him on his departure, with supportive cheers of “Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” This account from Stars and Stripes gives a sample. Based on information available as I write, it appears that he took a stand, and is paying the price.

    Brett Crozier will no longer be one of the Navy’s most powerful commanders. He remains in the service, but his command has been taken away.

    He will likely be remembered among its leaders.

    All notes on "2020 Time Capsule" >
    The Aurora Public Library in Colorado offers free lunches for people under 18
    The Aurora Public Library in Colorado offers free lunches for people under 18 David Zalubowski / AP

    America’s public libraries have led the ranks of “second responders,” stepping up for their communities in times of natural or manmade disasters, like hurricanes, floods, shootings, fires, and big downturns in individual lives.

    Throughout all these events, libraries have stayed open, filling in for the kids when their schools closed; offering therapeutic sessions in art or conversation or writing after losses of life; bringing in nurses or social workers when services were unavailable to people; and hiring life-counselors for the homeless, whom they offer shelter and safety during the day.

    Today, interventions like those have a ring of simpler days. But libraries have learned from their experience and attention to these previous, pre-pandemic efforts. They are pivoting quickly to new ways of offering services to the public—the core of their mission. When libraries closed their doors abruptly, they immediately opened their digital communications, collaborations, and creative activity to reach their public in ways as novel as the virus that forced them into it.

    You can be sure that this is just the beginning. Today libraries are already acting and improvising. Later, they’ll be figuring out what the experience means to their future operations and their role in American communities.


    Here are some of the things libraries are doing now. These are a few examples of many:

    Feeding the hungry: While schools have traditionally supplied lunches and breakfasts for American schoolchildren who economically qualify for them, libraries have always stepped in for after-school snacks and summertime food programs.

    With schools now closed, more libraries have become drive-through or pick-up locations for grab-and-go meals. This is happening in St. Louis County, for example, which is collaborating with Operation Food Search, a nonprofit that distributes free drive-through food pickups in nine of their libraries.

    In Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Metropolitan Library closed so quickly that they were left with nearly 3,000 prepared meals on hand. They collaborated with the Children’s Hunger Alliance, which had supplied the meals, to recover, repurpose, and distribute the packets at three library locations.

    In Ohio, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, together with the  United Methodist Church food ministry are offering ready-to-eat meals to all children 18 years old and under.

    3-D printing of PPEs and PPE collections: Many libraries are putting the 3-D printers from their makerspaces into use.

    In Maryland, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has sent two of its 3-D printers home with a staff person to soon begin printing shields for health workers’ masks. The library is donating labor and materials for this effort, and like other organizations around the state, is working with Open Works, Baltimore’s biggest makerspace community, to make sure everyone is compliant with specs for the production of the shields.

    Internationally, the Milton Public Library in Ontario, Canada, has partnered with Inksmith, an education technology company, to print face shield headbands for PPE masks.

    The Billings, Montana, public library is 3-D printing face masks for health care workers.

    The McMillan Memorial Library in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, is 3-D printing masks for the community. The Cedarburg Public Library in Wisconsin is 3-D printing masks for the fire department.

    The Oakland, California, library has repurposed bookdrops to collect new, packaged masks.

    Providing round-the-clock Wi-Fi access and hotspots: Aware that many of their customers rely on the library as their only point of Wi-Fi access, libraries in many communities leave their Wi-Fi open after closing hours. Those numbers are increasing. Also, many libraries have loaned out the entire supply of their portable hotspots to school children who need internet connection to do at-home school work. Others have purchased more hotspots to begin filling the gaps.

    The Brightwood Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library made sure all the hotspots they possessed through a Grow with Google partnership were checked out before their closed their doors.

    Taking care of the homeless: In Washington State, the downtown Spokane Public Library has opened as a temporary homeless shelter.

    In San Luis Obispo, California, the parking lot of the Los Osos Library remains open as a designated safe and clean space for homeless people who live in their cars to camp overnight.

    The Richland County Library system in South Carolina, working with the United Way, collected and delivered their 40 standing hand-sanitizing stations to local homeless shelters. They also bought and placed porta-potties outside their downtown libraries.

    Keeping people productive, safe, healthy, informed, and connected to each other: Many libraries have ramped up their online presence. There are lists and lists of resources for children’s activities; plans for improving adult job skills and dealing with job loss; hobby ideas; reading lists; ways to sleep better, meditate, and stay calm; ways to exercise; and ideas for virtual, social interaction.

    Also, libraries have always been trusted sources of information. Many are revising their websites and scaling up their social media for multiple purposes: bringing in more users and broadcasting the message of their diverse, digitally-available holdings; posting timely, accurate, curated information; and offering up-to-date public-service information on local efforts and issues like city services, public advisories, health directives and requests, tax and unemployment issues, and of course, COVID-19 resources.

    From the Anythink libraries in Colorado, Erica Grossman wrote to me in an email:  “We’re working swiftly to become a virtual town square—a place of information and connection.”

    Here is a grab-bag of examples of the trend she is discussing:

    • The Birmingham Public Library in Alabama has a list of valuable links, including one that shows exactly where to get tested and includes details of hours, location, and necessity for call-ahead appointments.
        
    • The Columbus, Ohio, library informs the community about blood drives by one of their partners, the American Red Cross.

    • Before they closed, the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System had placed a dedicated computer in each branch to help people complete their 2020 census forms online. Now, the library’s Nick Brown described to me how they have pivoted to virtual programming to keep the interest strong and the completion rates high—this in a county that was determined to be undercounted by 30 percent in the 2010 census.

    These are the early days of both COVID-19 and the creative ways that libraries will respond to it.

    More from this series

    All notes on "Washington, District of ..." >
    Alexander Drago / Reuters

    At his rally/press conference this evening, March 29, Donald Trump effectively said that doctors and hospitals in New York are selling masks “out the back door,” accounting for current shortages.

    You can see it for yourself here, on this C-SPAN video, starting at time 12:00. Trump notes the shortage of masks and says:

    Something’s going on. And you ought to look at it as reporters.

    Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?

    Through his public career, Trump has been notable for his projection, in the psychologists’ sense of that term. What he is aware of in himself is what he claims to detect in others.

    For instance: He has a long history of making up “sources”—his posing as “John Miller” in leaks to New York reporters back in his real estate days, and in his “lots of people are saying” stories. Thus he accuses reporters of doing the same. His own children are dealt into his business arrangements. Thus this is his point of attack against Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.

    If you asked most Americans why emergency rooms and ICUs might be running short of masks, the last possibility they would think of is that the masks were “going out the back door.” We are talking about doctors, nurses, and medical staff working around the clock in increasingly difficult circumstances. We are talking about hospital administrators now thinking about beds, ventilators, space in temporary morgues. All of these health staffers are coping with sick and dying people, while wondering when they, themselves, might get the disease.

    It had not even occurred to me that people like these might be skimming off masks and selling them.

    But this is what occurred to Donald Trump.

    Projection. It’s something he might have thought of himself.


    This afternoon, Trump put out a tweet that rivaled “out the back door” in its bottomless lack of empathy. He said:

    From Twitter.

    Trump is a problem, but clearly he cannot help himself. No one who could talk about his personal ratings, when the public was dealing with economic collapse and mounting deaths, would do this if he had any sense of empathy, decency, or impulse control.

    The 53 Republicans who control the Senate could do something on the country’s behalf.

    But the number who have spoken up about Trump’s descent these past few days?

    Zero, as far as I can tell.

    All notes on "2020 Time Capsule" >
    President Trump gives his pen to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after signing the coronavirus relief package. Associated Press

    Just before the 2016 election, and then again after its results became clear, I did a series of Atlantic items on a challenge I thought the press was not prepared for.

    The challenge was dealing with a major political figure—Donald Trump—who fit no previous pattern of how presidents or other major figures conceived of “truth” versus “lies.”

    All politicians, like all people, will lie about matters large and small. But most politicians, like most people, usually lie for a reason. They want to avoid blame or embarrassment. They want someone to like or treat them better. They want to paint themselves in a better light. They’ve talked themselves into “believing” a more comfortable version of perhaps-painful truths.

    We all know examples from daily life. In the life of public figures, it means things like: Richard Nixon lying about Watergate (in hopes of not getting caught). Bill Clinton lying about his affairs (ditto). Lyndon Johnson concealing what he knew about the worsening situation in Vietnam (so as not to complicate his re-election chances). FDR concealing his physical limitations (so as not to have them complicate his political and policy goals).

    So in dealing with the political universe as of the summer of 2015—the time when Donald Trump entered the presidential race—the press could start by asking: What’s the reason a certain statement might be a lie? What would a president — a mayor, a senator— have to gain by shading the truth? The related assumption was that people wouldn’t go to the trouble of crafting a lie without a reason to do so. Lies are harder to remember than the truth; they involve more work in getting people to back up your story; they involve the risk that you’ll be caught.

    What made Donald Trump different was not how much more frequently he lies — though he does so at a prodigious rate. (As Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’s fact-check team, among others, have tirelessly chronicled.)

    Rather the difference was that Trump so plainly recognized no distinction between true and false—between what the “facts” showed and what he wanted them to be, between what he wanted people to think and what they could see for themselves. Some public figures are unusually “willing” to lie; Trump seemed not even to notice he was doing so. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous book On Bullshitbears on this phenomenon—people who just talk, in a slurry of “true” and “false,” with no concern or even awareness of the difference between the two.

    Larger-than-life-sized oil painting of Trump at Mar-a-Lago, as I saw it when attending a foreign-policy conference there a dozen years ago. (James Fallows)

    In Trump’s case it became clear long ago that he lacked the mental filter that alerts most people to the boundary between true and false. He would probably sail through any lie-detector test. He does not care if his claim can be instantly disproved (eg, his “landslide” victory, actually one of the narrowest in history). He does not care if his lies contradict one another, as when he attributes the same “someone told me” story to different sources from one day to the next, or rolls out his ludicrous “Sir” anecdotes. He does not care if a lie does him any good—who believes, or cares, whether his uncle was “a great super genius” as a professor at MIT? He does not care that the Adonis-like heroic portrait that has hung for years at Mar-a-Lago would be a source of mirth for most viewers.

    “The news media are not built for someone like this,” I wrote two months before Trump was sworn in:

    [We have] as president-elect a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care….

    Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.

    None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.

    In that item, “A Reflexive Liar in Command,” and then a follow-up, “Dealing with Trump’s Lies,” I set out press guidelines for the time ahead. The first one was:

    1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst [that “millions of people” had snuck into the polling places and voted, presumably for Democrats], The Washington Post and The LA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.”...

    By contrast.. the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.

    What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.


    It’s nearly three-and-a-half years later. Everything we saw about Trump on the campaign trail we have seen from him in the White House, including the limitless fantasy-lying.

    I submit that these three-and-a-half years later, much of the press has still not rebuilt itself, to cope with a time or a person like this. Or with a political party like the subservient Trump-era GOP.

    To choose only a small subset of examples, from only the past three days’ worth of history, here are some illustrations. These are words and deeds that, each on its own, would likely have been major black-mark news events in other eras. Now they are just part of the daily onrush.

    1) Us, and them. Two days ago, on March 27, Donald Trump signed in the Oval Office the most expensive spending bill in American history. Getting it enacted required sustained, major efforts from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and from Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, who got every one of his fellow Democrats to vote for the bill.

    After Lyndon Johnson relied on Republican support to get his civil-rights and Medicare legislation through the Congress, he made sure that the Republican leaders from the House and Senate were with him for the signing ceremonies, to receive some of the first pens he used. (When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the Oval Office, he had only Democratic legislators around him—but that was because of near-unanimous Republican opposition to the bill.)

    Structurally Trump’s situation this week was like LBJ’s: he was signing a bill the other party had played a crucial role in passing. But when Trump signed the bill yesterday, not a single Democratic legislator was present. Pelosi said she had not been invited.

    Every other president has tried, at some point, to expand his support beyond those who originally voted for him (which is why all others have at some point had popularity ratings of 60 percent or 70 percent). Every other one has at some point tried to express the interests of the entire public, not just “the base.” Trump has never done either—and that failure is so baked-in that it barely registers now.

    Obama used precious months in his first year trying to get GOP support for his medical plan; he failed; and a running press critique thereafter was that he should have been doing more to “reach out” to the other side. (Recall the whole “Have a drink with Mitch McConnell” motif.) I haven’t seen any columns fretting about Trump’s failure to “reach out” to Pelosi or Schumer. “That’s just Trump.”

    2) “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” In this past Friday’s version of his marathon TV sessions—the supposed “health” briefings that have become daily hour-long substitutes for Trump’s campaign rallies—Trump said that most of the governors now requesting federal aid were friendly to him. But not all, and the ones who weren’t “appreciative” had better watch their step.

    Trump was asked what he meant about being “appreciative.” His answer (as you can see starting at time 24:00 of this C-SPAN video):

    “Q. You say the governors are not appreciate of what the federal government has done. What more—

    “A: [breaking in}: I think the governor of Washington [Jay Inslee] is a failed presidential candidate. He leveled out at zero in the polls. He’s constantly tripping and—I guess ‘complaining’ would be a nice way of saying it…  

    In Michigan, all she does is—she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying [whining voice] ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault…’

    “I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job…

    “Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him—I’m a different kind of guy—I tell him, Don’t call the governor of Washington. You’re wasting your time with him.

    “Don’t call the woman in Michigan….

    “You know what I say, If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

    What would have made news about this passage in any other era?

    • First, the naked favor-trading: What Trump is saying about the states of Washington and Michigan is more or less what led the House to impeach him last year, regarding Ukraine. That is: threatened use of federal power and favors, to reward political friends and punish political enemies—and in this case for unconcealed, openly stated political reasons.
    • Second, the crassness and cruelty, to leaders coping with life-and-death emergencies in their home states. “A failed presidential candidate.” “She has no idea what’s doing on.”
    • Third, the misogyny: Repeatedly avoiding the name of Gretchen Whitmer, elected last year as governor of Michigan, and calling her “the woman in Michigan.” Check the C-SPAN video if you’re in doubt about the dismissive tone of these remarks, and recall Trump’s frequent references to “Crooked Hillary” and “Crazy Nancy Pelosi.”

    There was some brief press followup on all these points, but mainly it was again normalized as Trump being Trump.

    3) Lies, lies, lies. I’ll leave to the other chroniclers a complete list of the several dozen lies in Trump’s live-broadcast appearances in the past few days. On Thursday, he went on at length about the bounty of tariff payments that the U.S. was receiving “from China”—which revealed either a black-is-white misunderstanding of how tariffs work, or a Harry Frankfurt-style indifference to the bullshit of what he was saying. (None of the White House reporters challenged him about his tariff claim.)

    Here is just one consequential lie to stand for the rest: Trump repeatedly claims, and has done so every day this past week, that no one possibly could have seen this pandemic coming, and that everything was great until just a few weeks ago.

    Of the countless reasons to know this is false, consider this Politico story on the detailed, 69-page playbook the National Security Council had prepared for coping with just this kind of emergency. The exact timing, origin, and biology of this new disease of course came as surprises. But the consequences and choices are ones any competent government would have foreseen.

    Just a month before the 9/11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people were killed, George W. Bush received a memo famously titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Many years later, press analyses still pointed this out. For years after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which four Americans died, congressional Republicans held several dozen hearings, to determine whether the Obama administration should have been more prepared.

    In the past few days’ papers, I see no followup on this NSC report. Press standards for covering Trump have already factored in, and thus implicitly forgiven, the corruption and incompetence.
      

    4) Repeating the mistakes of 2015. Starting in the summer of 2015, cable channels began running live Trump rallies, because they were so “interesting.” People watched. Ratings went up. And by Election Day, Trump had received billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime. One calculation of the value was $5 billion; another, $2 billion. In either case, a lot.

    Without this coverage—this decision by TV outlets, to improve their ratings by giving limitless free, live airtime to Trump—he could never have become the Republican nominee, let alone the president.

    Trump himself clearly views the “briefings” about the “virus” — really, rallies about his greatness—as this year’s substitute for the live rallies he can no longer hold. But the cable and broadcast outlets, as if 2015 and 2016 had never occurred, are covering his daily briefings as they did the rallies of days gone by. For more on why this is a mistake, please see this suggestion from Jay Rosen of PressThink, about how the media could shift to “emergency setting”, and this from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the problem of nonstop live coverage of Trump telling lies.


    The media were not built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.

    All notes on "2020 Time Capsule" >
    Ember + Forge, a coffee shop that has become a center of downtown life in Erie, Pennsylvania, but whose revenue has virtually disappeared. Small businesses like this have led Erie's downtown revival. A new study examines what it will take for them to survive.
    Ember + Forge, a coffee shop that has become a center of downtown life in Erie, Pennsylvania, but whose revenue has virtually disappeared. Small businesses like this have led Erie's downtown revival. A new study examines what it will take for them to survive. Courtesy of Nick Warren and the Erie Reader

    It has been nearly half a century since Erie, Pennsylvania, was officially recognized as an “All-American City.” But beginning with the first of our repeated visits nearly four years ago, Deb Fallows and I have come to think of Erie as an important bellwether location, a representative small city for the America of our times:

    • It grew with a strong, classic-American manufacturing base, but suffered as its factories, like so many others in the “Rust Belt” region, closed during the globalization era of the 1990s, and again after the financial crash a dozen years ago.

    • But over the past decade, like other cities along the Great Lakes swath from Buffalo to Cleveland and on to Detroit, it has worked hard to reposition itself as a “Chrome Belt” economy, with advanced-tech industries (aerospace, sustainable energy, 3D-print and plastics) rather than mass-production sites.

    • During its industrial-boom heyday a century ago, Erie was a major magnet for immigrants, mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe. Now it actively promotes refugees as “new citizens.” Before the current clampdown on U.S. acceptance of refugees—about 110,000 four years ago, fewer than 20,000 now—as much as 20 percent of Erie’s total population was made of recent refugee arrivals. They came from Syria, from Sudan, and from other troubled spots around the world (as Deb Fallows described here).

    • The proportion of Erie’s African-American population is slightly larger than the nation’s as a whole, and its past (and present) race relations track the strains and inequalities of black-white relations nationwide.

    • At first glance, what you notice in Erie’s downtown is what is gone: the stores that are shuttered, the factories not making things any more. What we came to notice, on second and subsequent looks, was what was emerging: the stores being reopened, the smaller, newer workshops in the back rooms of old, broken-windowed factories, the little tech companies and larger start-up companies developing downtown. I described one of those firms in 2016 here, and another in 2018 here.
    Performance at a gala benefit for the historic downtown Erie Playhouse, in 2016. This month the Playhouse announced that it was closing indefinitely, because of the coronavirus. (James Fallows)
    • Also at first glance, you see on Erie’s streets signs of America’s social distress—especially of homelessness, addiction, and grossly unequal opportunity in schooling. On longer exposure, we saw signs of efforts to reknit a civic fabric, from nonprofit organizations like the innovative Jefferson Educational Society (including its program to train cadres of future leaders); to the locally headquartered Erie Insurance company, which has invested heavily in new downtown structures; to numerous arts and civic organization we’ve described over the years.

    In short, if you want to see the goods and bads of modern America, its burdens and its possibilities, go to the Bayfront, or walk along State Street or Peach or Sassafras in downtown Erie, and look around, more than once.

    The battered-looking part of Erie, two years ago. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Now all of the United States, with much of the world, faces a public-health emergency that is becoming an economic disaster as well. And from the “representative city” perspective, the most dramatic change in Erie is that the very institutions that have led its nascent recovery are most imperiled by this moment’s economic collapse.

    Small businesses. Playhouses and music venues. Startup tech companies. Civic-action and resettlement groups. These have made a crucial difference in Erie, and many other cities. Now all of them face unprecedented stress.

    “The story of Erie is is a microcosm of the challenges many cities are facing across the nation,” Ben Speggen and Bruce Katz wrote in an illuminating report, issued yesterday. (Speggen, based in Erie, has worked for the Erie Reader and the Jefferson Educational Society. Katz, co-author with the late Jeremy Nowak of The New Localism, is director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.) They add that today’s Erie:

    shows how a community writ large—and a group of remarkable, passionate entrepreneurs, and city builders—have been able to restore a sense of civic pride and purpose and put a city back on track, and how that years-long effort is at risk of reversal in a matter of weeks.

    Years of effort, undone in weeks. That’s the prospect that Erie, and countless towns and cities like it, are facing right now.

    Of course the pressure applies in every part of the nation, and restaurants and stores from San Francisco to New York are shuttered as well. But those cities’ ascent has been vastly more powerful than Erie’s uneven recovery. Battered as even the superstar cities are at this frightening moment, no one doubts that some time they will be back strong.

    As for Erie? The Katz and Speggen report goes into “tell us everything” dollars-and-cents details for two businesses that have been important parts of the downtown revival. One is a relatively new coffee shop called Ember + Forge, which has anchored an important corner of downtown. The other is a relatively established local brewpub and restaurant called Lavery Brewing, which has been so successful that it recently opened a second location.

    Both had been thriving; both have seen their revenue shrink virtually to zero; both have had to lay off most of their staff and are considering what it will take even to survive at all.

    The full Katz and Speggen report is available in PDF here, with articles about it on the Drexel site and at the Erie Reader. I won’t attempt to summarize it, since its details are its strength. But I encourage anyone interested in the practicalities of American economic recovery to read it— and to compare it with some of the pre-coronavirus reports I mentioned recently. I completely endorse the “what comes next?” parts of its conclusion. In it they stress the complex, fragile networks that have allowed businesses like these two to emerge, and for cities like Erie to renew themselves:

    On one level, a fast recovery in the long term (when the health crisis abates) is dependent on the nature and scale of the short-term response. The longer we can keep small businesses alive and workers employed, the quicker the recovery and rebound will be ….

    Almost overnight, downtowns have eerily become lifeless movie sets— literally former shells of their former selves; the buildings are intact (unlike after a flood), but there is little or no business being transacted given the imperative of social distancing and the collapse of basic consumerism. If we can keep businesses alive, then the bounce back will be rapid and pronounced. If businesses collapse, then the recovery will be slow and painful.

    On another level, the recovery will depend upon the kind of bottom-up responses and collaborative action that is a hallmark of Erie and many other communities. In our view, this crisis is too complex and multi-dimensional to be left to policymakers sitting in our remote national capitol. Rather, local networks of public, business, civic, university, and other leaders need to band together—now—to prepare their communities for what comes next and be a constant feedback loop for national and state governments.

    At some point, the emergency will be over. Then the longer-term recovery will begin. Reports like this are important guides to what should happen next.

    The Erie bayfront, on our first visit (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    All notes on "Erie, Pennsylvania" >
    General William Westmoreland. Bettmann / Getty

    In the second of his two extended live-TV performances yesterday—a White House coronavirus update, following a Fox News “virtual town hall”—Donald Trump said that prospects in the effort to control the virus were improving. As you can see starting at time 2:30 of this C-Span video, he said:

    I’m very proud to be your president, I can tell you that.

    There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and see light at the end of the tunnel.

    Most of today’s living Americans were born in 1980 or afterward. (The median age in the U.S. is now just over 38.) Most of them would not instantly recognize the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,”

    But Donald Trump was born in 1946, and he would know this phrase. During his teenaged years and his early 20s, when hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries were being drafted for service in Vietnam, and when more than 50,000 of them were killed, those words were among the most infamous parts of the American lexicon. Like “it became necessary to destroy the town, in order to save it”—a possibly apocryphal phrase attributed to a U.S. military officer, about the scorched-earth policy—“light at the end of the tunnel” came to symbolize the sustained folly of the war in general, and the illusion that success was near at hand.

    The closest post-Vietnam examples would probably be early proclamations about the Iraq war: Dick Cheney’s pre-war assurance that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and George W. Bush’s triumphal appearance under a “Mission Accomplished” banner shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Or, early in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Among pre-Vietnam examples, a counterpart might be Neville Chamberlain in 1938, shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in Munich, and then returning home to declare that they had ensured “peace for our time.”

    During and after the Vietnam war, “light at the end of the tunnel” became so familiar and polarizing that one of the most publicized libel suits of the era, in which four-star General William Westmoreland sued CBS News for $120 million, centered on these very words. As the New York Times reported during the trial, in 1984:

    Gen. William C. Westmoreland and a lawyer for CBS argued yesterday over one of the most memorable phrases of the Vietnam War, with the lawyer suggesting that the general had misled Washington into believing there was “light at the end of tunnel” in 1967 and the general saying he had not used that expression.

    “I never had quite that degree of optimism,” General Westmoreland told the jury at his libel trial against CBS in Federal Court in Manhattan.

    But the lawyer, David Boies, showed the witness a Nov. 26, 1967, cable he had sent during a visit to Washington to his deputy in Saigon, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, in which the phrase “some light at the end of the tunnel” was bracketed in quotation marks.

    People of my parents’ generation would hesitate or catch themselves before “peace for our time.” News-conscious people of my children’s generation would recognize the freight that comes with saying “mission accomplished” or “heck of a job”

    And people of Trump’s generation, and mine, would recognize that “light at the end of the tunnel” is not what you would say if you wanted to convey genuine confidence, any more than you would say, “I am not a crook” if you wanted to convey genuine innocence. You cannot have been alive in that time and not have absorbed this phrase.

    The typically young members of a White House speechwriting staff—the people who worked on the script from which Trump read yesterday—would not know this phrase from their own experience. But in normal White Houses, they would have looked these things up. (When I worked, in my 20s, on a White House speechwriting staff, our “spare time” reading was from the volumes of past presidential addresses.)

    But Trump himself would have to have been familiar with this phrase. So yesterday, as he saw the note cards, did he see the phrase—and not remember it? Did he remember, and not care? I don’t know, and it doesn’t make a difference in his response to the current pandemic. But it is one more illustration of things we have heard and seen, which we would never have seen before.


    Two other for-the-record elements from Trump’s public performances yesterday.

    • With several of his scientific experts behind him, explained how much worse the 1918 flu pandemic was:

    “That was a flu where if you got it, you had a 50/50 chance, or very close, of dying.”

    In fact, the mortality rate during that devastating worldwide illness was between 2 and 3 percent—not around 50 percent, as Trump claimed. Most of the experts around Trump knew better; none of them said anything. I can’t quickly think of a case of another president making such a wildly inaccurate basic-fact claim, without a quick “For the record, the president meant to say...” cleanup.

    • Three times yesterday, Trump said that his goal for “opening up the country” again was Easter Day.

      • During his Fox town hall: “I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that.
        It’s such an important day for other reasons. I’ll make it an important day for this too I would love to have the country opened up an rarin’ to go by Easter.”
      • After the town hall, he said: “Easter’s a very special day for me. And I see it in that timeline I am thinking about. And I say, Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full.”
      • And when answering press questions about “why Easter?” later in the day: “It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful timeline.”

    This year’s Easter Day is April 12, or 19 days after Trump’s announcement. As of yesterday afternoon, while Trump was talking about the Easter “timeline,” the official confirmed-case count for the United States was nearing 47,000, and the death toll was in the low 600s. I’ll note in this space where the numbers stand 19 days from now.

    All notes on "2020 Time Capsule" >