Five O’Clock Follies (Redux)
For those too young to remember the Vietnam War, the nightly news made it a “living room war” and that television exposure contributed to the growing public dissatisfaction with the government’s policies. A fixture of the Vietnam War coverage were nightly press conferences that became known as “The Five O’Clock Follies.” As described in Wikipedia:
The Five O'Clock Follies is a sobriquet for military press briefings that occurred during the Vietnam War. Richard Pyle, Associated Press Saigon bureau chief during the war, described the briefings as, "the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia's theater of the absurd."
The briefings occurred in Saigon's Rex Hotel, and journalists alternately cracked cynical jokes and shouted at officials, often complaining about a credibility gap between official reports and the truth. Public affairs officer, Barry Zorthian, led the briefings. He once lamented that where the US government's word was once true until proven false, in Vietnam, it would be questioned until proven true.
I’m sure you have already anticipated the parallel that is going to be made here. The President’s nightly “Coronavirus Task Force Briefings” bear an eerie resemblance to the Vietnam “Five O’Clock Follies.” With the exception of state-media Fox News, journalists are often questioning the “credibility gap between official reports and the truth.” We know that this President lies with almost every breath he takes but, as in the Vietnam crisis, this lying is now costing LIVES.
As the weeks of social isolation proceed and the economy continues to plummet, we will see our “Chief Executive” agitate for “getting America back to work” (or some such phrase) more and more, which will, by all reckonings from the epidemiologists, immunologists, and other doctors, re-invigorate the virus and cost more lives. The silver lining, if there is one, is that Trump has declined to take responsibility for any coordinated action against this pandemic and, therefore, Governors will actually have the final say over what happens. Even if Trump says the Federal stay-at-home order is rescinded as of May 1st, it is highly unlikely many (if any) Governors will allow citizens to stop their sheltering-in-place. Public health and safety --- things Trump seems to care nothing about --- will be in the hands of State Governors. So, his nightly “Five (or Six) O’Clock Follies” will continue and we will watch him slowly dissemble before our very eyes.
While Trump has declared himself a “Wartime” President and his Surgeon General has declared we are facing our “Pearl Harbor,” the parallels to the United States and World War II pretty much end there. Maybe Trump sees his nightly Briefings as his version of FDR’s Fireside Chats but that is, of course, absurd. More significant, as we look back at Roosevelt’s handling of the Great Depression is how this President is falling down on the job. Once again, a brief history lesson --- so we can use the past to inform the present. That is a concept totally alien to this President --- with the exception of un-doing everything that “Black President” did!
FDR took office with the Great Depression already in full flower. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover (like our current occupant of the White House), failed to take any decisive action during his years in office (Hoover became President in March of 1929 and the Market Crashed that October). Roosevelt, upon taking office, declared a “Bank Holiday” and told the public he would focus his first 100 Days in office on establishing what became known as his 3-R program. As described on www.american-historama.org/1929-1945-depression-ww2-era/...:
The Relief, Recovery and Reform programs, known as the 'Three R's', were introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression to address the problems of mass unemployment and the economic crisis. FDR's Three R's - Relief, Recovery and Reform - required either immediate, temporary or permanent actions and reforms and were collectively known as FDR's New Deal. The many Relief, Recovery and Reform programs were initiated by a series of laws that were passed between 1933 and 1938. The initiatives were called "Alphabet Soup Agencies" as they were referred to by their initials. FDR's Relief, Recovery and Reform programs focused on emergency relief programs, regulating the banks and the stock market, providing debt relief, managing farms, initiating industrial recovery and introducing public works construction projects.
In other words, there is already a model, a very workable one, for the Trump Administration to implement. If the President and his Advisors would simply use the power of the Federal government to protect the American people and think not about their re-election chances but public health and safety, they could roll out a modern equivalent of the “Three-R’s.”
Consider then, what the Federal government could implement. First, as Relief, second, as Recovery, and , finally, as Reform. Relief, obviously, would be (1) a Federal program that insured universal testing and tracing implemented in a rigorous, systematic fashion. At the same time, (2) all PPE and ventilator distribution would be handled by the U.S. military quartermaster corps. While Congress has approved some funding for the escalating unemployment rate, the President needs to lead the way in (3) specifying how unemployment and health insurance will be provided by (or at least insured by) the Federal Government in the immediate future. There are other aspects of “Relief” the Federal government could implement, of course, but those first three are crucial.
Regarding “Recovery,” the Roosevelt Great Depression model is worth examining. The “Alphabet Soup” agencies --- government funded public works projects, construction initiatives, etc. --- would provide a boost to the economy until the private sector could regain its footing and be able to relieve the Federal government of its burden.
Finally, “Reform.” This, of course, is “pie-in-the-sky” regarding the extensively corrupt Trump Administration and will probably have to wait for his removal from office --- either by election in November or Congressional action after his glaring incompetence in this pandemic. We can only hope.
So, there’s the model. We need to move away from Five O’Clock Follies and toward FDR’s Three-R’s, as he so eloquently described them in his Fireside Chats. History can provide lessons, if we are willing to listen.
Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands compulsively.