The Pandemic That Never Happened

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S1: This podcast may have explicit content and also has this implicit request if you follow me on Twitter. Why not follow the gist at Slate? Just.

S2: It’s Tuesday, April 28, 2020, from Slate’s The Gist.

S3: I’m Mike PESCA.

S4: Huge news, big time. Exactly. The thing we needed is a Testino serology, no vaccine. Stop that. The Oscars announced that sound mixing and sound editing will now be one award. One award. Thank God. Perhaps this means that we are now living in a moment of mass consolidation. It may be upon us, and I hope so. So many things that we could consolidate. Things have really frayed and gotten out of control. Let’s bring it all back in. Like the undersecretary of state and the assistant to the secretary of state could be one thing or optometrists and ophthalmologists could just be one thing. Yeah. Yeah, I know. One’s a medical doctor. And the joke about 40000 a year or whatever, but come on. Minor league baseball players, a major league baseball players are both professional baseball players. Generals are both Mattis and Flynn. And I think also C. Everett Koop. So let’s just consolidate. Do we need this many ESPN ads? Let me give you the answer when there actually are sports. The answer is still no then. But now, without sports, we do not need the E or the P. Not sure what they stand for, but let’s just lose at least an entire ESPN and a Dakotah. How about just one? And of course, it goes without saying. Perhaps Baldwin perhaps Bush, perhaps one of the Olsons. Simplify pare down. Do I need Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime? Yes, I do. But maybe not. Couldn’t be. What is this thing? Quippy. Quippy? Is that what that is? Okay. Between Mayor Quimby, Kubert and Quarto. You can only choose one. Don’t remember Cuarto from total recall. Don’t even have a partial recall of quarto. He was a brilliant fetus who lived inside. Character actor Marshall Bell. Good thing you don’t need to consolidate. You can hang on to your quippy. I personally don’t know the difference between Love Island. Temptation Island. Are you the one? And too hot to handle. But I don’t care. It’s fine. But maybe you do care. Maybe you can’t keep track of all of them and you need consolidation. So what we need to do is take all these shows. Press them down, compress them down into one diamond of a show called him. And bimbos try to avoid Syphillis Island. What it lacks incomprehensibility. It makes up for in this. Which is sound effects or maybe that sound editing. Who the hell knows? On the show today, the allegations against Joe Biden deepen. I will catch you up on where we stand. But first, quickly, listeners to the Ford administration. In 1976, there was the very real threat of a swine flu epidemic. Unlike today, the administration and the Ford administration took the threat quite seriously, unlike today. Congress acted swiftly in a bipartisan fashion, unlike today. The virus did not spread as feared. Like today, the administration was criticized. Unlike today, the criticism was for doing too much air. New York Times 1976 headline Swine Flu Fiasco. Quote, The sorry debacle of the swine flu vaccine program provides a fitting end point to the misunderstandings and misconceptions that have marked government approaches to health care. Today, there is no sign whatsoever of anything approaching a swine flu epidemic. But there is growing apprehension that the millions of dollars of federal money spent and the vast vaccination program pushed. So, in other words, a very different result. But a fascinating lesson from history nonetheless. Middlebury College Professor Matthew Dickinson will be our guide after this.

S5: So in trying to understand our current situation, our current pandemic, I have, of course, looked back to the past 1918, 1919, Spanish flu. We brought you an interview with the executor of the influenza archive. I’ve also looked back at the 1957 flu outbreak, an interesting one that’s a little like the I don’t know, the Velvet Underground of outbreaks wasn’t very popular, but the people who understand outbreaks really appreciate its nuance. But then there was another non outbreak that I hadn’t even heard of until a couple of days ago. In 1976, it was thought by very learned people that the swine flu might be sweeping through America. And so the president then Gerald Ford acted and he acted swiftly and he acted somewhat decisively. Well, the illness never hit. And in reflection, Ford’s actions were deemed well. The New York Times called them a fiasco. The book about this swine flu that didn’t really happen in 1976 is called The Swine Flu A Fair Decision Making on a Slippery Disease. It was a report that was put together by Richard Newsthat and Harvey Fineberg. Harvey Fineberg now is at Harvard advising the government every day on what to do about the current pandemic. Richard, Newsthat, the great presidential advisor has passed away. But guess what? We have one of his main mentees on the line. He is Matthew Dickinson. He’s a professor of political science at Middlebury. And he is the co-editor of Guardian of the Presidency The Legacy of Richard Newsthat. Hello, Matthew. Thanks for joining me. Glad to be with you. So because you read this and it’s a book, but it was really a report that was an after action report because you had read this years ago. You were at least aware that in 1976 there was this epidemic that didn’t happen. But had you been thinking about it a lot lately, what with the pandemic that we’re currently experiencing?

S6: I was a habit, in fact, because as you’ve seen, some of the coverage, the media coverage of Donald Trump has been very critical of the administration’s response, particularly in the area of testing. And it struck me as a reminder of the difficulty policymakers have. Whether you agree with that criticism or not and trying to understand the information that’s flowing from experts and really not having a background to evaluate it. And yet you’re required to make decisions that affect the entire nation. And it instantly struck me that Trump’s not the first president to be in this position. Gerald Ford was in 1976. The irony being, of course, Ford did everything his medical experts recommended and it turned out politically to be a disaster.

S5: Yes. So I think it’s instructive, but it also shows that we can misuse historical analogies. But before we even get there, can we lay the predicate, as it were? What were the broad strokes of the circumstances in 1976 and how that epidemic actually didn’t play out?

S6: Sure. Newly recruited class of army recruits goes to Fort Dix, the barracks there in January, and then together in close quarters. And some of them begin coming down with the flu. And one of them dies after an overnight hike. And so pathologies have done in most of the flu seems to be what they were calling the Victoria flu. But there were some samples. They just didn’t identify local pathologists. And so they sent this to the CDC and the CDC identified it as swine flu. And this raised alarm bells for a couple of reasons. And again. Only a few soldiers showed up as being affected by swine flu. Initially, but the reason it raised alarm bells is because swine flu had not jumped from person to person in years. The only cases in the previous 30 years had been people who worked in proximity to swine, where it was understood that it could incubate second. And perhaps more importantly, swine flu used to be the most prevalent strain back in the 1920s, and a version of it is commonly attributed to the 1918 worldwide global pandemic. So immediately alarm bells went off at the CDC and this set into motion a decision that medical experts had to make about how we were going to respond. And of course, those decisions had to be authorized by our political advisers, including President Gerald Ford.

S5: And there was and this is critical and different from now. There was a vaccine.

S6: Yes. Part of the urgency and making this decision was they had actually put together a vaccine for the following fall. And so typically what happens, the vaccine is incubated in eggs. The roosters impregnate the hens. Then when the vaccine is produced, they kill all the roosters. And so the worry was if they were going to go ahead with a mass vaccination again, they had to make sure those roosters were there to help the hens lay a second batch of eggs. So there was a sense of urgency. Nobody remember had ever done mass immunization on this scale. And so the lead time, the decisions had to be made in the spring before we even knew if this was going to hit. So it wasn’t a question about whether they could actually produce the vaccination. That was pretty straightforward, right? It was making the decision to go ahead with it and making sure everything was in place.

S7: Right. And part of that was a public education effort. I’m going to play a PSA that we found from seventy-six, just explaining to the public how the flu spreads. It starts off with a guy who says hello, hello to his family with a kiss. The narrator says they all get it. He then kisses his mother in law and we follow her path.

S8: And get even my. The day his mother went back to California to stand on her way to the airport, she gave it to a cab driver.

S9: I took it out in one of the charming stewardesses. Joe was killed to see you, and Mrs. Narrow gave it to her husband in California, that his mother gave it to her best friend, God. Daddy had a heart condition. She died before she died. Daddy, do that to her girlfriend. I didn’t mean. Keep on going. And again, when she went to pick up, which ran.

S8: If the swine flu epidemic comes, this is how it could spread. You want to be protected, especially if you’re elderly or chronically ill, get a shot of swine flu.

S7: And apologies for use of the phrase stewardess. It was, after all, 1976. So the public has to be informed. But there has to be the political will. And so this is the first. Other than there being a vaccine, I think this is the second great contrast with today. There was big bipartisan political will to go ahead and institute a program.

S6: Yes. Once Gerald Ford listens to his experts, he brings them into the White House and including the big ones, a sabiene, of course. And Jonas Salk, who created the polio vaccine and having them there, added a little bit of weight to his decision after listening to experts and asking, is there anybody who objects to this mass vaccination program? And they all sort of looked at each other that nobody did. So he goes out and announces it. Then you’ve got to get the money to appropriate this. And there are a number of different ways they could have pursued this. What they decided to do was build on the existing private health practice fund and enough of money to get private manufacturers to develop this vaccine and then distributing it through the existing private health care. And it sailed through Congress. There was bipartisan support. The trickier process was selling us to the public.

S5: Right. There wasn’t an anti-vax movement because vaccines weren’t as widely used. There was, however, just general trepidation with vaccines and to some extent as amplified by the media. Perhaps understandably, in the rare instance where something went wrong, it had big negative consequences.

S6: Absolutely. So, first of all, we should keep in mind here, this is a presidential election year. And that’s one parallel to what we’re going through today. Ford, when he met with his panel, had just actually lost the primary in North Carolina to Ronald Reagan. So there was a lot of uncertainty. Reagan was challenging him for the Republican nomination. Ford, of course, the incumbent president, but had never been elected in his own right. So some of the media began to look at this as a very orchestrated political effort to sort of symbolize Ford as a decisive decision maker, as you point out. They get the money, they put the mass vaccination program together. But there’s a couple of hiccups on the way. One is the manufacturers of the vaccines don’t want to be held liable because nobody’s ever done vaccines on this scale. And they’re afraid if there is the inevitable reactions among some people, they’re going to get sued. Remember, we’re entering a period in which litigation is becoming a prevalent way of life in America. The second problem is as the vaccination is finally rolled out in August, they have some deaths. A couple of elderly people die. And it turns out that has nothing to do with the vaccine, but it sort of raises questions about its safety and for himself. And in order to demonstrate the safety of this was shown getting a vaccination. But that just fed the media’s idea that this is a largely political ploy and unnecessary.

S5: Well, I mean, it was political. It seems to me that everything hinged on if it was or wasn’t necessary. All of the analysis in retrospect is through the prism of did we need these vaccinations? Did this epidemic hit or didn’t it? And so anything that was done, any costs would be amplified considering there was no actual epidemic. That’s not the best way to draw lessons or to label things fiascos. If we know how it actually panned out well.

S6: So this is a great reminder that policymakers live in the present looking forward under a cloud of uncertainty. The post-mortem for the Monday morning quarterbacks and we’re seeing this with the Trump administration, the post-mortem on the one month delay in testing. It’s a fair criticism, but it also does a disservice to the uncertainty in which decisions are being made, whether it’s Gerald Ford or Donald Trump. They’re doing the best they can with the information they have. And their experts are telling them something and they have to evaluate this.

S5: Right. And I’ll read from something that you wrote on your blog. But he suggests that this is news that suggests that Ford was not well-served by his advisers and that the president did not probe deeply enough into the assumptions underlying his health experts advice. OK, fair noted. But now the criticism and it don’t seem apt, is that the president is too wanton in rejecting his health experts advice.

S6: Yes. You raise the question about the utility of historical analogies. Clearly, there’s a pandemic going on now. There was it in 1976. We know what some of the consequences of the delay in testing was. All I’m cautioning is until you’re there sitting in the room with the decision makers, it’s unclear what options are being offered to them at what time and by whom. And when we look back at Ford’s decision making process. There was a consensus, at least he thought. Among the nation’s health experts that, for instance, pandemics happened at pretty regular cycles every 11 years, and moreover, most of the nation would not be immune to anybody who was under age 50, had never gone through a pandemic. And so the nation was incredibly susceptible to this. And he never really pushed back at any of this because why would he? Gerald Ford, he’s not an epidemiologist. He’s a politician. But he has to make decisions based on the best available evidence from his experts.

S7: The other thing is that so often and new staff wrote a book about just how to think things out on a presidential or I guess any level and you analyze decision making a huge trap is to conflate process with product. And perhaps they did it with the 76 non epidemic. We inoculated forty five million people for quote unquote no reason. But I see little glimpses of that this time around. I’ll give you an example. Ventilators. It turns out that ventilators maybe didn’t become the dire choke point between life and death that they thought they would. And there are a lot of reasons for that. Maybe it was because of preparation, maybe because some of the models were a little too aggressive. But putting that aside, it’s now being argued from the highest levels, ventilators, ventilators, ventilators. It turns out we didn’t need ventilators. That’s the product. The product is that it is true. No one died for lack of a ventilator. That doesn’t mean the process along the way of procuring ventilators and assigning ventilators to the states was correct. We’ve confused product for process. And another example, not from this pandemic. When we look at the year 2000 bug, it’s kind of a joke, I guess, among the layman who remembers it that we were so upset about it. But from a lot of the experts that I could that I studied a reason that we avoided huge catastrophes with the why 2000 bugs? Because we prepared for it. So, again, the product, what actually did happen? Nothing really. With the year 2000, maybe nothing dire with ventilators, gets confused for the process of trying to prevent the worst from happening.

S6: I think that’s a great point. And we should be clear here, Newstead is asked by Health and Human Services under Joe Califano to write a report about what happened in the swine flu. And he points out errors in the process in which Ford would have been better served by asking certain questions. From this, he does not conclude in the end that Ford made a mistake in widespread immunization, only that the process itself could have been strengthened. Similarly, I think the argument you’re often hearing is the number of cases in coronavirus is smaller than our models predicted and the need for ventilators didn’t appear. Maybe in fact, because the process worked in a way that allowed us to engage in social distancing and avoid the worst case scenario. So I think again, your distinction between the end results and the process of getting there applies equally well in 1976. We’re not necessarily saying Ford made the wrong choice in terms of the product news that wants us to look at the process and see what we can learn from that.

S5: Exactly. By the way, forty five million getting inoculated over a flu that never came. Was there any upside to that?

S6: Well, it showed that mass immunization is plausible. And one of the concerns that Newstead points out is Censer and the health specialists really saw this as a public service, an opportunity to demonstrate to the public the efficacy of mass based immunization in the hope that this would turn the public into supporting this type. And the unfortunate thing is this particular incident sort of cast a pall on that. And as you’ve said, that maybe a lingering, Paula, that people who are opposed government efforts to intervene in health care bring up. But, you know, there were benefits to that. And I should point out that mass immunization, those forty five million people that included not just the swine flu, but another vaccine that they had anticipated was going to pop up in the fall initially. So it had health benefits.

S7: Matthew Dickinson is a professor of political science at Middlebury. He is the author of Bitter Harvest, FDR Presidential Power and the Growth of the Presidential Branch and co-editor of Guardian of the Presidency The Legacy of Richard Newsthat. And we’re going to go out. I’m going to thank you. And we’re going to go out on some audio of Gerald Ford actually signing the directive to get all these immunizations rolling. Thank you so much, Professor Dickinson. Thank you.

S10: Offer every American the opportunity to be inoculated against a swine type influenza virus. This virus was the cause of a pandemic in 1918 and 1990 that resulted in over half a million deaths in the United States, as well as 20 million deaths around the world. I am gratified that the Congress did act promptly prior to Easter recess. A matter of great importance to every citizen.

S4: And now the schpiel, the sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden have become stronger in the last couple of days. And it’s time to start pondering the implications. So to catch you up, Tara Reid changed her name a couple of times for a couple of reasons. Worked for Joe Biden’s Senate office in 1993. While there, she complained of sexual harassment, she says, including comments about her appearance. And Biden, she says, touched her hair and neck. Reid went forward with those specific allegations last year when a few other women came forth to say that the touchy feely ness of Joe Biden, which we’ve all seen, wasn’t welcome by at least a few of the women he touched. But a little over a month ago, the allegation against Biden broadened to include not only harassment but rape, retold Katie Halper in a podcast and Ryan Grim in an article for The Intercept that Biden had positioned her against a wall, placed his hand under her skirt, and penetrated her with his finger. And that, by the way, fits the f.b.i.’s definition of rape. Now the story is advanced, some with Business Insider interviewing a woman on the record, Linda Lashkars, who says Reid told her that exact story, but Biden did to her in around 1995 or 1996. There are other factors to consider or maybe not to understand who Tara Reid is. She’s praised Putin on the Internet in past posts. She put up positive sentiments about Joe Biden. She did change her name a few times. Like I said, she changed her. He expanded her story. And there’s some news about a broodmare charity whose owner says Reid ripped her off. I say we could consider them or not because it’s a Putin lover could still be raped. Someone loathed by the broodmare community could have still been raped. Seems like none of those extraneous details, supposedly about Tara Reid’s life has much bearing on if she was raped. I suppose to give credence to the mindset of those bringing these up, you could say, well, if it all adds up to Reid being an untrustworthy person or a serial fabulist, we could discount her. But it doesn’t really add up to that. I don’t even have to engage as to the veracity of each instance that took place years later to try to draw a picture. What I do is apply the standard that we apply to other alleged victims, victims who we generally believe or don’t believe and see where Reid fits in. So the answer more and more seems like Reid fits squarely in the range of those that it is possible and maybe even plausible to have been a rape victim.

S1: I know it’s a little bit of a dodge, I suppose I’m saying something like no one should be absolutely floored if Joe Biden did what he’s alleged to have done. And also no one should be absolutely floored if it didn’t happen to sexual assault survivors who have gained credibility among those who have looked deeply and fairly.

S11: Our Christine blousy Ford and we need a brodrick blousy Ford did an alleged rape persay, but assault. And if we apply the same standards that contributed to her believability, if we apply those to Tara Read, it would seem that at least Tara Reid has nothing disqualifying her allegation with Reid. There’s even tape of her mom calling in to Larry King shouldn’t give a name, but she mentioned details that comports with Reid’s recollection of the harassment part of her claim. Here’s that tape.

S12: Hello. Yes, hello. I’m wondering what that staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington. My daughter has just left there after working for a prominent senator and could not get through with her problems at all. The only thing she could have done would go to the press and she got to do it out of that grand jury.

S7: She had a story to tell. But out of respect for the person she worked for, she didn’t tell the truth.

S11: In isolation, some call her in 1993 saying something about some problem with the senator. Maybe it doesn’t mean much, but the fact that Reid remembered that such a call took place. And then another independent researcher discovered that this call actually did occur. It’s not nothing. Also earlier reports of Reid’s brother, Collin Moulton, confirming to journalists that, yes, Reid told him at the time that Joe Biden assaulted may appear to be less than bullet proof. Maltin didn’t initially offer contemporaneous corroboration to The Washington Post. He didn’t talk at all to The New York Times. So that, at least to me, was always standing out there, as you know, a less than perfect witness, as was another unnamed witness. Now that we have a named witness on the record saying Reid told her in 1995, 1996, I think he means something. OK. Well, what about the fact that Reid favored Bernie Sanders in the 2020 election and the fact that Bernie Sanders backers and Biden antagonists have been the chief drivers of her story? Well, OK. But, you know, none of that really sheds serious light on the fact or non fact of a rape that took place in the corridors of the Senate in 1993. Let’s go to wanted to brodrick Bill Clinton’s accuser. She has become fairly credible or her case is seen as a fairly credible one among even left leaning journalists who vetted it. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, slow burns. Leon Neyfakh, The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan all decided roughly the same thing, that it’s impossible to know what happened in an Arkansas hotel room in 1976. But these journalists and I, by the way, conclude that the arguments we use to discount Broderick in the 90s would not fly today. Yes, she’s changed her story. Rape victims sometimes do that. And yes, there are some parts of her story unrelated to the rape that seem hard to believe. And she’s certainly politically biased against Bill Clinton. And Broderick is really opposed to Hillary Clinton. Anything associated with Clinton or the Democratic Party? I mean, today she’s a huge Trump supporter on Twitter. She gleefully disparages every Democrat traffics in some of the most absurd right wing talking points. April twenty seventh. I’m so excited that General Flynn is being exonerated soon. This man is a hero and deserves to be treated like one. We need to. Broderick, April twenty seventh NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to permanently close churches, but he’s giving Muslims half a million meals for Ramadan. We need a Broaddrick April 2016 to be reinfected with the Wu Han Corona virus only in the fall if Democrats sense an overwhelming Trump victory. You know what? None of her vitriol in 2020 changes basic truths of what happened in 1978. Just as a deep dive into bad blood in the broodmare world doesn’t change a thing about what happened in 1993. It’s just a distraction, really. And that that word, I think that will apply to terror reads allegations and the Biden campaign, they will be at best for the Biden campaign a very big distraction.

S4: You may remember a week or so ago I rejected the heuristic believe women fullstop as adequate. We have to go beyond that. I said all we should do is not disbelieve women, but we have gone beyond that. The standards of vetting, rape accusations have changed. And right now, I would say Tara Reid falls into a category of rape victim or sexual assault survivor who the media and the vast majority of feminist thinkers and women’s rights groups would believe. If the allegations were against a different person, she would not be dismissed. She would not be rebutted to the extent that she’s being rebutted right now. Then again, there wouldn’t be the urgency to come to a conclusion if these were allegations against a movie star or a producer or businessman. Many of us could just not pay attention to them and go on our way and say, yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t paid that much attention. And the people who want to just believe women because hashtag believe women will believe women, the stakes wouldn’t have been so high.

S1: But there is urgency because Joe Biden is the only figure who could come between Donald Trump and two full terms as president. Do I believe Tara Reid? I don’t disbelieve her. I couldn’t find reasonable doubt. I couldn’t find the preponderance of the evidence. But remember, I remember what my standard was for Cavin on it wasn’t that I said, you know, if a senator found a 15 percent chance that it happened, they should reject him and find a different candidate. If the Democrats thought that. The assault was plausible, not even likely, but some looser standard like plausible or credible than the alleged assault or shouldn’t have been the candidate. Think about this other calculation, if you think that terror, Reid’s alleged assault at the hands of Joe Biden was, say, a 50/50 proposition, would you still vote for him over Donald Trump? You might. A lot of us might. 60/40, 90/10. Well, there are sexual assault allegations against Trump and those two are plausible. Eugene Carroll said Trump raped her. She told two friends contemporaneously. They’re both on the record and confirm that account. I was thinking about this the other day. Had the impeachment of Trump resulted in conviction? The upcoming presidential race would be one between an alleged rapist and not an alleged rapist. Mike Pence is a lot of things and a lot of things that aren’t feminist, but he’s not a rapist. Biden might be a put it another way. If the current state of understanding of the alleged assault doesn’t change, then the upcoming election cannot be a major blow against sexual violence. And it had the potential to be a rebuke of Donald Trump and everything he stands for, but also the sexual assault allegations. Now, it can’t be that. I don’t even know if it can be a small step forward. Maybe at best it can only be a quarter step backwards. And instead of a full step, I’ll tell you what else. It suggests that the Democratic nominating process did not work well, not because of the product Biden, but because so many candidates didn’t get a real chance at being considered. So many of them wrongly thought they had to tack way left. And what was a super long slog was then decided bing, bang, boom, Biden. The bing was burning, looking strong. The Beng was all the remaining moderates consolidating around Biden. The boom was South Carolina plus Super Tuesday. And so here we are. I really do think that unless terror Reid is dispositive, Lee proved to be lying. And I don’t mean Katie Halper calling Barack Obama’s sinister in a podcast like she did last week. I mean, if some real issues beyond the broodmare brouhaha are raised, this is going to be a huge headache for months to come. I hope America will take great strides in trying to combat the Corona virus. But then I see this happening that as the country takes one step out of the CAVE of Corona virus, it will be confronted with a rape allegation that won’t be easy to dismiss. So the fever breaks and then the nightmare sets in.

S3: And that’s it for today’s show. Margaret Kelly is the associate producer of The Gist. She would like to consolidate the four hundred thirty one current varieties of Oreos and maybe Yamano 312. Let’s say you can get rid of crispy tiramisu, Oreos, carrot cake, Oreos or mistery Oreo. Daniel Schrader is the gist producer shirreffs suros. That was the mystery flavor Turow’s. He wants to know as sure as the gist. The only show with spoiler alert warnings for food flavors. And here’s another one. Blueberry. It’s just food coloring. Done taste like anything. Also in blueberry was alive. He was a 44 year old man who choked to death on Oreos for adepero du Peru. And thanks for listening.