Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney chronicles the United States’ failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic in his brand new film, Totally Under Control. Andy and Alex cover what went wrong and why. Hear the first draft of history get underway even as we live it.
Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavitt.
Follow Alex Gibney on Twitter and Instagram @alexgibneyfilm.
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Check out these resources from today’s episode:
- Find out where to watch Totally Under Control: https://neonrated.com/films/totally-under-control
- Watch Andy’s full interview with Christiane Amanpour on why COVID-19 is the ultimate pre-existing condition: https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2020/10/16/amanpour-andy-slavitt-coronavirus.cnn
- Check out Andy’s recent Twitter thread on COVID-19 becoming a national crisis: https://twitter.com/ASlavitt/status/1318191727992311809
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COVID is the ultimate pre-existing condition, if what’s at stake here is that people with pre-existing conditions would not, would be able to get discriminated against by insurance companies. You imagine all of the places in the body that COVID impacts the lungs, the heart, the kidney, the brain, the limbs, the blood circulatory system immune system. So, imagine a college student who gets COVID. Now, and apparently nothing’s wrong, but 15 years from now, they get a heart arrhythmia, or they have asthma. And the insurance company will be able to deny that they have access to insurance simply because they had COVID, a decade ago. So, this is something that if anybody’s paying attention to would realize, it’s going to throw things into quite a tricky situation. I might also add, if I have a second that, you know, when before the days of the ACA, people were very reluctant to disclose your illnesses, because it would preclude them from getting coverage. Imagine going through a public health crisis, where you can’t test, you can contact race because people are too concerned about the illness being discovered.
I have to say, you know, for somebody like myself sitting over here in the UK and across Europe, where healthcare is a basic right, and that we get you know, we get health care for national health system or whatever it might be. It really does seem just to be such a cruel situation.
Welcome in the bubble with Andy Slavitt. I’m Andy Slavitt. The voices you just heard, were the graph American, me and the delightful Christiane Amanpour of PBS and CNN International, talking about health care. And it was interesting to hear her take on how really messed up we are and how we think about health care in the US. I mean, seriously, basic need basic function pandemic? What part of this? Don’t we understand? What part of it? Are we missing? What part of healthcare is too good for our citizens? What part of it’s too good for your family? Why do you have to worry? Why should you have to stress? Why should you have to lie about being sick? Because you might not get insurance coverage doesn’t make sense. That’s a change. And we are not dealing with that issue right now.
We have to deal with it. We have to deal with it. That was the point I made in Christiane Amanpour anyway, always delightful to talk to her. You can catch the clip of that entire interview. It’s 19 whole minutes long, which I love because I love to hear my own voice. And she no, no, it’s actually good to do long form journalism and really good interviewers, people who are better than me at this. They reach in to the person they’re interviewing, and they grab, they grab what they’re thinking, they make them think in new ways, and they express themselves more honestly. And someday when we’re on episode, like 600, I’m gonna be half as good as she is.
We’re actually on episode 61. Believe it or not. Imagine that. All right. We have a great show today. It is a show about the pandemic. with Alex Gibney, who is an Academy Award winning director. He created a documentary called “Everything Totally Under Control.” That’s my best my Trump, it’s actually called “Totally Under Control.” And it is an investigation of the US response to the pandemic. And it is interesting, because I think it is the first draft of history. And you will hear us go through the quick history. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the present.
It is October, and the virus is raging out of control. We had over 70,000 cases earlier in the week, in a single day. And I want to just sort of break down what’s happening and what some of the differences are. Because we’ve had a couple of ways before we had this outrageous kind of surprise that we were not prepared for mostly in New York and a few other cities in April. And let me just use as a metric, the number of states that had more than 1000 cases per day. Okay in April, that was six states. So, it was very regional in May and June, also six states. In July, when the virus traveled to the South 14 states, 14 states on average had over 1000 cases per day. And at its peak, there was a day in July which had 19 states which had 1000 cases a day.
August down to 12. September, also down to 12. October 15. That was just a couple of days ago. 25 states with over 1000 cases in a day. In fact, if you’d look around the country, there are only 6 states that are not trending poorly right now. Most of the country is headed in the wrong direction. 44 states. Interestingly, the states that are not doing as poorly right now are massive states, California, Oregon, New York. And then many of the New England states, though not Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, some of the other ones Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine.
So, what is happening here? We’ve gone from a regionally spreading virus to a national virus. The pandemic is now nationwide, and it is getting worse now. One explanation could be well, we’re testing more. What about that? And they were testing more, huh? Huh? Are we testing more? Yes, we are testing more? Could that be some of the answer? It could be. But think about it. Two of the states that I did not mention, California in New York, big states. But the other way to look at this is how many of the states that are testing are increasing the number of people to test positive, because when you’re increasing the number of people that test positive, that means you’re not testing enough for the population to catch it.
If it’s going, if it’s declining, then you’re testing enough. 31 states now have rising positivity rates. And 31 states have positivity rates that are above 5%. Half of them have positivity rates about 10%. So, what am I telling you here? I’m telling you, some of this in some states could have to do with testing more college students. That could be some of what’s going on. But it’s not all of what’s going on. We have a national problem, and no national strategy. That’s what I want to tell you. We have a national problem. It’s October, our president sold about this since January. It’s been nine months; baby has been born since this crisis started. Corona baby. And we still don’t have a center control.
Please do not name your baby corona a baby. That would just be bad. Be a bad idea. What else would I tell you? You might say, you know, these tests these cases, they’re not so harmful anymore. Not as many people are dying. That is true. The fatality rates going down. That’s good. But I look at the next thing that happens when cases go up. And that’s how many states are seeing increased ICU hospital capacity of covid cases, how many arising how many are falling 37 are rising right now. So, people are getting hospitalized more frequently in 37 states. And in 17 states their past 70% capacity than ICU beds, which is a number that I watch for. Because that tells you when it really needs to be clamped down. I can’t even tell you how badly we’re doing at this or just doing badly. We need to turn this around. We need to turn this around fast. And to talk about what we’ve done wrong. Let me introduce, Alex Gibney.
Alex Gibney 08:29
Hey, how’s it going?
Good. How are you?
Fantastic. Congrats on the movie, by the way.
Oh, thanks, man.
What’s the responsibility of being the first to sort of document this in film? Did you feel a certain type of responsibility?
Yeah, we did. At the same time, we also had a feeling we were going to be first because I was determined to have this out now. Because it seemed to me and appropriate reckoning, like, if you’re gonna render a judgment on what happened, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, then, you know, let people render their judgment at the at the ballot box.
Well, you know, it’s interesting, I think the timing is probably, it’s probably challenging to figure out. But you know, you had the last two pieces of really relevant news. And I’m not going to spoil any of this for people who are going to watch it. And I encourage everyone to watch it as I did in the introduction, you found a way to very nicely fit in. And of course, you never know with this administration, this viruses pandemic, what’s going to happen around the corner tomorrow, but I think you found a way to very nicely capture the first sort of six months of this, I think maybe that’s where we should start. You know, you you’ve spent at least that much time in deeply thinking about cause and effect and how to represent things. Take us back to what you think are the two or three most essential moments where things went wrong.
Alex Gibney 10:00
It’s fair to say that we focus mostly on the beginning. And in some ways, what’s remarkable is how, at the very beginning things went right. You know, CDC got the information about the virus from China, they rapidly made a test, they delivered the test to the public labs. And it seemed like everything was working properly, but then everything went haywire. And the biggest thing, of course, is the failure of testing. Because testing sounds like, Whoa, it’s a test. But testing is the only way you have of understanding where the virus is, and therefore, how to combat it, and how to contain it. Because if you know where it is, you can put people in the quarantine, you can contact trace them, and you can really, you know, contain the virus in a way that would have saved so many lives and the economy. But it shuts down testing, because there is a problem with the test. And nobody knows what to do. It’s a bureaucratic failure between the FDA and the CDC. But nobody in leadership insists on a solution. And weirdly, the solution they and they had a number of them, they could have used the WHO test, or they could have just fixed a small component, which was unnecessary in this test to make it work. They didn’t do any of those things. And they waited for three weeks, which is what allowed the disease to spread.
Yeah, other labs who are offering to put tests out there as well, as you know, as you pointed out, the FDA didn’t allow them to do that.
Yeah, the FDA made everybody jump through these unbelievably complicated bureaucratic hoops in order to get approval for tests, which would have allowed us to see what was going on. So, the government actually prohibited in a funny way, testing to continue with a different president, do you think the same thing would have happened? Or do you think the mistakes would have played out differently? I do think they would have played out differently. And I think, you know, one of the big conclusions that I drew from this story, which wasn’t a conclusion I had going in, was that this President, and this administration, probably at the direction of the President, intentionally slow walk testing. Because they didn’t want to know how many cases there were. Because they thought that if people knew how many cases there were, they might get worked up in worried which they should have been. So that really is the biggest crime of all.
Andy Slavitt 12:22
I agree with that conclusion. The interesting question is, why is it that he didn’t understand that in public health, the danger of exponential math and how you need to get ahead of it, or you’ll be chasing it? In other words, you can deal with one wild dog or you can deal with a pack of wild dogs, depending on how quickly you act? was it? Was it lack of understanding? Was it lack of caring enough to understand? was it was it just pure hubris? on his part? Do you get a sense for what was motivating him at the time?
It’s an interesting question. And of course, we don’t really know the answer to it. I think the part of it was political calculus, that is to say, he just felt it would be more politically advantageous not to have to reckon with it. But now, in retrospect, that seems so foolish, because politically, it’s destroying him. And that’s where I think you go to Trump’s inability to really either listen to experts, or to believe in expert testimony or even science, because people in his administration knew very well about the problem of exponential growth when it comes to the virus. And indeed, the Trump administration, even if they had completely ignored the playbook that the Obama administration had left them, they had done their own exercise in 2019, and came up with a very comprehensive plan of what to do in the event of a pandemic coming from China. That was a test exercise they had done. So, they were ready. So, they have this playbook. It’s like you’re in the huddle, you know, exactly the play, that’s gonna work. But then everybody falls down at the line of scrimmage. So maybe he just was unable or unwilling to listen to experts, because he didn’t want to believe them. It’s like he’s the captain at the on the bridge of the Titanic, and he sees the iceberg and everybody’s telling this iceberg says, don’t worry, it’s gonna disappear.
Andy Slavitt 14:17
And now, for something we like to call advertising.
This interesting notion of delayed gratification or renovation, that’s the right word, but delayed results. In other words, a short bite the bullet period, which has been done around the world, to which you could imagine a summer and in a kind of fall more importantly, with schools opening an election season with this largely under control, they would have required some short term pain and we required we have meant that he wouldn’t have been able to move the stock market back up on one day his press conference which sort of is ill right. He He’s, he’s a marketer, and he thinks like a marketer. So, he moves to get the market back up. But like a lot of people, I mean, he didn’t understand cause and effect, that putting it off wasn’t going to solve it. So, did you get a sense in the administration? That because there are people who understand this person understands this stuff? Obviously, there are people within HHS who understand this stuff. And clearly, they’re trying to manage a difficult boss, and you spent a lot of time very, I think, accurately looking at some of the people involved like secretaries are, what would your sense that? Did they know better? And we’re too timid? Did they try? Was it just impossible to communicate with him?
It was very hard to push him I think, I mean, you know, we tried desperately to get inside and the best witness we had was Rick Bright, you know, the whistleblower. And he worked directly from Robert Cadillac, who was the Secretary, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, who works, you know, in HHS, and he couldn’t Rick bright, couldn’t get anybody to take it seriously, even though they should have known to take it seriously. And I think it’s because the president and want to hear about it, he was focused on other things, he was focused on the impeachment, and he was focused on things that were right before him. So, I think the whole story of this administration really, is how Trump surrounds himself with Yes-Man who always give him the news that he wants to hear, rather than the news he needs to hear. And early on, you can see there’s this tension, where, you know, he thinks, well, maybe we really, we should really tell him, you know, how bad it’s gonna get.
Andy Slavitt 16:39
Do you think he understood?
I do think he understood, and he fundamentally failed. I mean, we include one clip, where Azar lays out in a methodical fashion, this whole system of testing, quarantine and contact tracing, he lays it all out clear as a bell. But what he doesn’t say is that they had no plan for executing it. Just describe, you know, so yeah, he understood it, he just was failing to act,
You might find this interesting, Alex, I, I’ve never told this story, and certainly not on the show. But when Azar was dominated, to become a secretary, he was replacing a really awful guy named Tom Price. And I would hold to this day that Alex is a significant improvement over price for a lot of reasons. And I conversation with Alex as he was being nominated, and I was talking with democratic senators on his behalf. And I was just sort of trying to get a sense of his philosophy and things. And I said, you know, Alex, the thing that I think people would most question is, how much will you fight for your equities, which is terminally used in Washington, for the things that you are responsible to the public for? And I said explicitly, when you’re in the room with the president, and he says something embarrassingly stupid. Will you have the political capital and the courage to stand up and say, No, Mr. President? That’s not right. And will you be able to win the argument, we had that very theoretical conversation back right before his nomination hearing, and I said, you know, if you can convince democratic senators of that, I think you’ll get some votes. And so, I’ve had a running dialogue with him, if you will, about his willingness to be courageous. And I can’t figure out how much of that he’s doing, how difficult that is to do. And then of course, there’s a question at what point when you’re ignored on something where thousands of thousands of people are going to die? At what point does it make sense to say, if you’re not gonna listen to me? I can’t be here. None of you puzzled through any of that?
Alex Gibney 18:41
I mean, I think you asked the essential question, which is, you know, there are a number of people I’m sure, who tell themselves at night, that what they’re doing is absolutely indispensable, because if they weren’t in that position, and they’re being, you know, somebody worse, who would actually do a worse job, and in some way, they’re, they’re acting in some small way to protect the American people. But the only way, you know if the job is not getting done, or if the chief executive is not listening is through exactly what you say, which is to resign. In that sense, I think you see, and we include a number of clips in the film, where you see just how spineless I think Azar is in that regard. There’s that moment where he’s embarrassed publicly by Trump when Trump You know, when he was upset by the fact that Nancy Messonnier told the American people how bad things were gonna get and the stock market, you know, crashes. He replaces Azar effectively with pence and somebody asks, when the audience will Mr.Azar you know, Secretary. Azar? Are you upset? HE said no, I’m delighted, you know, delighted to being publicly humiliated and embarrassed in front of everybody.
There was another scene you showed where, which I thought was the one I had seen before. There was a moment when he wouldn’t win bright, embarrassing and he stood up to defend the president and attacked Bright for speaking his mind. And, you know, it gets this, this idea and having served in a political environment, and in a political role, I should say in an administration is your duty to your civil service staff is incredibly important, and you realize it when you get there. And Alex knew that, because he had served before. And when you are in charge of let’s go through it, the CDC, the FDA, CMS, NIH, BARDA, all of those agencies, you’ve got some of the most important civil servants in the world working for you. And a lot when we said, and I’ll be written about the science side of things. But there’s a subtle element of undermining people, so they don’t feel they can do their jobs at a time when you really need them that I think is an important element of all of this.
Alex Gibney 20:57
Yeah, I think it’s the tension that ultimately ends up crushing trust in the scientific institutions. You know, because over time, when you keep giving and giving and giving, and allowing Trump to embarrass you publicly, or to contradict the scientists, and contradict the people who are working for you, and who have a certain sense of dedication toward, you know, public health, when you allow them to be undermined, over and over and over again, ultimately, they are in fact, undermined, they go underground, they become disconsolate. And they’re not doing their jobs properly anymore. And that, I think, is what happened here. And we weren’t able to get anybody from the CDC to talk to us. But we did. On the record, we did talk to a number of people off the record and, and talk to other people who are in touch. And, you know, the sense of attack and fear that they felt was enormous. And this is the institution that was, you know, one of the things that I think Trump has done is to destroy many American institutions, but the CDC was, for the world, the gold standard. And now it’s been utterly undermined. Nobody believes the CDC anymore, which is a terrible thing to have happen.
Andy Slavitt 22:12
Right. Let’s go trace back some of the claims and some of the conceptions out there, including some of the trumpets forward, China, let’s start with China. He throws a lot of blame China’s away, you know, after I think, clearly putting out some mixed messaging about whether China was doing a good job or not. But clearly now, he faults China and the Chinese and I think also by such in the WHO, how much merit is there to that?
Well, look, it’s hard to know. I mean, he calls it the China virus, he blames Chinese. But it’s not something we deal with extensively in the film. But let’s be honest, and say that early on, before they shut down, Wuhan, China was dishonest about the virus and the degree to which it was spreading, and the degree to which there was human to human transmission. So, China was dishonest. I think we should say it. That said, you know, Trump also takes a lot of credit for taking that firm step of banning flights or banning Chinese nationals from coming to the United States. Well, it sounds good. But it’s really just an extension of his political rhetoric, because COVID-19 doesn’t care whether it attaches itself to a Chinese national, or an American who’s coming back from China. So, the great victory over stopping flights from China really wasn’t much of a victory at all, I think,
well, there’s this great distinction you make, and you do it here now, between words and a plan, the words that Alex is are set around contact tracing, testing approach, the words of shutting down travel from China, versus a plan. So, 40,000 some people came in from China, after that point. Was there an isolation procedure? Was there a quarantine procedure? Was there a testing procedure when they entered the country?
Alex Gibney 24:03
None, none whatsoever, there was no plan for them coming back. So, they’re entering the country and spreading the disease invisibly and fast. And the same thing happened with Europe shut down, you know, he shuts down Europe summarily did flights from Europe, and Americans rush to get back. They had some kind of sort of ad hoc testing program at the airports but it was so ad hoc and so clumsily undertaken that actually airports became kind of super spreader events because people are jammed in close to each other in poorly ventilated interior rooms, which is like the ultimate petri dish for COVID spread, and they’re bringing in a new strain of the virus from Europe. So, you’re right. There is a sense of the rhetoric that the administration practices as well, but they never bothered to follow up with an actual execution of a plan.
Don’t go anywhere, we’ve got to go earn some money to donate to charity.
So, playing it forward, we see things spreading and happening in New York. What’s your sense of when it’s not till mid-March until after the NBA shuts down? And the stock market takes a hit that we start to hear from Trump. And we start to see that there’s some activity in the White House. What what’s your sense of what drove him to finally, very belatedly take some steps?
I think he felt the political heat. You know, it’s not a good look, when the President of the United States isn’t doing anything to something that’s clearly affecting everybody all over the country. It was a bad look.
He keeps that going. In this sort of, I think we both recall, and I think your movie shows there just sort of a tension between sort of public health interest and can we have some stay at home orders and things that can slow down the spread of the virus, versus sort of his eagerness once the stock markets back up. It showed his cards in a couple of ways he showed him when he said, Let’s open by Easter Sunday showed him when he said let’s liberate Minnesota and Michigan, as you Chronicle, in retrospect, kind of how important certain events where we don’t mess up January in February, how important was the decision that he made in April in leading to best casualties?
Alex Gibney 26:37
Well, they’re still hugely important. The difference is that now there really wasn’t an opportunity to contain the virus anymore. Now, it’s all about mitigation. So now, in order to practice mitigation, you also have to have a kind of a plan. That was always the problem, right? So, he moves to say, okay, we’re going to, we’re going to start some shutdowns now, but he doesn’t understand really, or is not willing to embark on a comprehensive plan to know, well, what are you going to do after the shutdown? You know, have you manufactured enough tests in order to be able to, you know, take advantage of the shutdown once it begins to end. And the magical thinking that he engages in is terrifying, because he sees all this stuff that’s happening in these blue states. And it’s bad, it’s really bad, but not so much is happening in Alabama, Texas, Florida, you know, seems pretty good. So suddenly, he pivots to something that is, becomes much more political, i.e., freedom.
And he knows he knows very well, the political logic of that, which is don’t want the government to intrude on your freedom. So, he pivots to that idea in a way that becomes extremely dangerous, which allows the virus to spread massively, because now not wearing a mask becomes a political act. So, you know, the virus spreads much faster and does much more economic damage than it ever would have done if he had taken stock embarked on a comprehensive national plan. So, it’s bad, I don’t think it’s as bad honestly, as what happened early, the really bad stuff happened early, even PPE, you could say, you know, because they know early, they could have a problem or might have a problem. But you have to plan for that you have to start going out and manufacturing PPE fast, because at some point, you’re going to be overwhelmed.
Andy Slavitt 28:25
This is an interesting discussion, so I’m starting to believe that, I mean, clearly, his ability to pass responsibility on to the States, versus holding it himself, caused us to lose all kinds of time and ability to create testing, and PP and all of those things. But I’m beginning to believe that the thing that may end up being the most dangerous of all, was what you just said more dangerous than anything else, which is how he turned this into a culture war. Because what I know about public health, before you have a vaccine, your words are your medicine, your ability to get people to follow along and see the benefit that they can create for one another, by doing something that requires a little bit of sacrifice, or at least a break from the ordinary and to recognize the sacrifices of others.
And great leadership would recognize that as a moment to bring the country together in while no one would expect it to be 100% successful. You can imagine a scenario under which, you know, when people were sewing masks, it felt pretty good people felt like they were contributing. But that would take a little take and lots of effort. The effort actually though, to run the other way to say, you know what, everything these scientists are saying, I’m gonna wink at you as soon as I’m off the stage with a tweet, or with an offhanded comment in the media, to let you know that this all doesn’t really matter. It’s not something you should really listen to. I’m on your side. And I couldn’t tell you that I could attribute a higher, more death to that act than I could to the other things but I think It makes it much harder to repair. And it extends things so for so much longer, and it also just feels as a country, much more dysfunctional.
I really agree with the idea that that damage is going to take much longer to repair because he’s destroyed faith in critical institutions. And it turns out that’s important. You know, particularly when you have a scientific institution like the CDC, you know, we need to rely on those and it’s the public messaging, and the willingness of the public to go along with government recommendations, that ends up being critically important in a pandemic. And if people are just assuming that anything that initially it’s sort of like, Well, you know, Trump’s my guy, and what he says is what I believe, but then it gets worse, because at a certain point, it’s like, anything the government tells me is bullshit. And therefore, if the government is going to impinge on my freedom in any way, it means that the government is just trying to, you know, tie me down in some fundamental way without thinking that actually what the government could or should be doing is trying to you don’t have it is a public health issue. You could even say that seatbelts, it’s a terrible infringement on personal freedom, look how many lives they’ve saved.
I had a call this morning, I won’t mention with who, but with a republican governor called northern state, and I take their calls anytime. And they’re having trouble. They’re having cases rise or having it’s in rural areas. And it was interesting, because what was different about the phone call, compared to say, the conversation with him a few months ago, conversation with a few months ago would have been about what’s the right thing to do? Do we know what public health measures work, etc., we spent the entire time talking about the psychology and sociology of communicating with the public. He had no question that masks mandatory masks, or saving lives and were vital.
But in the rural parts of the state. He really wanted help talking about how do you communicate to people who are really killing themselves. And that’s my expression. He didn’t use that phrase. But I’ve also seen the data in the state and it’s true. And so, it feels like, to some extent with he opened the Pandora’s box, and I gave him some credit for opening maybe it would have open anyway, is that we’ve gone from a scientific drama to a psychological sociological drama. You know, it’s like, it’s like a sociology teacher ran experiments said, Alex, you’re safe. But to keep Andy safe, you need to wear a mask and you don’t know Andy, right? That’s a sociological experiment that requires some amount of empathy.
Alex Gibney 32:48
That’s right. And let’s just say that empathy is not something that this President has an abundance, you know, was interesting, this is this is related. It’s not exactly on topic, but it’s related. We talked off the record, and we’re trying very hard to persuade a public health official from a from an important state to come on board for the doc. And when this person heard that, we’re going to, you know, be showing the film before the election. This person declined to speak to us because they felt that Trump would take revenge against that state for having spoken up and people might die.
Andy Slavitt 33:32
Is this is a Democrat or Republican?
Alex Gibney 33:35
I mean, it was a public official. So, I don’t even know what they’re I’m assuming that they were a Democrat, but they weren’t. They weren’t an appointee. They were they’re a civil servant.
Andy Slavitt 33:44
But it was in a democratic state. And so that was a kind of a shocking notion. Right. And, and a number of governors were in that position to we sort of cite a, you know, an example in the film of Gavin Newsom, you know, sort of forced to thank Trump publicly for providing swabs I believe it was. But this idea that everything just is about power and political utility, and the sense of civic values as simply disappeared.
Andy Slavitt 34:19
We’ve had a few governors on Gretchen Whitmer, Andy Beshear and Phil Murphy each at various times in the virus. And, you know, our last defense is usually if someone’s not doing something, well, let’s say, Well, at least they have good motives, right? At least to say, Well, you know, they’re trying everybody wants the right thing. But what was really interesting is, at least I found my interpretation was when it came time to say, Well, look, I know they mean, well, they couldn’t even say that. They couldn’t even say, we know they want the right things to happen.
They had to find other ways of not, you know, it’s like, losing the view that there’s even good faith involved, is really it’s really troubling. Let me let me ask you this. Were there things that you were impressed with, that the government was doing well or better than they got a rap for in the public? Whether it was there’s some things that you were parts of the government that were working pretty well, or things you thought, you know, maybe Trump didn’t get I got a worse rap and he deserved.
I really can’t think of anything to be honest with you. I, the only thing I can say is that, you know, I, at times, I feel the worst thing that happened by creating this extreme polarity between the economy and public health, you know, it was like, health versus the economy. What a false dichotomy that is, but, but at some point that forced even those on the side, you know, even though as opposed to Trump, you know, those, let’s call it the left, if you want, but those opposed to Trump to start insisting that things were bad, even if you’ve got good news, because the fear was that if you didn’t do that, then Trump would let up on some of the mitigation processes.
Because the fact is that we’ve, you know, in terms of our ability to treat the disease, we’ve gotten better public health has gotten better we’ve we understand the disease better, we understand better how to treat people, you know, there was a drug remdesivir, which really does help. So in that sense, I think that it was unfortunate that the momentum that he created for polarization, ended up sometimes acting against the potential for a kind of compromise solution in terms of opening up schools or opening up businesses, which might have been more effective, rather than it’s got to be all shut down, or it’s got to be all open.
Andy Slavitt 36:41
Right? So, you didn’t have the opportunity to tell the story of Trump’s own illness in the movie, because of its proximity to the end, when you were putting the movie out? I will say that you did find a, I thought a very appropriate way to connect to it. But I don’t know we’ll talk about what that is. But if you had the opportunity to tell that story. How do you imagine it makes the whole story different? How do you think it fits in, did it reveal things we already knew did it reveal some things we didn’t already know?
Here’s how it reveals something that we already did know. It reveals Trump’s incredible obsession with the image over reality that he needed so desperately to project an image of strength and conquering the virus, you know, ripping off the mask, and also his own magical thinking in terms of it being a super spreader event. I mean, you know, the idea that, that there were a few people who had masks on in the Rose Garden, right. And that was bad enough, but that event, at least was outside where the virus doesn’t have a tremendous advantage. But then they go inside, and they all take up their masks inside, which is where the really bad stuff happens in terms of spreading the disease. So that is just, you know, a disconnect. So, so profound, but his need for getting back from all to read so quickly, even though he could barely breathe a rip off his mask to do the thing.
All that is so Trumpian. And so terrifying in terms of the unwillingness to reckon with the actual dangers of the disease. The stuff that though if you examine it a little further, is even more disquieting, because it really reveals something beyond Trump, which is the amount of medical intervention that he got that was so much unavailable to the rest of America, particularly poor Americans is staggering in its symbolism for how we really don’t have a public health system in this country. And that, to me, was maybe the more disquieting and more disturbing thing.
You know, it’s not surprising that the President gets really good health care, but to get these drugs that other people don’t have available to them, they’re throwing everything at him. In order to prop him up. It reminded me of an old movie you probably have never seen it, but it’s called El Cid. Do you ever see El Cid? Yeah, well, there’s this moment at the end where they need to write out if the head of the army right, but he’s got a spear in it. And so, they have two choices either fix him, right? Or prop him up in the saddle, you know, tie him to a saddle and put the put the lance in his arm and have them write out, you know, in front of the army knowing that he’s going to die. And that’s what they do.
I was actually quite a bit comforted that we will all get a helicopter picking us up if we get COVID symptoms. So, I thought I thought that was a nice for Americans to feel assured about that. Outside knowing we’ll let you go in a few minutes. But I mean, I think first draft of history. You did this. I encourage people to watch it. I encourage people to watch it soon. There. There’s a lot that happened a few months ago that people have already forgotten, right that I’ve already forgotten that it’s vital that it’s documented. Again, even regardless of your opinion, it’s just vital to have a documented. But take us to what this implies to you your overall sort of statement about this whole episode in the context of American history, either reflecting on our president or other reflections.
Alex Gibney 40:27
I mean, two things. One is, he clearly shows a failure of leadership and utter incompetence. And this was the person who was who really campaigned on destroying the federal government. And in some ways, I suppose that’s the one job he can do very well. And he has done very well. And the proof is in the pudding, because the federal government in the case of the pandemic failed utterly. And I think it’s a great extent because he destroyed the ability of the federal government to act effectively. But the broader thing, and we get to this at the very end of the film, you know, the pandemic really is a grand metaphor for us. Because if anything shows the connection between the poorest person in a society and the richest person, it’s COVID-19, you know, the virus doesn’t care. And actually, if you have a lot of poor sick people, they’re going to end up infecting everybody. Right?
So, we’re all connected. So, wouldn’t it make sense to have a public health system that is good for everybody, because even if you’re self-interested, you would think that that would be a good thing for you so, so to realize how broken was our health system, that is to say, our health care system was really a revelation from having done this film. And I didn’t fully appreciate it until, I mean, I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was as bad as this until I got into it.
Well, thank you for making the movie. Again, I encourage everyone to watch it. I’m sure it was really challenging to do at this time. But I’m going to spend the whole time talking about that. But, but so important, what you did, and thank you again, Alex.
Many thanks, Andy. good conversation.
Andy Slavitt 42:22
Thank you, Alex. Wonderful show. Interesting movie, catch it on Hulu, or many other places. It is available in your home through one service or another that you probably get. Now let me just preview the next three shows for you. We have a show coming up on what day today is today, Wednesday? Today’s Wednesday. So that means our next show is Monday. I’ve been doing this a long time. I understand how these things work. On Monday. We have a show with Rudy Giuliani, no, we don’t. We have a show about Rudy Giuliani. We’re going to talk about his Rudy Giuliani’s comments, ridiculing Hunter Biden, for his addiction, because it’s really gotten me out of sorts.
It’s our episode where we’re talking really more broadly about mental health and suicide and addiction. And all of these crises that have come along with the pandemic for us and it’s challenging time challenging topic. Great guests, Gary Mendell, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, you’ll love the show, it’s going to be a bomb to your mental health. Making that claim right now. Next Wednesday, Michael Shear. He’s the reporter that got COVID from the president. Can’t say that every day. It might not have been from the president. Exactly. It might have been for someone else in the White House. He was at the White House during the day, the super spreader event and then on Air Force One near President Trump with no mask. And Michael will come and talk about what’s it like? What does it mean when you get COVID-19 from the super spreader in chief. And then the next Monday is November 2, the day before election day. If you haven’t voted by then you should vote then or the next day.
So, our episode is a toolkit for you on voting. It is a fun toolkit on voting in person. And it will give you all the things you need to do including the things you could jam into your ears while you’re in line. Six feet behind other people and make the time go. So, it is going to be a code free voting toolkit episode. And I think you’re like because we’re gonna have a lot of fun making it. We’ve got so many ideas. Anyway, thanks for sticking with me. You’re all the best stay healthy. Bye Bye.
Thanks for listening to In the Bubble. Hope you rate us highly. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kryssy Pease and Alex McOwen produced the show. Our mix is by Ivan Kuraev. My son Zach Slavitt is Meredith’s co-host and onsite producer improved by the much better. Lana Slavitt my wife. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs still rule our lives and executive produced the show. And our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Overhill and additional music, by Ivan Kuraev, you can find out more about our show on social media @lemonadamedia, and you can find me @aslavitt on Twitter, or @andyslavitt on Instagram. If you like what you heard today, most importantly, please tell your friends to come listen, but still tell him at a distance or with a mask. And please stay safe, share some joy and we will get through this together. Hashtag stay home