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What Have We Got Right Now That’s Good?

This week more people died from the coronavirus in a single day than were killed on 9/11.
April 18, 2020
What Have We Got Right Now That’s Good?

1. Happy Talk

This week we had a one-day total of 4,591 COVID-19 deaths. On September 11, we had 2,977 people killed. I figure that, just for today, nobody really needs more grim news. There will be plenty of time for that. So let’s talk about something else.

There’s a scene early in Apollo 13 where, as the system failures on the service module Odyssey are cascading around them, the control room in Houston starts giving the flight director, Gene Kranz updates. And it’s this unending avalanche of terrible. Oxygen is going. Guidance is in trouble. Power is crashing.

And Kranz takes a deep drag on his cigarette and says, “Can we look at this thing from a, uh, from a standpoint of status.”

Here he pauses for a beat and you can see the wheels turning behind his eyes and you know that he knows exactly how bad it is. And then Kranz says, “What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?

(Go watch it. It’s a great moment and a bravura piece of work from Ed Harris.)

Let’s do the same for America right now: What have we got in the country that’s good?

2. Plus-Ups

Corruption: The first thing that comes to mind is that, as a system, America has done a pretty good job of weeding out corruption.

I’m not talking about the corruption at the very top of the federal government with the president and members of Congress, but the million little acts of government business that happen every day during normal times: Taxes, police work, city services, zoning and permits, inspections. Sure, we have petty government corruptions here and there (Hello New York!) but compared to the whole, these are the exceptions.

As an economic matter, corruption is a very big deal. Just about every empirical analysis has found that government corruption creates an enormous drag on growth. That’s one of the big differences between developing countries and first-world countries: The latter have a handle on corruption, which allows their economies to grow and function at close to optimum. The former don’t.

The United States has always been pretty good on this score relative to our peers. And there’s no reason to think that we won’t retain that advantage—especially in relation to our main strategic competitors, China and Russia.

Capital: We are also still the backstop currency of the world. There is no reason to think that this will change over the near term. And so even though the American economy is going to shit, most of the rest of the world is going to be in similar straits. When capital looks to find safe harbors, America is going to have a big relative advantage. You see this sort of thing happening already on a small scale.

Scientific infrastructure: The single most important thing in the world right now is the race to develop a vaccine. If you’re in Italy or the United Kingdom or Singapore or most of the rest of the world, you’re at the mercy of others, because you don’t have the capability to develop a vaccine on your own. (Or rather: Your research base is so small that the odds of you being the country to come up with it are very, very tiny.)

Not us. We have a three-legged stool comprising federal government research, academic research, and private sector research. These realms overlap with one another to a large degree, but that’s good, because it means that they aren’t siloed. So we have different types of research processes being done by different types of organizations with a diversity of ideas and incentives.

When a vaccine is developed, there’s a better-than-even money chance it will be accomplished within the United States. Which means that we have some control over the pace of development because we have the ability to inject more resources into the process.

3. The King of Hollywood

One final piece of happy talk: A Tom Junod profile of George Clooney, who may wind up being the last big-screen icon. It’s like a time capsule from a lost age:

He’s instantly, helplessly affable, his handshake offered as forthrightly as the handle in an old voting booth. He ekes out a coffee, makes himself a tea, and takes a seat on the couch in his living room, with a large-screen TV broadcasting NFL highlights from the mantel of a stone fireplace, and the high peaked ceiling crossed by rough-hewn timbers apparently salvaged from the Fortress of Solitude after Superman decided to modernize. His dog, Einstein, squeezes in next to him; when his iPhone rings, Clooney, without answering, immediately turns it off. . . .

On the walls of Clooney’s home, there are a lot of photographs from powerful people, such as President Obama, who have written him in friendship and in gratitude. There is also a framed selection of neckties that once belonged to one powerful person in particular, John F. Kennedy. There are also many striking black-and-white photographs of Dino and Sammy horsing around in tuxedos. They go with the bar, which is arrayed with a swank skyline of liquors and cordials and on which is perched the figure of the fox that Wes Anderson used for the stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr. Fox—Clooney was Mr. Fox; Mr. Fox was Clooney.

And then, near the front door, there is the most important artifact in a house that is both full of them and, in its own right, artifactual. It’s an old piece of tile, white, with some words baked on it in black. The rest of the stuff on Clooney’s walls, well, as he says, “You gotta remember that part of my life is people give me things and I put them on the wall, right?” He knew Sammy and Dean, a little; he knew them as a kid, growing up Rosie’s nephew, but even those photos came to him as gifts—”I think I was given all of them during the Ocean’s period. And I like the photos, so I put them on the wall because I thought they were cool and they were fun, but I don’t think and live and breathe the Rat Pack life.”

The tile is different. The tile he found after he bought the house in 1995, with ER money. A former owner left it behind. On it is written the house’s street number. And over the address, in paint-brushed print of aching domesticity, it says THE GABLES. . . .

He was not a child star—but he was a star, as a child. Acutely aware of his powers now, he was not unaware of them then. “The first thing that I learned—and I understood it at a really young age—was that I could get a laugh. Really early. Because my mother and father are funny. My father’s a really funny man, and at the time we were growing up, in the mid-sixties, and I was like seven years old, they always had dinner parties. This was back in the old days, when you would have cocktail parties and drink grasshoppers. And my dad would tell, you know, a story, something a little risqué—nothing dirty at all, just a little risqué. And I knew that I could take the next step, right? The little-bit-dirtier version. You know—’and deep, too!’ And the place would explode! And Dad would kick me under the table—but I always knew that I had that in my arsenal.” . . .

It is often noted that it took him a long time to become a star. He didn’t get parts. Or he got bad parts on TV shows that were good or good parts on TV shows that were bad. He didn’t get the career-making role on ER until he was almost thirty-three. Like his friends Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, he likes to say he “came from somewhere” and “can still fix a fan belt” on a car. But he was, in many ways, born to be a star, groomed to be a star. And now, better than anyone else alive, he knows how to be one. “I had my Aunt Rosie, who was famous and then not, so I got a lesson in fame early on. And I understood how little it has to do with you. And also how you could use it.” . . .

A few years ago, he even had some stationery made up with Brad Pitt’s letterhead. Then he found a book about acting and accents and sent it to Meryl Streep, with an accompanying note. It said, “Dear Meryl, this book really helped me with my accent for Troy. I hope it helps you too.” He signed it “Brad Pitt.” Then he sent another letter to Don Cheadle on “Pitt’s” stationery. As long as Cheadle has been acting, he has dreamt of playing Miles Davis. So the letter informed Cheadle that Pitt’s production company had acquired the rights to Davis’s life story. The letter said that Pitt wanted him to star in it.

As Charlie Parker.

Read the whole thing and enjoy the memories.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.