"When the next pandemic occurs (and make no mistake, it will) and the federal government is unable to respond in a coordinated and effective fashion to protect the lives of US citizens and others, this decision by John Bolton and Donald Trump will be why."—Tweet by Stephen Schwartz, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May 10, 2018
It's a sad but safe bet that come October, Cassie Hurd of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program here in Boston will still need to provide Covid-related street level service to the unhoused and addicted. Slammed by the ferocity, chaos, and longevity of the pandemic, groups like hers are desperately short of resources—the old normal, only worse.
Which brings us to a remarkable decision by the Boston Speakers Series to pay former National Security Advisor John Bolton to present at their October program.
"Bolton’s chosen approach to NSC "streamlining" involved decapitating and diluting the White House’s focus on pandemic threats.
Our nation's dysfunctional response to the virus is a failure with many fathers, but when I think of the Cassie Hurds and those they serve, one Founding Father's outsized role needs calling out.
The John Bolton story is not terribly complex, and its early heroes include, dare I say it, those Republicans who in 2014 denounced Obama for failing to respond in a cohesive, aggressive way to the Ebola epidemic. “I’d like to know who’s in charge," asked Sen. John McCain, calling for a czar to oversee this critical work.
And so, in 2015, Obama created a permanent Directorate within the National Security Council to prevent future disease outbreaks from escalating into pandemics.
Imagine. A president who accepts and acts on criticism.
Imagine. A professionally led, highest level directorate.
As Beth Cameron former senior director for global health security and biodefense on the National Security Council put it, this Directorate would be,
"…responsible for coordinating the efforts of multiple federal agencies to make sure the government was backstopping testing capacity, devising approaches to manufacture and avoid shortages of personal protective equipment, strengthening U.S. lab capacity to process covid-19 tests, and expanding the health-care workforce."
It should be said that despite his desire to cut funding for public health efforts (see "many fathers" above), Trump retained this respected directorate through 2017.
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In 2018, though, he made John Bolton his national security advisor.
Bolton didn't waste any time.
As Jeremy Konyndyk, former Director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance put it,
"Bolton’s chosen approach to NSC “streamlining” involved decapitating and diluting the White House’s focus on pandemic threats. He eliminated the Senior Director position entirely, closed the biodefense directorate, and spread the remaining staff across other parts of the NSC. That’s the opposite of streamlining. Instead of giving the issue a distinct institutional presence, expertise, and voice in the policy process, Bolton’s reorganization left it fragmented across other directorates that were focused on other higher priorities."
This radical move did not go unnoticed. See Stephen Schwartz above. Expressing concern about our readiness for a pandemic, Elizabeth Warren quickly requested a staff-level briefing on the administration's global public health works. But she said, "We got sort of a generic reply. We didn't get the briefing."
Even the past master of understatement, Anthony Fauci, gamely told a congressional hearing, “It would be nice if the office was still there. We worked very well with that office.”
The directorate was never replaced. And Cassie Hurd, those she serves, all of us really, have paid the price for Bolton's arrogant, new sheriff in town assault on our ability to contain the virus.
As Ms. Hurd works with street people, she fulfills a familiar proscription—to do no harm. But as the Boston Speakers Series sheds some of its prestige and fortune on John Bolton, both he and it violate a corollary of that proscription—to not benefit from the harm you've done.
Wouldn't it be "nice" if John Bolton were to donate the entirety of his standard $50,000 speaking fee to a group like the Material Aid and Advocacy Program?
We continue to pay for what he's done.
Why pay him?