#missingkids | Opinion | Is There a Wizard Behind the Curtain?

Bret Stephens: We’re in a new and frightening world, Gail. Every time I get a news alert on my phone, I hear James Earl Jones’s voice in my head, saying, “Mother of God.” And every time I listen to Donald Trump’s voice, I hear Slim Pickens’s voice from “Dr. Strangelove.”

How are you riding out the crisis?

Gail Collins: I’m trying to look upon this as a social experiment on what happens if you require the whole country to stay at home and then deprive them of all sports programming.

Bret: I’m reading Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” Seemed an apropos title.

Gail: Wow.

While you were reading Camus, my husband and I went to our favorite restaurant for what I guess will be the last meal out for a long time. No need to worry about keeping adequate space between diners — there was hardly anybody there. Just a lot of staff worrying about their next paycheck.

Bret: The economic consequences are going to be devastating for people who are already living paycheck to paycheck, to say nothing of tip to tip. I don’t fear a recession. I fear a full-scale depression. It is hard to overstate how bad this could get if it goes on for months. Andrew Yang’s suggestion of a universal basic income is suddenly looking extremely smart and potentially essential.

Gail: And Sunday night we watched the Biden-Sanders debate. Never thought I’d regard an argument between two elderly politicians as entertainment, but any distraction is welcome. What was your take?

Bret: I watched the first 90 minutes, concluded that Bernie had laid no mortal blows and that Biden could still hold his own. Joe’s line that “people are looking for results, not revolution” seemed to nicely capture his core message. And his insistence that we need to deal with the emergency before us, rather than tear down and reinvent the system, seems particularly relevant now.

Gail: And Biden promised a female vice-presidential nominee. Something we all figured he’d do, but the sudden commitment seemed to take Bernie off guard.

Bret: Among the thousand-and-one surprises of this astonishing primary season is that Democrats are acting like Republicans used to — rallying around the original presumptive front-runner. Now do you think he can go the distance and beat Trump?

Gail: Lord, I hope so, Bret. But trying to imagine what the country will be like in the fall is sort of like leaping into science fiction. If the virus threat drops off reasonably soon and the country struggles back to normal, maybe Trump will find some way of taking credit for it.

Bret: If it turns out we have a low case-fatality rate — and, by the way, I’m amazed by all the new terminology I’m learning on account of this pandemic, including “social distancing” and “shelf-stable ingredient” — then Trump will call the coronavirus an even bigger liberal hoax than his impeachment was, never mind that he’s the guy who declared a national emergency. Either that, or he’ll say that he, alone, stopped it.

Gail: Although in the real world I think we can agree he’s been a disaster.

Bret: As Obama said in a different context: Yes. We. Can.

Gail: There was the speech from the Oval Office where he got everything wrong, and then the news conference where he shook about 50 hands and then spent much of the rest of his time introducing captains of industry he claimed were being the heroes of the hour.

Bret: Including more false claims about Google. You know that Pinocchio tracker that our friends at The Washington Post use? I think the nose grew so long keeping track of Trump’s falsehoods last week that it hit the ground.

Gail: And for the Democrats, right now it’s sure looking like Biden. But we have learned not to take the future for granted, haven’t we?

Bret: Well, exactly. The three likeliest people to be elected (or re-elected) president in November are all far more vulnerable to the diseases caused by the coronavirus than younger Americans. Is that why Tulsi Gabbard won’t quit?

I’m still not counting Sanders out completely given how fluid things are, but I find the thought of Biden as the presumptive nominee immensely reassuring. I also think he should name his running mate sooner rather than later. How do you like the sound of “Biden-Klobuchar”?

Gail: Well I know you like the sound. And it’s fine by me. I’ve passed the point of pickiness. Right now my standards are rock bottom. Don’t even care if the next president reforms the tax system as long as he knows how to handle a pandemic.

Bret: I’ll be sure to pass this tidbit along to Mitch McConnell. To adapt another Obama-era line, never let a pandemic go to waste!

Gail: So, tell me what’s happening in your house? Besides reading “The Plague,” what’s everybody doing to pass the time?

Bret: The change has been as sudden as it is stunning. Manhattan feels ghostly. All of my usual routines — going to the gym; dining out; going to a concert — are out. So is all travel for business or pleasure, foreign and domestic. We’ve decided to buy a car (we’re a low-carbon footprint family) partly on the theory that we will be doing a lot of nature walks in the Catskills pretty soon.

The kids are home from school and it isn’t at all clear when they’ll be back in a classroom; we are going to have to figure out distance learning for them — which puts me in mind of suggesting to Apple and every other laptop maker in the United States to offer to make a computer available for free to every American child who needs one.

Gail: Hey, that’s a good idea. Run with it!

Bret: I worry mostly about my elderly relatives and friends, and the price they are already paying in isolation and fear. On the other hand, if there’s a silver lining in any of this it’s that it is forcing me to slow down for the first time in years and take stock of what matters most in life. How about you?

Gail: Today we got our Amazon shipment that includes a Monopoly game. If all else fails my husband and I will spend this evening trying to bankrupt one another.

Bret: So you can know how it feels to be Donald Trump!

Gail: At night, when we’re missing the late-night comedians, we’ve been killing time watching episodes from the original “Star Trek.” Just got to one that involves an ambitious woman who desperately wants to command a starship. But in the 1960s version of the 23rd century, women can’t do that. So she uses a machine that switches her consciousness into Captain Kirk’s body. The crew quickly figures out something is wrong when their leader begins filing his nails and bursts into hysterics at the least little thing.

I know that doesn’t have much bearing on the coronavirus, but it is nice, once in a while, to contemplate the fact that I’ve seen some amazing social changes in my life. For the good. The news wasn’t always terrible. We’ve just got to work together and ignore the crazy people. One of whom, alas, happens to be the president of the United States.

Bret, we’ll keep talking about how your kids — and everyone else’s kids — are being affected by all this. When I was growing up, we were constantly being assured by the government that Russia wanted to blow us up (duck and cover!) and in our Catholic schools the nuns were warning that God might be preparing us for the end of the world.

You’d figure all that would make us timid about taking chances, but in fact it made a lot of us wildly distrustful of authority, with interesting consequences for the world.

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