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Sen. Rand Paul

Photo by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Perhaps Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky needs a refresher course on the meaning of the word "theater." His GOP colleague Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas could listen in.

The former recently initiated a verbal brawl with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease specialist who has been providing information and advice to guide Americans dealing, along with the rest of the world, with a deadly pandemic. The latter accused anyone proposing the consideration of gun restrictions, in light of two horrific mass shootings in the space of a week, of "ridiculous theater."

Now, I realize the term "theatrical" can be used as an insult hurled at someone accused of exaggeration, but what is happening in America is a fact. So let me offer my own definition: "Theater" is the thrill of escaping from it all in a darkened hall with a group of strangers, to see and hear professionals act or sing or dance, and to be uplifted by the experience, if only for an hour or two.

And it's something we've been deprived of during this past, very long year amid the pain of COVID-19, with deadly gun violence that has not abated as a backdrop, and so much more.

The country has been crawling out of isolation because of dropping COVID-19 infection rates and the rising number of people receiving vaccines, though recent trends show cases on the rise again in more than 20 states. At a recent Senate hearing, Fauci cautioned against prematurely ditching precautions, such as wearing masks, until the virus is under control. Medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree.

That's when Paul called the act of wearing masks "theater." He challenged the necessity of masks for those who have had the virus (he has) or have gotten the vaccine (he has not).

Paul imagines he is an authority because of his COVID-19 experience and because he has selectively extracted parts of reports that align with his own conclusions. (He is a doctor of ophthalmology.) He is certainly luckier than the more than 540,000 Americans who have died after contracting the virus and the many long-haulers left with lingering symptoms and side effects.

At the Senate hearing, not his first clash with the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it seemed that Paul was going for a viral theatrical moment of his own, as he kept interrupting Fauci with pronouncements and questions whose answers Paul ignored.

An exasperated Fauci explained to Paul as he would to a third-grader that the studies on COVID-19 are far from conclusive and that variants add even more uncertainty into expectations about how the virus is spread and how much and how long vaccines are most effective.

Reality Bites

Everyone is understandably frustrated. Businesses want and need to open to capacity. Children and parents, as well as teachers and staffers, long for school like it used to be. People want to meet friends. "Cabin fever" is too frivolous a term for what everyone is going through.

But Americans also want to be safe. So they listen to repetitious advice to put on that mask, grab the sanitizer and keep safe distances. And they wait to get on a list for a vaccine. Well, some do. Others crowd beaches for spring break or visit crowded clubs, which is some of the behavior Fauci was warning against.

President Joe Biden promised relief, more vaccines with efficient and equitable distribution, and asked for the help and cooperation of Americans. Results have been mixed, with leaders such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem more intent on leaning into culture wars than managing the pandemic in their states. With an eye on a growing national profile, Noem insisted at CPAC that Fauci "is wrong a lot," joining other 2024 hopefuls in insisting there is nothing to see here.

No Republicans, and that includes Paul and Cruz, voted in favor of a relief package that a majority of polled Americans favored. I wonder if Paul had access to the best, insured medical care in his own COVID-19 fight. Meanwhile, many who could not afford to stay home or call in sick to their jobs have been keeping the country going.

Several of those essential workers were doing their jobs at a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket this week when they were shot and killed by a gunman, a case that is still being investigated, as is the shooting that left eight dead in Atlanta last week. A discussion of gun policy and Second Amendment rights is possible without dismissing opponents' concerns as "theater."

Real Theater

That word, though, is not the insult Paul and Cruz think it is.

Some people escape with sports or by going to the gym or cooking or reading a good book. Though I may do all of the above, it's theater that lifts my heart. I recall the last Broadway show I attended, the musical Moulin Rouge, all cheekily garish sets, loud music, stylish dancing, and a plot you could see coming from a mile away. I loved every minute, and even had a picture taken close by the stage. When I shared it on social media, and it was "liked" by one of my favorites, Danny Burstein, who played the club impresario, I was in theater nerd heaven. Then, when it was announced that Burstein, along with many of the show's cast, had come down with the virus, I knew it was time to rip up the tickets for my next theater outing. Everything had changed.

It's not that I don't dearly miss visiting family members, hugging my friends, or returning to the now-dark Broadway scene.

But when Anthony Fauci says to keep wearing masks, at least for now, I'm going to listen to him, not Rand Paul. And when leaders work to figure out a way to make Americans feel safe from violence when they do venture out, I won't immediately attack their efforts and their motives, which is Ted Cruz's go-to move.

It's about knowing the difference between real life and make believe.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

CQ Roll Call's newest podcast, "Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis," examines policy and politics through the lens of social justice. Please subscribe on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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