Scrabble, Virginia – Perhaps I have never paid as much attention to them before, but I do believe the Spring flowers in Rappahannock this year were unusually beautiful. Or maybe it was just that any sign of color, beauty, or promise seemed more needed and more welcome during this period of the plague. The tulips around my house were magnificent and remarkably resistant to deer (or more likely the deer were deterred by the obvious and more consistent human presence in the area). For several weeks I was able to harvest new tulips, varied by colors and mild scents, for dining table bouquets. Mixed with a sprig of forsythia, redbud, or dogwood, they brought the glory of the outdoors inside.
It was easy, while casually enjoying the tulips, to forget that they are not a naturally occurring, native species in the Virginia woods. In fact, some of them came to me directly from the Netherlands last Fall. Before the first frost in the Autumn of 2019, I spent many back-breaking hours planting tulip bulbs. That activity involved selecting what color combinations belonged in what locations, digging holes, then covering them up in a way that I hoped would out-smart the squirrels, deer, and other bulb-eaters which have reduced my tulip harvest in past years.
Not far from here, ten thousand tulips bloomed in bursts of splendor in Patrick O’Connell’s public gardens on the campus of the Inn at Little Washington, whose unparalleled restaurant regrettably remains shuttered due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, Rappahannock’s citizens came out to walk in the gardens, being sure to observe social distancing. I wondered how many of those enjoying the beauty considered those whose backs ached months ago from the tedious process of inserting the bulbs in the soil.
When things work well, or as we expect them to, we seldom think about the people or the actions that made it possible. Y2k, the computer software glitch that manifested at the end of 1999, was perhaps one such case. Say the two letters and one number “Y2k” now and those who even recall what it means will more often than not tell you it was a hoax, a scam, or a case of “the boy who cried wolf.” From my perspective, admittedly a biased one, Y2k was a prime example of government foreseeing a problem and averting it.
In case your memory is as foggy as a Rappahannock morning, most software written in the last century had a little problem when it came to the format for the day, month, and year. The code writers had not anticipated that their products would still be used to make critical systems work when the millennium turned. Thus, if nothing had been done to fix it, many software programs would have shut down or malfunctioned when 99 became 00. Critical machines would have frozen and many necessary services would have stopped.
Most people who realized the gravity of the problem, and the magnitude of fallout due to inaction, only did so late. We had mere months to fix an enormous code base around the country and the world. The United States, where most of the code had been written, spearheaded the fix and, working through the UN and NATO, assisted other nations in a global effort to identify and remediate the problematic code. Congress appropriated billions of dollars in a crash effort to update the federal government’s software, therefore leading by example. The White House organized partnerships with industry groups to ensure the private sector addressed the issue. When the clock struck midnight and ushered in 2000, there were few computer malfunctions.
Some will say that there were never going to be many malfunctions anyway. Those who spout that line are usually unaware of the Herculean efforts taken to avoid disruption. John Koskinen, who led the US government effort, is not remembered as he should be, as one of the finest public servants of his generation. John, however, never wanted thanks and had been around Wahington far too long to expect gratitude. Koskinen knew that those who avert disaster are forgotten or, more likely, ridiculed for predicting a problem that never happened.
My co-author of the book Warnings, RP Eddy, and I muse in that volume: If England had paid attention to Winston Churchill when in the 1930s he warned that the allies needed to quell Hitler, had French and British troops evicted the Nazis following their move into the Rhineland, had the Royal Air Force production of new fighter planes kept pace with Germany’s, England may have prevented a war and Churchill recorded in history as an alarmist. As Churchill later noted, there was no great satisfaction, and indeed an immense disappointment, in having been proved right.
It is in that spirit that RP Eddy recently quoted back to me a paragraph from Warnings: “Regardless of what deadly microbe comes up next, if we wait, we court disaster. It’s not sexy, but when the next pandemic strikes, all that will matter is the capacity of our public health system to detect and respond. All eyes will be fixed in the Oval Office awaiting a solution.”
When we think of Barak Obama’s eight-year presidency, few among us think of his rapid response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Not many Americans know that he sent the United States Army into the hot zone of the outbreak in Africa to help knock the disease down, to prevent its spread to Europe and the United States.
Tulips do not grow naturally in the Virginia woods. Computer code does not, yet, write itself. Pandemics do not extinguish themselves. In some ways, however, we are right to take certain practices and processes for granted. In the 21st century, we should assume that systems are in place to deal with the predictable, indeed the predicted. We should be free to enjoy spring flowers, to use a global Internet, to live healthy lives without fear of plagues and pestilence if we take responsibility for our democracy. Likewise we should expect to fall short when leaders do not have foresight, do not listen to experts, do not know how to use the instrumentalities of government.