No doubt President Trump, who is incapable of admitting a mistake and recoils at oversight, will fight the idea. He will howl about hoaxes and witch hunts.
But such fact-finding inquiries have taken place after other national traumas — Pearl Harbor, the John F. Kennedy assassination and, most recently, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And we owe no less to the tens of thousands who have lost a loved one, as well as the countless health-care providers and other essential workers who were called upon to battle a lethal enemy without proper protective equipment.
Whether our broken political system is capable of finding — much less handling — the truth is another question. Partisanship infects every conversation about the virus. Trump has also fostered a climate in which expertise and even simple facts are regarded with suspicion by his defenders.
Realistically, a commission cannot get underway until we have turned the corner on this epidemic. Nor does it seem feasible for one to start until after the November election is behind us.
But it is not too early to think about how one should work. Already, there are at least four proposals circulating on Capitol Hill, and the concept is picking up bipartisan support.
Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, the Republican who headed the 9/11 Commission, told me that the first and most important challenge for any commission would be making sure the right people are on it. Ideally, he said, they should be figures who are respected across party lines and who are not likely to seek political office in the future.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be important that people appointed to the commission have a goal of doing service to their country, not service to their political party,” agreed House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who is sponsoring legislation that would set up a 10-member commission that would begin work next February.
There are two people ideally situated to lead the inquiry as its co-chairs: former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. An inspiring precedent for this was set in Bush’s own decision to recruit his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — bitter rivals in the 1992 presidential election — to spearhead what became a spectacularly successful international disaster-relief effort.
There are others who would help bring a sense of high purpose to an independent inquiry.
Start with some who have served both as governors and in high-ranking executive branch jobs in Washington. Among them are Republicans Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who was George W. Bush’s budget director, and Utah’s Mike Leavitt, who was Bush’s health and human services secretary. Or Democrats Janet Napolitano, who after governing Arizona was Obama’s homeland security secretary, and Kansas’s Kathleen Sebelius, who was at the helm of the Health and Human Services Department during the Obama administration.
Kean said it would also be important for a commission to demonstrate at every step that it is conducting itself in a truly bipartisan fashion. While he was running the 9/11 Commission, Kean said, he never made a decision without making sure his Democratic vice chairman, former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, was on board. The commission also operated under informal rules in which every member was seated with someone of the other party on either side, and none agreed to make television appearances unless they would be accompanied by a colleague from the other party.
In addition to finding the truth, an inquiry would also have to grapple with the crazy untruths that are being spread on social media and elsewhere. But that, too, is hardly unprecedented. In the aftermath of 9/11, as now, conspiracy theories were rampant. Kean said that rather than ignoring them, he had his staff track down the source of each and every one — once sending investigators as far as Saudi Arabia to do it.
With each day comes new and often contradictory information about how the country got to the dark and terrifying place that it is in. Not until we are able to sort out why will we have confidence that we’ll never find ourselves here again.